Beecham at the Royal Festival Hall, Vol. 2 = MENDELSSOHN: The Fair Melusina Overture; GHEDINI: Concerto for Viola and Strings; DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 – Frederick Riddle (vla.) / Royal Phil. Orch./ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio 

Beecham at the Royal Festival Hall, Vol. 2 = MENDELSSOHN: The Fair Melusina – Overture, Op. 32; GHEDINI: Musica da concerto for Viola and Strings; DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 – Frederick Riddle, viola/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio PASC 504, 70:43 [www.pristine classical.com] ****: 

The second of the Beecham Royal Festival Hall concert recordings from Andrew Rose is “festive” in every sense.

The second installment from Sir Thomas Beecham’s appearances at Royal Festival Hall for the concerts of 25 October and 8 November 1959—as edited and engineered by Andrew Rose—includes music familiar and novel to the Beecham legacy, including the performance of Giorgio Federico Ghedini’s Musica da Concerto (1953) with the esteemed viola player Frederick Riddle (1912-1995), who always claimed Beecham as the dominant musical influence of his life: “My best times were with Tommy. He was a genius. He had a twinkle in his eye – he enjoyed music and people.” The Mendelssohn and Dvorak works, both of which Beecham committed to commercial recordings, embrace his genial, romantic style, confident and thoroughly persuasive.

Mendelssohn’s 1834 Overture The Fair Melusina derives from a fairy-tale about a cursed woman who becomes part serpent on Saturdays.  Despite the opportunity for ribald jokes, Mendelssohn conceived his sonata-form masterpiece for the London Philharmonic Society, capturing the maiden’s watery abode and the dark intensity of her personal transformation. Beecham injects a tremendous power and elevated spirit into this rendition, which flows with an ease of transition to make rival conductors envious and audiences express delight.

The music of Ghedini, if performed at all, “belonged” to his most famous pupil Guido Cantelli, who found its combination of ancient forms and contemporary harmonies to his neo-Classical taste. This relatively large work, the Musica da Concerto, sports a hazy, moody allure that periodically erupts with introspective passion, well suited to the ministrations of Frederick Riddle, among Beecham’s favorite instrumentalists for works like Harold in Italy or the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. The music—academic and learned—often reminds us of that of a more lyrical Hindemith, whose own instrument had been the viola. Rhapsodic in its evolution, the piece sometimes makes us wonder whither it proceeds; but if strong colors and effective ensemble remain your priorities, then all will be well.  Modern music did not always fit into the Beecham scheme—but here we might recall the exceptional Prokofiev D Major Violin Concerto Beecham performed with Szigeti—yet the collaboration does fine justice to the occasion.

Given the innate beauty and melodic gift of the Dvorak bucolic sensibility, it seems incongruous that Beecham did not address more than two of the symphonies: this G Major (No. 8) and the F Major (No. 5). The 1889 Symphony in G Major literally blooms with Czech pastoral elements and natural impressions.  The first movement Allegro con brio opens in the tonic minor and then proceeds—by way of potent brass punctuations and brilliant sonata-form development—into a sturdy G Major rife with bird song and pantheistic chorales. Beecham’s splendid unfolding illuminates the music in the best tradition of the music’s major acolytes, Vaclav Talich, Rafael Kubelik and Bruno Walter.  The lovely Adagio alternates between a sunny E-flat Major and its darker side in c minor for a stormy section. Here, in this divine movement, Beecham applies his idiosyncratic touches in dynamics and etched phrasing. Lovely oboe work and strong flourishes in the French horn and tympani complement the stunning string playing.

The ensuing Allegretto grazioso – Molto vivace movement has always invoked for me the image of a fantastical waltz, dreamy and haunted at once. The sweep of Beecham’s opening gesture makes us wish he had recorded the E Major Serenade, Op. 22. The Trio and coda alternately sway and scamper in the style of a rustic but learned Mendelssohn. The opening trumpet fanfare for the Allegro ma non troppo invites us to a militant dance; but after the tympani entry, the sonorous cello section softens the effect with a glamorous melody that Beecham treats marcato as an extension of the militant affect.  Suddenly, a raucous Bohemian furiant erupts, and Beecham and company are off to the races, led by a ripe flute. The folk melody Dvorak employs has burst into a series of vivacious variants, some of which in the brass have become inflamed. The pastoral element—flute, cellos, and strings—assuages the procession until the last, when the RPO brass explodes into one final, luxuriant and dizzying Slavonic dance.

—Gary Lemco

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