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Beecham at the Royal Festival Hall, Volume 3 = ADDISON: Carte Blanche; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7; GOUNOD: Juliet’s Dream; SAINT-SAENS: Dance of the Priestesses – Royal Phil. Orch. / Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine

Beecham at the Royal Festival Hall, Volume 3 = ADDISON: Carte Blanche; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92; GOUNOD: Juliet’s Dream; SAINT-SAENS: Dance of the Priestesses from Samson et Dalilah, Op. 47 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio PASC 507, 56:49 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

The third of the Royal Festival Hall concerts by Sir Thomas Beecham communicates his potent magic in Beethoven and Addison.

The third of the series of appearances by Sir Thomas Beecham at Royal Festival Hall (8 November 1959) sets a tone of enthusiastic mirth from the first, with composer John Addison’s most popular classical score, Carte blanche, conceived for Sadler’s Wells. Addison (1920-1998) gleaned considerable note for his diverse film music, including such main-stream classics as Tom Jones, Torn Curtain, and A Bridge Too Far. Addison’s interest in theater and ballet scores often led him to conceive music for chamber ensembles, but Carte blanche enjoys a vivacious, blustery score, rife with percussive effects and brilliant riffs for individual wind and brass instruments, some of whose blaring and honking lead to resonant guffaws from the Royal Festival Hall audience. The five-movement suite includes two slower, more romantic sections, “Interlude” and “Romanza,” whose warm and melodious character provide a tender foil to the often raucous fun of the other movements.

The Beethoven Seventh Symphony often found an excited, virtuoso utterance from Sir Thomas Beecham, and this evening’s rendition proves no exception. From the opening Poco sostenuto, Beecham sets a pace that marches inexorably toward its rhythmically alert Vivace section, the pace more reminiscent of Toscanini than anyone Teutonic. Biting entries from the winds and strings add a decided piquancy to the exposition, to which the flute and oboe impart a wonderful energy, soon to be joined by the tutti with its flamboyant tympani. “Galvanic, unbuttoned, reckless, and ebullient” stood as descriptors from critics at the occasion.

If the outer movement testify to Beecham’s having gone on a rousing rhythmic spree, the colossal Allegretto movement—which Virgil Thomson once called “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote”—projects a solemn dignity that often reminds us how much the theme resembles the slow movement from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Some exquisite harmony emanates from the divided strings of the RPO, a transparent and lachrymose procession of ineffable melancholy. Beecham neither drags the tempo nor inflates the sentiment, always permitting the sense of a sighing dance to pervade the music’s sensibility. The Scherzo indeed frolics, but it no less injects sudden, even vicious sforzandos and inflections of timbre.  Here, we feel the urgency of Wagner’s quip that the music had become “the apotheosis of the dance.” The last movement Allegro con brio raises a mad dash from beginning to end, a tempo feroce that tests all participants—just listen to that RPO brass section—except the audience, who rise in divine ecstasy at the coda. True to producer and engineer Andrew Rose’s claim, the sonic image of the concert – once available on BBC Legends—has assumed a warm, richly luxurious sonority, a vivid testament to the “Beecham sound.”

The two “lollipops” that Andrew Rose chooses to conclude this volatile program, by Saint-Saens and Gounod, respectively, reverse the polarity with music diaphanous and sensuously lulling. The priestesses’ gestures waft through a series of transparent veils, each of them inviting us to witness Samson’s destruction. No less hazy and romantically ingenuous, the Gounod excerpt tiptoes in select harmony and glistening timbres.

—Gary Lemco

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