Beecham at the Royal Festival Hall, Vol. I = HAYDN: Symphony No. 101 in D Major “Clock”; LALO: Symphony in G Minor; DEBUSSY: Cortege et Air de Danse from L’enfant prodigue – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio PASC 502, 58:42 [] ****: 

The first of the Beecham concerts from Royal Festival Hall displays the conductor’s brio in his chosen repertory.

The “inimitable” Sir Thomas Beecham (1897-1962) appears in the first of three volumes dedicated by engineer Andrew Rose to the two concerts of 25 October and 8 November 1959 at the Royal Festival Hall. Typical of the “Beecham effect,” the spirits of these concerts remain thoroughly gracious and accessible, since before an audience – as opposed to his meticulous rehearsal methods – Beecham never took himself too seriously. The conductor’s geniality derives mainly from his thorough knowledge of his repertory, combined with his ensemble’s total technical control and nuanced response to their conductor’s wishes.

While some commentators bemoan Beecham’s use of what now scholarship considers corrupt editions of Haydn, his measured, affectionate d minor Adagio of Symphony No. 101 spreads forth a luxuriant carpet that soon erupts into a festive 6/8 Presto that gallops and sachets in open, elastic energy. This 1794 symphony demonstrates no end of wit and instrumental verve, of which the second movement Andante’s signature ticking represents only a portion of the master’s sure hand at a beguiling score.  The high flute and the grumpy bassoon color—along with an active tympani part—what is already a cornucopia of brilliant effects. Beecham takes a special delight in the Menuetto (Allegretto) and Trio, the longest of any Haydn third movement. The staid frolic includes a marvelous tympani solo, and the Trio seems Haydn’s answer to Mozart’s A Musical Joke, rife with every kind of village bumpkin band’s errors in entrances and wrong notes. The real marvel lies in the Finale: Vivace, which Beecham treats as panoply of ceaseless, color invention. From relative, folk simplicity the music (Mannheim) rockets to a whirling, contrapuntal dervish in the form of a double fugue. The sheer force of the performance wins our allegiance to the Beecham myth forever.

The 1887 Lalo Symphony in G Minor “belonged” to Sir Thomas Beecham, who virtually rescued it from benign neglect.  Except for some attention it drew from conductor Antonio de Almeida, I am hard-pressed to name other acolytes. A clone of the Cesar Franck school of composition, its cyclic form exploits the themes that appear in the opening Andante – Allegro non troppo. Beecham accords the first movement power and dramatic force. The Vivace second movement has the canny and lightfooted impishness we know from Bizet. Its more serious secondary (trio) theme evokes the same, powerful thrust we hear in the first movement. While we anticipate a stirring theme in the Adagio – given the success of Symphonie espagnole – the soft tissue of this music, somewhat Wagnerian, never quite coalesces into memorable melos. Moody and wistful, it leaves a tenderly evocative impression in the manner of entr’acte music by Faure. I have always liked the Allegro finale, my having owned Beecham’s Capitol Records 1959 LP. The martial rigor of this music bears some sonic relation to both Massenet and Chausson, but its colors prevent the piece’s having become a metronomic exercise. That Beecham conducts this rare work elevates it to precious metal and not merely Fool’s Gold.

Beecham liked to program Debussy’s Air de Danse from his cantata of 1884 L’enfant prodigue, which earned him a Prix de Rome. Often billed as a Beecham “lollipop,” the music offers an exotic moment of diaphanous scoring, once more paying debts to Massenet. The Royal Philharmonic shows off its peacock feathers in alluring and mesmerizing lights.

—Gary Lemco