Beecham conducts Beethoven — Symphonies Nos 2, 6 7, 8 — Pristine

by | Jun 24, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Symphony No. 6 in F Major,
Op. 68 “Pastoral”; Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92; Symphony No. 8 in F
Major, Op. 92 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine
Audio PASC 593 (2 CDs) 68:06; 67:57 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****: 

Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) only sporadically committed his Beethoven performances to the recording studio, never having documented a First Symphony or a Fifth Symphony, and of the overtures, only the Coriolan and The Ruins of Athens, the latter as part of suite of incidental music. The Beethoven Ninth that exists derives from a BBC concert from Edinburgh, 1956, A pity, this gap, truly, since the urbane and muscular energy of the Pastoral Symphony (rec. December 1951 and May 1952) which begins this collection rings with an open-air brio that refreshes the spirit from the opening bars. Andrew Rose and his XR process – and ambient stereo effect – for remastering monaural recordings have injected a hearty vigor and immediacy to the performance, an ardent, “singer’s” version of this bucolic idyll. The heart of the music, the flowing, 12/8 Andante molto moto, literally shimmers with a luster that soon assumes the quality of an idiosyncratic, Vienna waltz. The individual woodwinds project a distinct character, from the carefully intoned pedal points to the various bird calls that punctuate Beethoven’s invocation of a pantheistic orison. The deep quality of the RPO string basses plays against the horns and bassoon to produce a vista of uncommon sensuousness. The peasant dance moves briskly, a whirl of rustic energy. Shall we attribute those rounded phrases from the French horn to Dennis Brain?  The fervor of the dance seems to invite the Heavens to answer with a robust spasm of their own, given the jabbing ferocity of Beecham’s storm.  The last movement, Allegretto, maneuvers graciousness and exultation, lyricism and pomp. This performance consistently reminds us of how much the admiring Berlioz gleaned from Beethoven’s dynamics, colors, and emotive rhetoric.  

Beethoven’s own favorite among his symphonies, No. 8 in F Major (rec. November 1951), bears the Beecham imprimatur, especia1lly in the light articulation of rhythm in the freeing of the melodic content. Beecham takes the first movement repeat, adding to the saucy girth of the Allegro vivace e con brio, a movement cut to Beecham’s suave cloth. The infectiousness of the performance loses none of the music’s Classical design – a la Weingartner – but the pace and dynamic accents gain a rare luster all their own. We feel both the wit and the depth of expression, here compressed in the very means one receives in the Eroica, but without portentousness.  The second movement Allegretto scherzando – a parody of the urge to strict rhythm a la Maazel’s new metronome device – arbitrates minuet and gavotte in an elegant, flamboyant style, rife with song in expanding variation. The Menuetto “proper” third movement carries a ceremonial flavor, quite ringing in the horns and in the celestial Trio section. The spaciousness of Beecham’s carriage elides the second repeat. The last movement quite literally explodes, Allegro vivace, in a torrent jubilant, energetic song of freedom. Ratio and Eros have consorted without any pretension of restraint, and the RPO proceeds to exhibit its virtuoso character.  This is profundity without gravitas, a spirit contented with “the mercy of his means.” 

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

Beecham retained a strong affinity for Beethoven’s 1803 D Major Symphony, and this performance from May 1957 (in stereo) testifies to an athletic, driven conception that never lacks for inspired participation from each of the RPO choirs. The dramatic opening, Adagio molto of 33 measures, already heralds the kind of explosive firepower the remainder of the first movement will exploit, Allegro con brio. The warm contour Beecham establishes hustles into the wrought iron of the music’s unceasing momentum, quite spectacular in terms of the tempo Beecham maintains.  The miracle of the Symphony, as Berlioz so well observed, lies in the expansive Larghetto second movement: broadly expressive, the music betrays no note of Beethoven’s emotional or spiritual crisis at the time, confronting his oncoming deafness.  While the figures in the music occasionally dance, the emphasis lies in the arioso, flexible expressiveness in the strings and woodwinds.  The third movement Scherzo: Allegro – Trio clearly departs from Haydn’s notion of the traditional symphony, replete with Beethoven’s gruff humor and tricky syncopations. Beecham’s finale, Allegro molto, reverberates with vigor, the sheer elan of unbuttoned freedom of color and dynamics.  Besides the inspired wind, brass and string bass lines, the RPO tympani has the time of his life. Here is Beethoven on the threshold of what he termed his “new path,” decisive, bold, rash, and infinitely inventive.   

Beecham had already celebrated his eightieth birthday by April and July 1959, when he recorded the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 here restored, preserving its original stereo sound and duly enhanced by Andrew Rose and company. Every bar of music belies the conductor’s age! Given the essential, “rhythmic” nature of the work, we hear Beecham’s resonant articulation of the Poco sostenuto, clearly punctuated in measured phrases colored by oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The repeated E’s lead us to the motto that dominates the Vivace, colored by the flute; and then a luscious, exuberant tutti, both playful and portentous, appears in a tune that swaggers with youthful confidence. 

The second movement, an Allegretto in A minor, critic Virgil Thomson calls “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote.”  The dactylic motto dominates and will later appear transfigured in the movement, fugato. The martial theme, in variation, crescendos to an exquisitely anguished expressivity, while the violas, cellos and horn provide a consolatory melody. If Beecham courted a repute for disrespecting Beethoven, the playing here denies any such claim. The Presto third movement storms out, a renewal of youthful zeal and scintillating optimism. Beethoven employs an Austrian hymn tune as the basis of the D Major Trio section, colored by bassoon, clarinet and horn. The Trio makes a brief reappearance prior to five jabbing chords that herald the raucous, high spirits of the finale, Allegro con brio. The RPO winds and brass prove as resonant as any orchestral choir anywhere as they sail through the swirling and colossal, relentless energies that Wagner characterizes as “the apotheosis of the dance.” The RPO brass refine the pomp of the “farewell” occasion with a resonance that announces a valediction forbidding mourning. It has been a ride that challenges anything the Valkyries might offer.

—Gary Lemco




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