Beecham Conducts R. Strauss – Macbeth, Till Eulenspiegel, Dance of the Seven Veils – SOMM

by | May 22, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEECHAM conducts R. STRAUSS: Live Performances and First Releases = Macbeth, Op. 23; Suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Op. 60; The Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Op. 54; Don Juan, Op. 20; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – SOMM Ariadne 5021 (4/21/23) (78:00) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

SOMM restores the live concert from Royal Festival Hall, London, 17 October 1956, a program dedicated to the music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), whose works Sir Thomas had championed as early as 1910. Omitted from the live concert, the epic tone-poem Ein Heldenleben, has been replaced by two Strauss works performed in January 1955, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. These major additions to the Beecham legacy in Strauss interpretation – Till, Don Juan, and Macbeth – have a real rarity in the 1888 tone-poem Macbeth, representing the composer’s earliest – and largely unsuccessful – attempt to imitate a genre initiated by Liszt and Smetana. Set mainly in G Minor, the piece, almost in sympathy with its Shakespearean protagonist, struggles with a sense of proportion, despite the many Strauss revisions to its development and recapitulation, trying to maintain the sonata-form.  “A giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief” is the epithet Macbeth’s critics hurl at the Scottish usurper to King Duncan’s throne, and the Strauss score does capture the grueling tumult in both the kingdom and in the tormented, ill-fitted psyche of Macbeth. A distinct, martial energy allows the RPO brass and percussion full sway, while the strings intone riffs of conspiracy. The grinding percussion and cymbal clashes are delivered with fury by Harold Eastwood, while Principal Timpani Lewis Pocock receives special credit in the liner notes. 

The Suite from Moliere’s farce Le bourgeois gentilhomme includes six selections (of the original nine) chosen by Beecham from the finalized score of 1917, after some interruptions starting back in 1912, when librettist Hugo van Hofmannsthal first proposed the project. From the Overture forward, the clarity of texture and infectiousness of rhythm become Beecham trademarks of execution, with his various choirs of the RPO finding a movement in which to shine. A combination of pomp and over-ripe elegance characterizes the dances, such as the familiar, swaggering Entry of the Tailors. The various principal players and full personnel are listed in the booklet, so any captivated auditor may consult the listing in order to credit the excellence of musical realization. The concluding selection, The Dinner, of course, culminates a feast of sound as well as the culinary event on a staged performance. Principal Cello J.Kennedy makes a persuasive impression, as do the twitterings from the RPO flutes and clarinets, the latter under the supervision of Jack Brymer.

The “Dance of the 7 Veils” from the Strauss 1905 Salome, after the scandalous 1891 play by Oscar Wilde, vividly captures the thrilling, even lurid, aspects of Salome’s erotic fascination with John the Baptist, and the extreme measures she employs to assure his death. The influence of oriental rhythms and modal harmonies, along with the fervent playing – even marked by two miscues – from Beecham’s forces, imbue the sequence with a mystical fervor, the RPO winds and battery having honed their particular colors into a shimmering tapestry. The closing page quite literally explodes in sensuous colors, almost as if Aubrey Beardsley had been leading the orchestra.

From 18 and 20 January 1955, we enjoy performances of the more successful, early efforts of Strauss in the symphonic-poem genre, his 1888 Don Juan (after Lenau, 1851) and the 1895 folk-balled Till Eulenspiegel, after the peasant folk hero and his picaresque adventures. Alan Civil’s French horn sets the fairy-tale tone, followed by punctuations fraught with irony and some malice. Gerald Jackson’s flute encourages our sympathy for the doomed Till. Of course, the D clarinet has the final word when Till screeches his death cry on the gallows, convicted of blasphemy. The Don Juan symphonic opus follows the amorous adventurer’s exploits until his spirit fails, and ennui and moral collapse ensue. The oboe of Principal Terence MacDonagh figures prominently in the effective coloring, aided by Principal Harp Tina Bonifacio. The sense of spiritual as well as earthly conflict, having set the tone early, evolves and erupts into a paroxysm of pleasure and pain, with an upward, epic gesture over sustained, orchestral pedals, with Beecham’s rivaling Koussevitzky for expressive intensity. Yet the ending suggests dissolution and disillusionment, a dying breath. The audio restoration and CD mastering by Lani Spahr for SOMM proves eminently “present” and worthy of radio dissemination.

—Gary Lemco

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Album Cover for Beecham conducts R. Strauss