BEECHAM Conducts SIBELIUS = Symphony No. 1 in E Minor; Historic Scenes: Memory Song; At the Drawbridge; Interview: Playing for Beecham – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Thomas Beecham – SOMM ARIADNE 5013 (2021) (78:00) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Executive Producer Jon Tolansky, working with Audio Restoration Engineer Lani Spahr, here issues the first-ever, live performance by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1962) leading the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 from Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 17 August 1952. An organization calling itself Music Preserved, which holds a collection of historic recordings at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, donated the E Minor Symphony document. Jon Tolansky contributes to this fine set two previously unissued Sibelius readings (in mono sound) from 1947 of two Scènes historiques, of which the second piece suffers a cut in the score to accommodate the 78 rpm recording format limits of the period.
From the outset of Beecham’s broadcast performance of the E Minor Symphony, we can well understand the music’s appeal to this conductor, who so favored Sibelius’ influences from Tchaikovsky and Borodin – and perhaps Bruckner in the Scherzo – given the power of Jack Brymer’s clarinet to set the heroic but melancholy tone over a timpanic pedal, here played by Lewis Pocock, in his debut as percussionist for the Royal Philharmonic. Pocock will distinguish himself in the last two movements of this performance, with a virile aplomb, matched by the foil to his sound, in the diaphanous harp part. Beecham picks up the nobility of the moment in the statement of the full theme n the strings and brass, whose horns follow the inimitable Dennis Brain and first trumpet Richard Walton. The RPO (founded 1946) prided itself on its esteemed wind players, many of whom were members of the Dennis Brain Wind Quintet. The purity of the woodwind line makes those pantheistic gestures in the Andante movement among the most lushly sensuous moments in the Beecham reading. We must all marvel at the momentum Beecham achieves in the Finale (Quasi una fantasia – Andante – Allegro molto) without any loss of tonal accuracy. Too often, we underestimate the severity of Beecham’s orchestral discipline that he hides in the humor and caustic wit of the occasion. If this last movement reflects some of the fateful ethos in the Tchaikovsky Fifth, Sibelius retains enough of his own, mighty character to evoke a Northern landscape and the vistas that refuse to succumb to foreign domination, given the tenor of the times, in 1899. A moment after the quiet, pizzicato chords conclude this symphony, the audience breaks into spontaneous applause.
The ”Memory Song” and “On the Drawbridge” from the Scènes historiques (1912) derive from a recording session at the People’s Palace Theatre, London, 17 April 1947. The Minnesong Sibelius had extracted from his Op. 49 tone-poem Pohjola’s Daughter, and Sibelius wrote the notation in his sketches “Aino” above the lovely theme. Guitar effect open “On the Drawbridge,” a march in light woodwinds and plucked strings, but we must look to the CBS commercial recording for the full, energetic score, which here succumbs to the 78 rpm technology to grant us 80% of its girth. Still, the lush velocity of the rendition will beckon any Beecham acolyte.
Rounding off this seductive disc from Somm, we have a half-hour interview (6 January 2015) with two RPO veterans, Raymond Ovens, second violin, and John Underwood, viola. This segment, “Playing for Beecham,” encourages the narrator Jon Tolansky to extend the conversation well beyond the “confines” of Sibelius. Each recalls the “gentlemanly” aspect of the legendary conductor, who went out of his way to introduce himself to these men, soon after their arrival into the RPO ranks. These men took special pride in knowing that they had been chosen from the very cream of British instrumentalists. They recall how Beecham invited great soloists, like Horowitz and Brymer, to make music together. We hear a rare record of Beecham’s piano playing with Dora Labette (1898-1984) in a Delius song. They recall the wonderment of Beecham’s encores, like Massenet’s “The Last Sleep of the Virgin” and the Saint-Saens “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila. “We all played beautifully, mostly because of Sir Thomas’ leadership.” The trio auditions a whirlwind Le Corsaire Overture by Berlioz, difficult music to play and here driven to elegant shape as well as speed. They recall Sir Thomas’ famous “blue pencil,” by which Beecham had marked out his subjective intentions. “He was an expressive man!” they agree. They explode any myth that Beecham lacked technique. “Flexibility and spontaneity” defined the Beecham sound. Beecham did rely on his players to perform admirably in those difficult places, as in the Battle Scene from Ein Heldenleben. “It all integrated so well, it became a kind of chamber group.” True, the severity and the authority of the man could be intimidating. When annoyed, he could be harsh, even threatening. “Where’s my sound?” he would bark when the orchestra failed him. “And yet, he had it all under control.”
Mr. Tolansky calls the interview a “very special privilege,” and so must we all say, even as the driven and voluptuous phrases from the finale of the Berlioz Le Corsaire echo in our minds. Heartily recommended.