Beecham conducts works of WAGNER, DELIUS & SCHUBERT – Somm-Beacham

by | Mar 7, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

WAGNER: Rienzi Overture; DELIUS: In a Summer Garden; SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “Great” – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Sir Thomas Beecham – SOMM-BEECHAM 29, 75:38 [Distr. By Allegro] *****:
To say this disc is special invites understatement, for the simple reason that we have not had a performance of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (rec. 14 December 1955) as part of the Beecham legacy, despite his having programmed the work sixteen times between 1929-1955.  The opening Wagner Overture to Rienzi (rec. 6 December 1956), too, represents a rarity among Beecham’s collations of this composer, whose music Beecham revered. Beecham, Coates, and Goossens could well be said to embody the strongest Wagner tradition in Britain of the period.  The trumpet part (Philip Jones) finds muscular complement in the work of Dennis Brain (French horn), Stanley Brown (trombone), and James Powell (tuba). The Italian and German alchemy of the piece retains its light but hefty character, a true virtuosic testament to Beecham’s ability to give a second-rate piece the masterwork treatment.
If ever the music of Delius seems to encroach on the color-painting of Sibelius, then In a Summer Garden (1908) fills the bill. Beecham led performances of the bucolic, dreamy work some thirty times between 1914-1956. “Summer” provides a consistent trope for Delius, and this piece rocks and lullabies in easy harmony, the woodwind section of Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic (rec. 24 August 1956) captured at the Usher Hall of the Edinburgh Festival. Gerald Jackson’s flute, Terence MacDonough’s oboe, Jack Brymer’s clarinet, and Gwydion Brooke’s bassoon each makes its contribution to the hazy palette Delius washes over us with the help of the orchestra harp and brass. Beecham’s facile transparency of effect guarantees that admirers of this music will relish many repeated auditions of this mood piece, eminently effective on its own terms, a love-letter from Delius to his wife Jelka Rosen, inscribed with two lines from Rosetti.
From the measured opening bars of the Schubert C Major Symphony, we can feel that a grand leisure will propel this mighty work of “heavenly length.” Indeed, Sir Thomas takes a thoroughly “grand seigneur” approach (sans repeats), aristocratic and lordly, relishing the cross rhythms in strings, winds, and brass. Something of Mengelberg’s epic songfulness permeates the reading, not so far from Toscanini’s explosive propulsion, either. Trumpet and tympani, horns and flute, seem to have a special alliance to supply broad lyricism and punctuated drama. By the time we reach the coda, Beecham has instilled an uncanny fury of momentum in his players, who literally shimmer in their respective parts. That the audience does not itself detonate into applause remains a miracle of restraint.
Some precious woodwind playing opens the martial Andante con moto, the tympani alert and energetic. The interior lines generate a luxurious harmony, while the outer strings and horns assume a crusader’s spirit. The middle section may not quite equal the transcendent realms that Furtwaengler could elicit, but the sonic homogeneity and unity of parts comes awfully close. The da capo injects a fervent Sir Thomas to the fore, eliciting not only pageantry but a tenderly nuanced cello line of extraordinary beauty. Delicacy of touch and color marks the string and woodwind work right through the final repetition-in-variation of the major theme, a paean to resigned longing. Firm purpose informs the Scherzo: Allegro vivace, Trio movement, the four-beat motto a kind of nod to the Beethoven C Minor Symphony. The sheer vocal quality of the RPO strings, dominant throughout the reading, appear particularly heartfelt now. Light, lithe, incisively accurate, the string work proceeds via interior woodwind and tympani complements to a decisive period for the Trio. The rustic charm Beecham instills into the pipings and bucolic whirls of this section quite mesmerize our senses.
The Grand National horse race has its own brave jockey for the Finale: Allegro vivace, and Beecham does not water down the spirits of his vivace. That the trippings of the omnipresent strings can remain so dexterous and diaphanous testifies to a special discipline in this RPO ensemble. The tuttis’ explosions again harken to the Mengelberg-Toscanini tradition of glamorous pomp and ceremony, and the effect—grandiloquent without having become fatuously grandiose—raises our already noted esteem for this brilliant conductor-showman. The twenty seconds of applause needs hearing too.
Now, if only someone could unearth Beecham’s 1954 rendition of Schubert’s C Minor Symphony, we would have Beecham’s complete symphonies for posterity. Meanwhile, this disc rates immediate distinction for its special merits.
—Gary Lemco

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