by | Apr 12, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Sir Thomas Beecham – French Music = BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14; Le Corsaire Overture; Les Troyens–excerpts; Le Carnaval romaine Overture, Op. 9; King Lear, Op. 4; La Damnation de Faust: 2 excerpts; BIZET: Symphony in C Major; Carmen Prelude and Entr’actes; L’Arlesienne Suites 1-2; Patrie Overture, Op. 19; Roma–Carnaval; CHABRIER: Gwendoline Overture; Joyeuse marche; Espana; DEBUSSY: Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune; Cortege from L’Enfant prodigue; DELIBES: Le Roi s’amuse–Ballet Music;  FAURE: Pavane; Dolly Suite, Op. 56; FRANCK: Symphony in D Minor; GOUNOD: Faust–Ballet Music; Romeo et Juliette: Le sommeil de Juliette; GRETRY: Zemire et Azor–Ballet Music; LALO: Symphony in G Minor; MASSENET: La Vierge: Last Sleep of the Virgin; Cendrillon: Valse, Act I; SAINT-SAENS: Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31; Samson et Dalila: Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon and Bacchanale; VIDAL: Zino-Zina: Gavotte – London Philharmonic Orchestra/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise/Beecham Choral Society/Sir Thomas Beecham

EMI 9 09932 2 (6 CDs) 75:08; 64:58; 70:23; 77:35; 71:27; 48:13 *****:

EMI has issued a potent retrospective on Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) the great British sophisticate whose eclectic repertory favored Mozart, Handel, Delius, and Continental composers, all of whom received idiomatic, clear, often sparkling realizations under his baton. Several of Beecham’s efforts in his favorite French repertoire have become classics that set the bar for further inscriptions: take, for instance, his bristling reading of Chabrier’s Espana (Nov.-Dec. 1939) with the London Philharmonic, which sails through the composer’s Spanish conceits like a hot knife through butter.

While conductors like Furtwaengler belittled the recording process as a dry or static medium, Beecham absolutely thrived before the microphones, adjusting and honing his ideal sound with responsive ensembles. The scintillating transparency of texture he achieves for Saint-Saens in the 1958-1959 excerpts from Samson and Delilah continue to astonish for the tonal and textural finish, their spirited panache. The two L’Arlesienne suites (21 September 1956) seethe with primal energy and incisive definition, from the bassoon work in the Prelude to the shattering battery and horn work in the Farandole that virtually defined the Royal Philharmonic’s sterling level of execution. Even a relatively jingoistic piece like Bizet’s Patrie Overture (12 October 1956) gains a noble pomp and shimmering patina from the Royal Philharmonic, the virtuoso orchestra Beecham founded in 1946. That Beecham could infuse old warhorses with vivid energy asserts itself perpetually in this glorious set: the Carmen orchestral entries alone should have every auditor donning a cape to fight bulls or standing outside a cigarette factory to find his femme fatale.

Beecham’s penchant for under-represented repertory comes to the fore in his taste for Bizet’s Roma Suite–Carnaval (9 October 1957), a mildly inspired tarantella whose string, horn, and harp textures exert a hearty, even blazing joie de vivre in each measure of Beecham’s etched performance. Coupled with the Bizet Symphony in C–a perfect reading, by the way–years ago on a Capitol LP, the Symphony in G Minor by Edouard Lalo (1-4 December 1959) with The French National Radio Orchestra casts a dark glow–somewhat reminiscent in tone to the Chausson B-flat Major Symphony, which Beecham did not record–that, once it establishes its grip on the dramatic imagination, does not relent  quickly.  The Incidental Music for Delibes’ Le Roi s’amuse (12, 16 May 1958) provides a grand spectacle or masque in olden style, a Romantic’s evocation of courtly music in the style of Lully.

The exotic Cortege from Debussy’s 1884 The Prodigal Son (23 November 1959) still remains virtually the only moment we know from this Prix de Rome entry from this master‘s cantata. The breezily diaphanous Valse from Massenet’s Cinderella (9 October 1957) makes for one of the many Beecham “lollipops” that provided countless encores at Beecham concerts. The Chabrier Gwendoline Overture (9 September 1957) illustrates what Beecham could accomplish with the French ensemble, relishing their “clean attack [by way of] narrow-bore horns. . .a sound uniquely French, and one, moreover, that matched the equally slender bassoon tone. . .[also] the oboe and cor anglais played with a line and eloquence that epitomized French style.  .  .and their timbre was unique.”  Beecham had led music by Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry (1741-1813) at the Bath Festival in 1955, and he fashioned a concert suite of airs (rec. 12 October 1956) from the 1771 opera comique Zemire et Azor, whose music Beecham found “light, graceful, and melodious.” The Pantomime or Air de Ballet--almost a dance of soft veils or zephyrs–makes an immediate effect. The Gavotte by Paul Vidal (7 October 1957) remains rather second-string music wrought to the first rank by a gifted conductor.

Beecham launched his London Philharmonic Orchestra (1932) with the Berlioz 1843 Roman Carnival Overture, and so the recording from 27 November 1936 communicates the ardent enthusiasm of the acolyte’s having arrived. The lovely English horn solo sets the tone for a fluid Mediterranean  melody that finds ornamental colors and some fugato that center in A Major.  The virtuoso caliber of the playing rivals anything from Toscanini or Mengelberg of the period. The King Lear Overture (10-11 November 1947) comes from a banner year for Beecham recordings: the piece (1831) traces scenes in the council chamber, the storm on the heath, the prison, and Cordelia’s lament.  A Mitropoulos inscription with the NBC is this reading’s only real competition. The 1844 Corsaire Overture (7 November 1958), after Byron’s work, receives an opulently vital reading from Beecham, the string, brass, and woodwind virtuosity apparent in every measure. A spirited Trojan March from Les Troyens (19 November 1959) leads to The Royal Hunt and Storm from Act IV (23 March 1957), featuring the brilliant Dennis Brain in the French horn part, only a few months prior to this untimely death. The Symphonie fantastique (30 November-2 December 1959), the second such inscription with the French National Radio Orchestra, constitutes Beecham’s stereo version. Here we know why Pierre Monteux dubbed Beecham “Le Grand Baton,” since the performance emanates evocative flair, sumptuous energy, driving passion, and a panoply of color that augments the natural evolution of the program.  Of the large repertory, we only have to consider Beecham’s RPO inscription of the Franck Symphony in D Minor (1-4 December 1959), a work to which Beecham remained devoted. The reading proceeds with fierce determination, rather in the hyper-dramatic Bernstein or Mengelberg mode, rife with menace and huge arches, a veritable swan-song, given how near we are to the end of Beecham’s recording career.

If I have one cavil with this fine set, it comes with Disc Six, which runs short and could have accommodated–with permissions from Sony–Beecham’s wonderful inscription of Franck’s tumultuous Le Chasseur maudit, which the inimitable Sir Thomas led to perfection.  Still, we have a magnificent set, a real testament to Beecham’s Gallic aristocracy of spirit.

— Gary Lemco

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