Sir Thomas Beecham: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Live in the Royal Festival Hall, 1954-1959 = Symphonic Works by HAYDN; BOCCHERINI; MENDELSSOHN; MOZART; BEETHOVEN; BRAHMS; WAGNER; LISZT – ICA Classics

by | Aug 20, 2018 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Sir Thomas Beecham: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Live in the Royal Festival Hall, 1954-1959 = HAYDN: Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major; Symphony No. 101 in D Major “The Clock”; BOCCHERINI: Sinfonia in D Major, Op. 43; MENDELSSOHN: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; MOZART: Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425 “Linz”; Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; WAGNER: Overture to “The Flying Dutchman”; LISZT: Eine Faust-Symphonie – Alexander Young, tenor/ Beecham Choral Society/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham – ICA Classics ICAC 5148 (4 CDs) 61:50; 62:26; 70:31; 79:50 (4/6/18) [Distr. by  Naxos] ****:

Collectors of the “inimitable” Sir Thomas Beecham will keenly seek this marvelous set, culled from the Richard Itter archive, since the majority of performances have their first instance in the CD format. Only the Haydn “Clock” Symphony (25 October 1959) and the Liszt Faust-Symphony (14 November 1956) have had prior CD release.  And given the clarity and richness of the reissued sound, the performances retain what commentator David Patmore notes as their “freshness” and “mercurial” character. Those extant, live performances of the exact works, even a few days later, vary in tempo, timbre, and balance.

Having first come to the Liszt 1857 Eine Faust-Symphonie by way of Beecham’s classic recording for Capitol Records, it seemed appropriate to audition this 1956 performance first, along with its Wagner Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” (22 November 1954).  The Wagner reminds us how potently Beecham the music of Wagner, that he, Albert Coates, and Adrian Boult dominated in Wagner interpretation for dynamism and linear focus.  True, when it comes to the Liszt, I personally wish that Dimitri Mitropoulos had done more than recorded excerpts of the last movement for video preservation. Beecham, however, combines clarity and urgency, given the monumentality of Liszt’s ambitions, having created a “twelve-tone” theme for Faust and using its inversions as a means of expressing Mephistopheles.  Beecham includes the Chorus mysticus from Faust, Part II, reminding us that “everything transitory is merely a simile,” and that “the eternal feminine leads us higher.” The resonance between Young’s tenor, the male chorus, and the RPO harp sounds delicious! The lyrical “Gretchen” movement more than provides fodder for Schoenberg’s sextet Verklaerte Nacht.

Contemporary scholars remain quick to remind us that the Haydn editions Beecham employs have become suspect or spurious, but few conductors impart both a playful and dramatic glow to Haydn’s music with such elan. The 1794 Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major (16 September 1954) immediately highlights the composer’s first use of the clarinets for his musical colors. Their low register soon combines with strings and bassoon to give us an audacious harmonic mix, one that loves to exploit mediant harmonies. The Vivace is all tangy thunder, often weeping us up in tuttis in exotic keys. The RPO oboe and assisting winds deserve the berries. This kind of wind-section enchantment extends into the second movement Andante, in G Major, in which flutes, oboes, and bassoon invite us to savor Haydn’s colors as only Beecham might realize them. By movement’s end, the lyrical theme assumes a militant character at its climax. The otherwise “polite” Menuetto has become equally aggressive, its central laendler emergent in C Major.  Haydn’s facile capacity to “pulverize” a melody for rhythmic and melodic development—not to mention his keen sense of counterpoint—flows forth in the Finale: Vivace, where the individual instruments indulge themselves in the manner of a Vivaldi symphonic “concerto.”

The other Haydn symphonic entry of 1794, Symphony No. 101 in D Major “The Clock” (25 October 1959) comes near the end of Beecham’s tenure with the RPO. In its own day, the work was called “delicious and inexhaustible” by contemporary critics. The level of instrumental virtuosity from Haydn seems irrepressible, and the tell-tale second movement, with its “tick-tock” metrics, has defined the splendid piece for posterity. The Menuetto: Allegretto movement, too, has more often than not been seen adumbrating the music in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.  Beecham gives the first movement the whiplash effect, thundering through its Presto with alert and infectious verve. The RPO winds, but of course, complement the string section with wonderful color variants on the swaying, bemused clock tune. And the audience endures the big pause without even a cough! Felicity of ensemble marks the latter two movements of The Clock, with the Menuetto’s enjoying a decisive sense of pulse—the RPO flute in suave form for the Trio—and ultimately a debonair sense of closure. Beecham hustles through the Finale: Vivace, but not with any loss of the voluptuous counterpoints Haydn interjects in the sonata-rondo.  The Boccherini Overture in D (23 August 1956) first came to my attention via a CBS LP (ML 5059) with Beecham.  Like Mozart’s Sinfonia to Lucio Silla, this 1797 charmer in three sections will exploit Beecham’s wind section, while its melodic gifts in the Italian style will grant the strings and horns their heyday.

When it comes to the symphonies of Beethoven, recorded posterity has not given us Beecham in the First or Fifth symphonies. But Beecham held great affection for the 1802 D Major Symphony (14 November 1956) and especially its broad Larghetto movement, which Berlioz extolled as among Beethoven’s greatest achievements. An almost breathless exultation suffuses the opening Adagio molto—Allegro con brio, a first thrust followed by a splendid example of orchestral discipline and homogeneity of sound.  The sheer momentum of the playing consigns the work easily to Beethoven’s “second” period of creative development, for the optimistic dynamism belies much that might be construed as “classical.”  The gracious, simple song that comprises the Larghetto unfolds in easy, plastic periods, sumptuous as they are refined. Berlioz once compared the various instrumental fragments that make up the rollicking Scherzo to Oberon’s fairies, each contributing to “a thousand nuances.”  The Allegro molto finale might constitute a second scherzo movement, as Beecham elicits a sinewy ardor from the duple meter figures, with individual winds rising in the course of a freewheeling melody peppered by fiery sforzati.

The music of Johannes Brahms proves relatively elusive in the Beecham discography, with references to the D Major Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the Song of Destiny, and non-commercial issues of a Brahms Third and a slightly edited Haydn Variations, the latter two once issued by the defunct Sir Thomas Beecham Society. The Brahms Second given here (4 November 1959) from a studio performance achieves an autumnal, creamy sonority—savor those RPO cellos—that we might attribute to Bruno Walter. Beecham seems intent to allow the music’s pastoral effects their full suasion, and even those passing, fugal shadows in Brahms maintain a devotional valediction.  The Adagio non troppo proceeds with hymnal dignity, even a grand majesty in its latter pages. Beecham takes a particularly leisurely view of the outside sections of the Allegretto movement, an intermezzo whose animated middle section allows Beecham’s forces a momentary explosion of spirit. While conductor Artur Rodzinski insisted that the Second Symphony expressed tragic feelings, Beecham remains convinced that joy alone reigns here. Despite various pulls and tugs and false starts, the music eventually permits the second theme to transcend its haunted colors and blaze forth in ecstatic pageantry. The upward sweep of Beecham’s brass and tympanic peroration quite catches us in its titanic grip.

Mozart and Mendelssohn appropriately share Disc 2, opening with the ever-felicitous 1826 Mendelssohn Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream (14 November 1956) that quickly scampers from fairy dust into an explosion of festive mirth. The diaphanous instrumental skein never loses its brilliant sheen, and the various comic effects enjoy a lusty charm borne of long musical experience. The 1783 Mozart Linz Symphony came to me via Beecham’s 1930s recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 78 rpm. We have here a performance from Royal Festival Hall (15 December 1954), capturing the grandeur and solemnity of the music in fiercely driven figures.  The first of Mozart’s symphonies to use Haydn’s slow introduction mode, here in a minor mode that starts with two whole notes and proceeds in short, chromatic scales. The Allegro spiritoso section begins with a 17-measure statement to whose length Mozart adds or subtracts at will, in a kind of improvisatory fashion. The balance between the music’s declamations an its lyrical oratory evolves in muscular gestures from Beecham, who hustles the movement with virtuoso deftness. Beecham grants an austere beauty to the slow movement, Andante con moto, a sicliana in 6/8 that makes use of festive trumpets and drums. The Menuetto—especially as played by the LPO on my old 78s—has always struck me as an awkwardly lumbering dance rhythm, likely rustic in the manner of Haydn. Little of Haydn, however, occupies the plastic last movement Finale: Presto, where blistering chromatic harmony and lightning rocket figures well extend Mozart’s “classical” sensibility into the realm of Romanticism.

Beecham delivers the Mozart Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major again from Royal Festival Hall (7 April 1954), a performance of stern authority, given the usually “mercurial” character of Beecham’s singular personality. The slow introduction and its subsequent brass fanfares lack the oboe, so the clarinet colors the textures. Something of Beecham’s dedication to the older performance sensibility inhabits his slides in the melodic line. But the vigor of execution testifies to the fine discipline of his RPO, and their string line has Mozart’s singing luxuriously. At the coda, the audience bites its collective lip not to burst into applause.  The Andante con moto has a quizzical character, gently wandering in a bucolic haze that occasionally sees a darkened sky. The RPO bass fiddles sound especially sonorous. The Austrian spirit dominates the third movement Menuetto: Allegro—Trio, which has a clarinet-led laendler as the basis of the Trio section. While my favorite realization of the Menuetto belongs to Furtwaengler, this Beecham rendition injects plenty of character. The Finale: Allegro evolves virtually mono-thematically,  given a melody whose sole purpose means to endure and outlast any number of restraints.  Beecham’s deft but artful phrasing and tempo keep us enthralled with the level of execution by performer as well composer, whose dire economic straits did not prevent his marshaling a cosmic gift for his musical craft.

–Gary Lemco

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