TCHAIKOVSKY: Francesca da Rimini, Symphony Nos. 5 & 6 – Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio 

by | Sep 3, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique”: abridged excerpts – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Beecham Symphony Orchestra (Op. 74)/ Sir Thomas Beecham – Pristine Audio PASC 571, 76:15 [] ****:

Recording and Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn resuscitates a triptych of classic Tchaikovsky performances led by Sir Thomas Beecham, beginning with the symphonic poem in E minor, Op. 32, the 1876 Francesca da Rimini, based on the famous Canto of Inferno from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Tchaikovsky felt an immediate sympathy for the subject matter, based on the marriage of Francesca to the cruel Maletesta of Rimini, with whose brother Paolo she had fallen in love. When she and Paolo read the medieval romance of Lancelot’s flirtation and seduction of Queen Guinevere, that day “they read no further.” Caught in delecto by the Count, the lovers were stabbed to death and consigned to suffer the torments of the carnal circle of Hell, where those who had succumbed to the terrible winds of passion face those same winds that now rend apart. Francesca and Paolo, however, remain bound as one, buffeted by the maelstrom, relieved in their agony only long enough to recount their tragic tale to Dante and his guide Virgil.  But the deepest part of Hell, Caina, awaits their murderer, Maletesta.

Beecham’s recording (7, 19 December 1939) provides a model of interpretive restraint, extremely delicate in the string, wind, and harp parts, often suggestive of an extended ballet scene.  The powerful, lyrical middle section takes its cue from Francesca’s fateful words, “No experience proves so bitter as to recall sweet moments of bliss in times of misery.”  The stormy sections brace the lyrical center, the brass of the LPO particularly edgy while the strings swirl with fateful menace.  The tumultuous last pages capture Dante’s swoon from the force of Francesca’s passion, his knowing full well that carnality symbolically represents his own, all-too-human weakness.

Tchaikovsky Portrait

Peter Tchaikovsky

The low strings and clarinets that set the tone of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor (rec. 18 December 1939 and 4 January 1940) establish a “fate” motif that permeates the entire work. Beecham manages a lyrical swagger to the march theme, Allegro con anima. Beecham does inject a full-blooded resonance into the secondary theme, the musical equivalent of a consolatory sigh that extends itself into a waltz. Beecham takes through the moody development – made of various impulses derived from the march – with elastically disciplined fervor, again with that degree of restraint that separates his vision of this music from the frenetic, melodramatic readings by Koussevitzky, Mengelberg, and Mravinsky.

A lovely horn solo marks the second movement, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, though Beecham elicits some stirring harmonies from his double basses and cellos out the outset.  The solo oboe adds to the mesmerism of the moment, with a deliberate (Beethoven) fate theme inscribed into the bass line. The mix of oboe, flute, strings and subdued brass prove irresistible, provided that the civility of demeanor suits your taste. The solo trumpet will enunciate the motto theme in declamatory terms later in the movement, where the tympani impart a truly threatening impulse into Tchaikovsky’s dramatic melancholy.  Prior, pizzicato strings accompany that serpentine oboe theme as the ineluctable fate momentum carries us along. At last, Beecham cuts the rope to allow the magnificent melody its glory in Technicolor. A slow, waltz tempo graciously urges the sadly dying impulse to fade into the aether.  Beecham paints a delicate Florentine melody that defines the next dance, the Valse movement that moves in sighing progress among the woodwind colors of the LPO.  The degree of transparency Beecham achieves in the movement would work equally well in the music of Mendelssohn.  The so-called “test” of a performance usually lies in the last movement, where the Manichean struggle of E Major and its minor mode occurs.  Allegro maestoso, the trumpet over pizzicato strings takes us into the minor mode rife with tympani, but the music will find energetic release in a kind of galvanic, Russian trepak. Dynamic restraint marks this music, even given its Allegro vivace indication. The stretti enjoy a clarity of execution that allows us to savor interior woodwind lines along with the active string basses. The music hustles in counterpoint, moving with solemn energy to the grand finale whose martial E Major announces a possible, temporary victory over the fate to which we must all eventually succumb.

Sir Thomas Beecham, ironically, led the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony more than any of the other the symphonies, but he left no recorded document of the work.  That the Somm label has not located a live performance for commercial distribution no less proves a mystery.  What we have takes the form of 1915 acoustic shellacs of the second movement Allegro con grazia and third movement Allegro molto vivace in severely – especially the Scherzo – abridged form.  Despite the unavoidably tinny sound, we do receive a good sense of musical transition, once more enhanced by Beecham’s simple affection for this music, played by his own Beecham Symphony Orchestra. We must be grateful for small musical favors; and, in its own way, this is major.

—Gary Lemco


Related Reviews
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01
Logo Pure Pleasure