June 1, 2007Bountiful Beecham
For many of us -- though perhaps not for those who came in late -- Sir Thomas Beechams name on a recording is enough to certify it as a "keeper," as EMI has reminded us splendidly with two new Beecham collections: a Tchaikovsky program with Sir Thomass own Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 3 80015 2, and a collection of French Orchestral Music involving that orchestra and two others on 3 79985 2.
Of course the term "new" might be said to be misplaced here, as these recordings not only go back quite some time (Beecham, after all, died in 1961), but have been in almost constant circulation, some of them having appeared in two or three earlier CD editions. But there is some material here that had not been available on CD before, and all of it benefits significantly from the latest transfers in EMIs "Great Recordings of the Century" series, for which the companys "Abbey Road Technology" is enhanced by the Prism SNS system. In handsome contrast to the hard, glaring acoustic of some re-re-reissues, the sound treatment here may be called luscious -- but luscious in Beechams own manner, which means the sound quality, like the performances themselves, is tempered by an unself-conscious elegance that keeps it from getting syrupy.
What all this comes down to, you might say, is the supposedly simple term charm. It was second nature to Beecham, and because he never had to fake it, it could be in his hands an effective element in performing a work of utter seriousness -- here Tchaikovskys Fourth Symphony, with its structure and details exceptionally clear, yet impelled by the grand, sweeping momentum the work demands if it is to be at all effective -- as well as one of his famous "lollipops," such as the deliciously served Act II Waltz from Evgeny Onegin on the same CD.
When it came to those "lollipops" (defined, Beecham liked to remind us, as "a sweet at the end of a stick"), Sir Thomas was in a very special class. In his day, of course, all the great conductors -- Weingartner, Toscanini, Mengelberg, et al. -- included Strauss waltzes, Auber overtures, Massenet suites and other gems of "the light genre" in their formal concerts, just as the old Greek theater used to follow a tragedy with a comedy or satyr-play. For whatever reason (and there is surely no acceptable one!), this category has virtually disappeared from todays concert life, and when it does get a nod here and there it is all too often from someone who thinks lighter music can be sight-read.
Beecham and his contemporaries certainly understood the folly of such an attitude. Just as theater people will tell you that it is more daunting to prepare a comedy than a straight drama or tragedy, it might be said that lighter music demands even greater preparation than "serious" symphonies, simply because the lighter fare is less substantial and in its case the performance itself is everything. The Onegin Waltz, aglow in good stereophonic sound, and the entire Nutcracker Suite, in opulent mono from 1954 (recorded not by EMI, but by Philips, during the brief period of Sir Thomass contract with American Columbia), are gloriously fresh as well as substantial because Beecham treated them with the same level of care that went into his performance of the Fourth Symphony. The Symphony, by the way, is also monophonic, though recorded in the fall of 1957, but youd hardly notice, because the sound quality, excellent to begin with, is better than ever in Ian Joness splendid new transfer. The symphony dances; the dances are symphonic; and yet nothing on this remarkable disc is out of its own element. Thats how the Beecham magic worked.
The transfer engineer for the French collection was Andrew Walter, and his work is no less remarkably successful than Joness. It might be said, in fact, that the most remarkable track on either disc in this respect is the one of Beechams celebrated 1939 recording of Chabriers España with the London Philharmonic. When it was first issued, the following year, there was some grousing about a six-minute pieces being spread over the two sides of a 12" 78 when most other recordings of the work fit comfortably on a more economical 10", but the sound was outstanding for its day, revealing details of a performance on which no one with working ears would have dreamed of placing a price. Andrew Walters transfer is little short of miraculous: the date of the recording, as a colleague has remarked, simply looks like a mistake when you hear the tambourine, the free-wheeling trombones, and the amazing basses that come in at about 4 min. 10 sec.
España is the only 78rpm recording on the CD, and the only one with the LPO. Beecham had founded that orchestra only seven years earlier, and it was then at its very peak, soon to be affected, however, by WWII, which had begun a few weeks before the sessions for this recording. The remainder of this disc gives us Sir Thomass last orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, in its own glory days, and the band known in Beechams time as lOrchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, which has in our time become lOrchestre National de France. The booklet cover, in fact, reproduces the original cover of the monophonic LP that comprised the three performances by the latter orchestra: Faurés Dolly Suite, the Overture to Chabriers pseudo-Wagnerian opera Gwendoline, and Bizets Carmen Suite. The Bizet was not recorded as a suite, but taken from Sir Thomass recording of the opera itself; both it and the Fauré suite are in stereo here, as they were on an earlier CD, while the blazing Gwendoline Overture, in its first CD appearance, is in very effective mono. No one has made a more effective case for this seldom heard overture, and its not very likely anyone ever will: it is Beecham at his amazing, transformative best.
The RPO contributions include two stereophonic tracks from the well remembered "Lollipops" collection taped early in 1957 -- downright stunning accounts of Saint-Saënss Rouet dOmphale and still more Chabrier, the Joyeuse Marche -- and two more tracks of Bizet, in mono: the rousing concert overture Patrie! and, as almost certainly the least familiar item in the entire collection, the last of the four movements of the symphonic suite Roma. All of these are prime examples of the unique amalgam of charm, power, subtlety, and overall imaginativeness that made Beecham Beecham, and if placing these two Bizet rarities side-by-side serves to emphasize the impression that both are built on the same theme (only given different rhythmic stress), well, even that works beautifully in the present context.
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