Here is Sir Thomas Beecham in his later years as heard by London audiences in the 1950s. Mainly the orchestra is the Royal Philharmonic which he founded in 1946 and with whom he is mostly associated, but he formed and conducted several orchestras during his career, starting at the age of twenty with the short-lived St Helens Musical Society. At that time Queen Victoria was on the throne.
The first item here is with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Maida Vale Studios. The rowdy Gwendoline Overture (the prelude to an opera) does not represent the usual joyous nature of Chabrier’s music and it is only after three aggressive minutes that an elegant theme emerges. Beecham drives the music unrelentingly – the descending brass in the fierce central section sounds Wagner-like. The elderly recording is well-enough balanced but somewhat hollow in sonority.
The public performances are recorded much as they occurred – no attempt is made to hush audience noise and applause is included. César Franck’s once-popular Accursed Huntsman is notable for its varied colours and the Royal Philharmonic is on top form. Controlled wildness typifies this sixty-five-year-old rendering, but nothing is lost. Grétry’s Zemire et Azore is a real Beecham gem. It is unclear how many movements were intended in the original and the conductor freely re-orchestrates. Of the five movements played at the Usher Hall Edinburgh the best known is the ‘Air de ballet’ which Beecham used frequently as an encore. I was present on one such occasion and recall how beautifully it was played. It is also beautiful in this gentle, gracefully phrased performance. At the close there is unwanted clapping which causes Sir Thomas to address the audience saying “Ladies and gentlemen, I deeply regret to say we haven’t come to the end of this [the Suite] yet.”
Back to the Royal Festival Hall for Lalo’s serious yet tuneful Symphony presented in very acceptable sound; made in 1959 this is the latest recording in the set. It took place two months before the much acclaimed commercial recording with the French National Radio Orchestra. It is a vivid performance. The form of the work is individual with a symphonic poem of a first movement, a Vivace of ever-changing mood and the Adagio is a gentle intermission before the rhapsodic Finale.
Beecham delighted in eighteenth-century music but interpreted it in later style. Méhul was a close contemporary of Mozart but encouraged by the sound of the full-bodied BBCSO his Second Symphony from 1808 seems to belong to the Romantic period. There is a concession to ‘period’ style when the Allegro Minuet is taken broadly but the fiery Finale with its threatening drums is given a post-Beethoven reading.
Back on familiar RPO ground Beecham presents colourful ballet music from Saint-Saens’s opera Samson et Dalila. Also on the same day in 1959 at Maida Vale Studios we hear music by the composer much championed by Beecham: Frederick Delius. The gentle North Country Sketches sound well and many subtle details emerge. We know Delius was a Yorkshire-man but he does not write typically bucolic English music – the ‘Dance’ is flowing and romantic, no heavy-footed peasants here, and even the final ‘March of Spring’ has no strict rhythm; Beecham performs it in the style of a pastoral fantasia.
Sir Thomas’s enthusiasm for Balakirev was appreciated in the 1950s yet admiration for this composer has now dissipated. The First Symphony appeared on a notable mid-fifties recording but this Edinburgh Festival version is an adequate alternative. Decent, full-bodied sound results from excellent remastering. The music surges forward forcefully, Tchaikovsky-like switches from calmness to drama typify the outer movements and the conductor’s enthusiastic drive in the Scherzo is notable.
After the high-spirited Balakirev the selection ends with the gracious Suite that Richard Strauss created from his opera Ariadne auf Naxos inspired by Molière’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, with incidental music for the latter. The scoring is light-textured yet it includes piano, harp, trombone and percussion. There is a strong sense of the Baroque. Sir Thomas is well-known for his own realisations of older music and this suits him well. Six of the nine movements are given. The RPO revels in the swift changes of instrumentation and the brief, quiet solos are brought off tenderly. The Finale entitled ‘The Dinner’ mixes every mood, the beautiful central section which involves unexpected harmonies leads via music reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier to a rousingly violent final few bars.