C1722. SIR THOMAS BEECHAM Cond. Boston S.O.: Il Pastor Fido - Suite (Handel); Symphony #6 in d (Sibelius); Summer Night on the River; Marche caprice (both Delius); Le Coq d'Or - Suite (Rimsky-Korsakov); A duly delightful and informative Interview with Sir Thomas, in his sharpest wit, with a witless Boston socialite appraising ‘The State of British Music Today’. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-862, Live Performance, 27 Jan., 1952, Symphony Hall. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Beecham’s decision to spend most of World War II outside Britain, as a result of the Blitz that devastated London, made him unpopular at home. He conducted in Australia and the U.S., but not much of those concerts survives on disc. This new release from St. Laurent Studio is the first postwar Beecham I’ve heard live from America. It’s a pleasure to encounter the conductor in 1952 leading a great orchestra in four of his favorite composers, and although none of the repertoire is new, there’s a special vivacity about these performances. According to the BSO’s online archive, this series of four concerts in January, 1952 constitutes Beecham’s only appearance with the orchestra.
Beecham was devoted to Handel, chiefly in arrangements he constructed himself - with his typical wit he referred to these as ‘derangements’. The seven-movement suite based on Handel’s Opera Seria of 1712, IL PASTOR FIDO (The Faithful Shepherd) is delicately scored; we are told that Beecham remained truer to Handel’s original than usual. This 1952 performance wasn’t a one-time affair; Charles Munch led the suite again in 1956. Here the Boston string section sounds refined and luminous, as does the prominent first flute. Since no other Beecham recordings are currently available, this charming one is all the more desirable.
Boston knew Sibelius very well from the championship of Koussevitzky who underwent the frustration of being promised an eighth symphony that never materialized. Beecham was even more famous as a Sibelian - he led 275 performances of Sibelius symphonies between 1931 and 1960 - but the only other Sixth Symphony now in print is another live performance, with the Royal Philharmonic in 1954 from the Proms. There was an HMV commercial studio recording on 78s with the RPO from 1947. It had a remastered release on Dutton in best sound, and I was eager to compare that with this new account from Boston.
The 1947 reading has a sharper contour and feels more driven; the Boston performance is relaxed and flowing, displaying Beecham’s natural feeling for how to phrase Sibelius’ music. No one has ever sounded more at home. The recorded sound is comparable in both, with HMV capturing more body and bass. St. Laurent Studio [offers] more spaciousness in the hall and a surprising amount of orchestral color and detail. I’d give it first place.
The Sibelius Sixth is considered to be mysterious in his symphonic output, with its ambiguous harmonic shifts and even more ambiguous emotional tone - the music is at once accessible and private. Those qualities can also be found in Frederick Delius, to whom Beecham showed a lifelong devotion. Delius’ music didn’t die the day Beecham died, but it certainly went on life support. ‘Summer Night on the River’ is pleasantly pastoral, sounding to me like early Ravel, while the light-stepping ‘Marche caprice’ could be mistaken for Chabrier except for Delius’ debt to Impressionism.
Beecham was a past master at light classical music, and his EMI recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s LE COQ D’OR Suite deserves a place beside his celebrated SCHEHERAZADE with the RPO. There are at least two live recordings, both out of print, including one with the RPO form 1956 on BBC Legends. If you can excuse a horrible trumpet bobble in the first bar and a spasm of coughing that follows, this Boston reading is lovely in weaving a fairy-tale mood and making every phrase sound vibrant.
Having offered several reasons for what makes this a special release and a ‘must-listen’ for Beecham collectors, I’ll only add that Beecham in concert communicates a freshness that everyone who loves his studio recordings should experience. He was also famously a droll character who loved to address the audience, and in lieu of that we get a bonus interview of around 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the topic of ‘The State of British Music Today’ brings out only serious comments, confidently and tartly delivered but not in a witty mood (Beecham shows his maverick side by saying that Schönberg was ‘dead as a doornail’ and that Delius, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams were the only outstanding modern British composers).
As to smaller details, the audience is relatively quiet; brief applause is included after every piece. There are no program notes.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“No other conductor could possibly have got away with saying: ‘There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between’. Beecham's talent for aphorism risks overshadowing his achievements as a a musician. But musicians who worked under him - and orchestral players are often a vituperative lot - still recall ‘Tommy’ with extraordinary fondness.
In 1899, Hans Richter, due to conduct the Hallé Orchestra in a concert in St Helen's, fell ill; Joseph Beecham, who was mayor, declared that his prodigiously talented 20-year-old son should step in. From there, the young conductor - entirely self-taught - moved on in leaps and bounds. He founded a Beecham Symphony Orchestra in 1909 and a Beecham Opera Company in 1915. At the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he conducted the UK premieres of Wagner's DIE MEISTERSINGER and Richard Strauss' DER ROSENKAVALIER, ELEKTRA and SALOME; during the 1930s he presented the greatest singers of the day there, including Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann and Kirsten Flagstad, raising sponsorship himself. He founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932, and in 1946 the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He excelled in Mozart, French music and a range of German repertoire.
Beecham also faced controversy. His finances and personal life were often respectively precarious and volatile; and he is sometimes criticised for decamping to the US during the war - though Lady Beecham defends him by pointing out that he had long-standing engagements to honour in Australia and the US in 1940 and then couldn't get home across the Atlantic. Before that, in 1936, he had taken the newly founded LPO to Germany, where Hitler was in the audience. Why did they go? ‘He was proud of them’, says Lady Beecham, ‘and he wanted to take them to a country where there were many fine orchestras to show them what a fine orchestra it was’. The story rings of an extraordinary figurative nose-thumbing that only Beecham could have carried off. Dr Berta Geissmar, personal assistant to conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, was Jewish and had fled the Nazi regime for London, where Beecham promptly employed her as his secretary. ‘And he took her with him to Germany’, says Lady Beecham. ‘She was absolutely terrified for the whole tour that they'd take her away. But with him beside her, they could do nothing at all’. At the Berlin concert, when he saw Hitler applauding, Beecham turned to the orchestra and said, ‘The old bugger seems to like it!’ The remark went out on the radio across Europe. Had Beecham really forgotten that the concert was being broadcast?”
- THE GUARDIAN, 6 April 2001