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Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC Legends

BBC    BBCL 4044-2

BBC Legends - Beecham (c) 2000 BBC Music


This invaluable series sells well, a fact not difficult to grasp from the international roster of best-selling artists that underpinned the growing reputations of major record companies from the 1930s onwards.

There is another meaning for concert and recital audiences of the older generation fortunate enough to have attended the events themselves. They can now relive the aura of select occasions recapturing the spontaneity of superb musicians irradiating their performing art.

You may wonder how this provides for a younger generation of listeners familiar with today's styles and attitudes. The message behind all interpretation remains all-embracing, irrespective of time and place. Aware of this, BBC Radio 3 featured excerpts from their archives with a 2.45 slot on Sunday afternoons. Even so, quality of transmission did not always measure up to the sound quality achieved by the Legends transfer team.

Beecham BBCL 4044-2

After the rousing National Anthem opening the Royal Festival Hall concert on 15 October 1958, Beecham embarked on a reading of Schubert's Third Symphony that only he could perpetuate with his customary penchant for charm, grace and drama. Straightaway, one feels Schubert's love of the theatre from the solemn opening measures, the sforzando downbeat setting in motion curving string lines to explore different key textures, visionary and remote for their period.

I love Sir Thomas's entry into the main subject: buoyant, yet sustained with winds and strings alternating until a great crescendo turns opéra bouffe repartee into stormy passion. The sudden modulation brings a galaxy of woodwind delights against muted, pointed strings. Beecham makes his audience aware that the composer's answering subjects require their own distinctive approach.

The slow movement has effortless grace, so gentle in its seduction and courtly in guise that one imagines two dancing figures lovingly expressing endearments. Upper strings are held back for gorgeous wind solos, and just before the end Jack Brymer's clarinet soars aloft leading the musical thread back to the opening measures.

The Menuetto vivace and Trio resemble a game of contrasts, the former rumbustuous with delicate asides, the middle part subtle, vaguely suggestive with rhythmic pointillations lower down the register.

The Presto vivace Finale, however, finds our conductor in joyous vein throughout, with a strong sense of devilry bringing added exuberance to those key points where Schubert urges his forces in other directions. The coda's imperious closing chords are a reminder of what would arrive much later in the great C major Symphony.

I have never understood conductors who perform the first and fourth movements of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony at a breakneck speed and the centre ones with meaningless, fleeting complacency. Allegro vivace, Andante con moto, Con moto moderato and Saltarello -- Presto should never become the excuse for obscuring the inner beauties of pleasurable discoveries enhanced by the composer's for instrumental balances, blendings and tonal contrasts.

Beecham presents the work as a composer looking ahead to Schumann and Brahms. There is boldness in the opening movement that radiates confidence and clarity at the same time, never sagging at the seams but suggestive of constant momentum and pride in which wind players never struggle to articulate their phrases. During the development -- always a fascinating aspect of Mendelssohn's symphonic writing -- string sections can be heard pirouetting counterpoint figures to and fro -- and the main theme's return is truly resplendent.

Studies of contrast is how I would describe the second and third movements, and that is exactly what we hear in this performance, the one tempered by sadness and fond reflections, the other with sweetness and light. The lighter, expressive scoring in each provides a feeling of space and transparency.

After a warm welcome to the joys and true meaning of Christmas complete, with its usual excesses of food and drink, Sir Thomas wishes everyone a happy New Year, signing off with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite in a BBC Studios recording on 9 December 1958. Played straight, each movement at the correct tempo, it is an absolute gem.

Slight hardness in the Royal Festival Hall acoustic, compared with more immediate Studio sound, hardly detracts from the continuing wonder of great musicmaking. 

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Copyright © 9 May 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK







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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews