Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet; Symphony 3
Sir Thomas Beecham was unquestionably the greatest conductor Britain has ever produced. Fortunately his art is very extensively preserved, since over a period of 49 years he made a great number of recordings. In recent times EMI have placed us in their debt through some important Beecham reissues on CD, and now the Sir Thomas Beecham Trust has itself generously commenced a programme of CD issues. The first two of these use recordings which date from the 78 era.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet was one of the works performed at the RPO's first concert. This recording, made soon afterwards, shows that the orchestra was not yet the superlative instrument it was soon to become, and there is a slight coarseness in the playing. Beecham inspires plenty of fire and excitement, but there's a slightly detached quality in his conducting. In the Polish Symphony there are few Beechamesque touches. It's a good well-drilled, straightforward performance, but there's very little elegance of magic, and again the playing lacks refinement. There are two substantial cuts in the first movement, and a larger one still in the finale, which results in an awkward key change. Transfers on this disc are only fair, with a basic sound quality which is rather hard and crumbly. There are patches of distortion, and several poorly managed side joins. Beecham admirers will be glad to have the Polish Symphony on CD, since the original 78s are now hard to find, but these two Tchaikovsky performances do not show the great conductor at his best.
How different is the Delius disc, which uses transfers made by Anthony Griffith for a 1976 World Records reissue of all Beecham's pre-war Delius recordings. The engineering in that LP set was very good indeed, but remastering has brought still more presence and life in the sound quality, without there being any feeling of artificiality. Of the performances on the new disc only that of Eventyr was ever bettered by Beecham on record. There's much insight of course in this 1934 performance, but it is slightly heavier than Beecham's 1951 version, which is more mercurial, and has greater delicacy and a more vivid, fairy tale atmosphere. Otherwise it is hard to imagine greater performances. While Beecham responds Joyfully to the boisterous, expansive elements of Paris he points the more reflective episodes with exquisite poetry. Over the Hills and Far Away has a similar abundance of flair and atmosphere, and a seemingly effortless mastery of phrase and pulse while the two shorter pieces are played with rare eloquence. This is a richly enjoyable disc, and I hope that its publication will encourage the eventual reappearance of all Beecham's pre-war Delius.'