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Beecham in Seattle - the unheard live recordings, continued!
"I was informed there was an emergency, so I emerged..."
We are lucky to have any recordings whatsoever of Beecham in Seattle - union disputes precluded any commerical recordings during Beecham's time with the orchestra. To the best of our knowledge there remain three CDs-worth of live material, captured at the start of the 1943 season and preserved first on acetate discs (since melted down), then open-reel tape (since lost), backed up onto more open reel tape (now almost unplayable) and casssette tape. Thus the humble cassette proves the best remaining source of these historic recordings, and it is from excellent transfers of these, supplied by a collector who wishes to remain anonymous, that I have worked.
Since our first volume was issued, and the recording credited to a local radio station, further information has come to light which suggests that it was Beecham himself who commissioned the recordings in order to silence his critics locally. This may go some way to explaining the lack of continuity in the present volume, where non-overlapped side changes have resulted in a number of short gaps. My guess is that these were planned for between-movement intervals, but on more than one occasion here the recording time ran out before the movement had ended.
That said, the overall recording quality, post-XR remastering, is astonishing in both works, specially given the provenance of these recordings, with clarity, frequency and dynamic ranges, and up-front vitality that any commercial producer in 1943 would have been more than proud of..
DVORAK Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191
Mischel Cherniavsky, cello
Evening concert, October 18th, 1943
Music Hall Theatre, Seattle
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 3 "Scottish" in A Minor, op. 56
Evening concert, October 11th, 1943
Music Hall Theatre, Seattle
Played by Seattle Symphony
conductor Sir Thomas Beecham
Transcribed from tape copies of Beecham's own original acetates
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, August 2010
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Sir Thomas Beecham
Total duration: 77:21
Fascinating documents of performances the likes of which you simply don’t hear anymore
This, the second CD in Pristine’s series of live recordings from Sir Thomas Beecham’s stint as music director of the Seattle Symphony, is arguably the more valuable; its contents consist of two major works, neither one of which Beecham recorded in the studio. Readers are referred to Fanfare 34:1, where I described the circumstances under which these recordings were made, and the heroic measures Pristine’s Andrew Rose has taken in restoring them to some semblance of listenability.
Dvořák was one of the composers whose work Beecham championed; his studio recordings, however, include none of the most popular compositions, but rather three items—the Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and the Symphonic Variations—that were virtually unknown at the time. The first two of these were premiere recordings. (He also recorded two of the Legends from Dvořák’s op. 59 in 1935.) A live 1959 version of the Eighth Symphony was issued by HMV, and is currently available on BBC Legends 4154.
Despite his reputation for eccentricity, and even for artistic intransigence, Beecham was also known as an accommodating accompanist. So, the idiosyncrasies in this performance of the Cello Concerto must rest mostly at the feet of the soloist. Mischel Cherniavsky was a Ukrainian-born cellist, a member of a prominent piano trio along with his two brothers from 1901 through 1934, and a citizen of Canada, although he lived there only briefly. His brother Jan, however, the trio’s pianist, settled in Vancouver, which may explain Mischel’s appearance in nearby Seattle. In any event, Cherniavsky’s tempos are highly irregular, with many gear shifts and rubatos. In contrast to Beecham’s vigorous opening tutti, the cello entrance in the first movement is quite deliberate, and the big second tune is taken much more slowly. Tempos are similarly elastic in the finale, where the soloist doesn’t always concern himself with staying in sync with the orchestra! All told, at more than 42 minutes, it’s a very expansive reading of the concerto; Piatigorsky’s more-or-less contemporary studio version with Ormandy totals about 36:30. The 42 minutes, incidentally, do not include a highly unfortunate gap: the closing tutti of the first movement, which the recordist (using acetate discs) didn’t get. Otherwise, Cherniavsky does a reasonably creditable job with the demanding solo part, although he certainly doesn’t belong to the ranks of top-flight soloists.
Beecham’s devotion to Mendelssohn’s music is well documented, but he never committed the “Scottish” Symphony to disc. His reading of this piece, at least on that October day in 1943, is energetic—including some of the shouts for which live Beecham performances are legendary—and no-nonsense. The first-movement Allegro is brisk; a typical Beecham moment is the phrasing in the cellos leading into the recapitulation. The tempo of the scherzo is uncompromising, and the Adagio third movement never dawdles. Even the grand coda to the symphony is unsentimental, and moves energetically to the end. This recording unfortunately has three gaps, one leading into the first-movement coda, a bigger gap in the scherzo, and another at the opening of the finale.
Finally, it must be said that the wartime Seattle Symphony was a far cry from the orchestras Beecham founded in England and conducted in most of his recordings: the London Philharmonic (from 1932 to 1940 and for a brief period in 1944–45) and the Royal Philharmonic (from 1946 to 1959, the year of his last recordings at age 80). In particular, the solo wind writing in the Dvořák exposes some serious weaknesses that Beecham would not have tolerated under normal circumstances.
As with the first volume, these recordings sound unbelievably good considering their age and the source (a cassette dub of a second-generation open-reel dub of the original acetates, which themselves were probably taken down from an AM broadcast). Still, allowances need to be made, especially for those gaps. If these sonic drawbacks don’t scare you away, you’ll find these to be fascinating documents of performances the likes of which you simply don’t hear anymore.
Richard A. Kaplan
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:2 (Nov/Dec 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.