Beecham's supreme musicality exemplified in Haydn's symphonic masterworks
Second volume of six 'London' symphonies in superb stereo 32-bit XR-remastered transfers
As with our first volume of Beecham conducting Haydn's London symphonies, I found that despite generally excellent recording quality, there were issues of pitch, pre- and post-echo and various extraneous noises to deal with. There is an illustrated article on the pitch issue, especially regarding edited-in sections and movements apparently recorded at different pitches, from our newsletter of 24 February 2012, which is also reproduced below. You'll also find a free download of Beecham conducting rehearsals for the recordings of Symphonies 100, 101 and 104. One flaw of the original mint vinyl remains audible, though much improved over the EMI release - some bad tape drop-out in the "Clock" movement of Symphony 101.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham conductor
Recorded at Salle Wagram, Paris
8 May 1958 (Symphony No. 99)
9 May 1958 (Symphonies Nos. 102, 103)
10 May 1958 (Symphony No. 104)
11 May 1958 (Symphony No. 100)
12 May 1958 (Symphony No. 101)
Transfers from EMI box set SLS 846 (BOX 84604-84606)
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Sir Thomas Beecham
Total duration: 2hr 35:13
"Ever since Beecham's recording of the first six Salomon symphonies was issued in December 1958 I have been waiting eagerly for the second six to complete the set, and here at last they are. I don't propose to review them in quite so much detail, because by now anyone who loves these symphonies (and what musician could fail to?) will have had a chance of discovering for himself the particular qualities that make Beecham's performances of them unique. It is a pretty safe bet that anyone who owns and admires the earlier set will want to add these records to them.
However, for the benefit of those who may be coming to Beecham's Haydn for the first time perhaps I should briefly recapitulate some of the factors on both sides of the balance-sheet. Debits first. Beecham is less scrupulous than one might wish in a "complete edition" about using the best available texts of the music; he does not take advantage of the researches of Mr. Robbins Landon in particular. He never repeats the expositions in Haydn's first movements and often omits the repeats elsewhere (though not in the minuets, of course). He tends to take both "slow movements" and minuets rather more slowly than the music or Haydn's markings really warrant—not from lack of temperament, I need hardly say, but from his preoccupation with expressive phrasing. Sometimes this makes for rather too much languor in the slow movements, I think, and too much pomposity in the minuets, but on the reverse side of the coin is the superb rhythmic vitality of the outer movements. Even when Beecham's tempi are slower than those of younger conductors his allegro movements can more than hold their own by virtue of this rhythmic tautness, and this gives them a genial heart-warming quality that never degenerates into the neurotic bustle of more streamlined performances.
The second set of Haydn's London symphonies is better known than the first, and so there are rather more competitive versions than before. For the sake of those who already own any of them here are a few comparative notes.
The only other conductor to have given us the complete set is Mogens Wöldike, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. This version, which formed part of the Vanguard catalogue, is not available at the moment, but since it may be again I should point out that it has the advantage of giving us, as far as scholarship can establish them, the notes that Haydn actually wrote. The trouble is that Wöldike seems unable to go far beyond the notes; he avoids Beecham's occasional eccentricities of tempo, but he also fails to give us Beecham's wonderfully lyrical phrasing, and the result is rarely thrilling.
Beecham's "Salomons" will, I have no doubt, take their place among the classics of the gramophone, along with Schnabel's complete Beethoven sonatas and Toscanini's Verdi—not "definitive" (Heaven forbid!) but so rich in musical understanding that even their idiosyncrasies can hardly fail to be loved."
J.N. The Gramophone, April 1960 (Reviewing ALP1693-5, original LP issues, excerpt)
Classical CD Review review
I highly recommend these discs
Haydn's reputation, however, had sunk even lower than his pupil's. A composer known in his day for his emotional force (one English writer compared him to Shakespeare) became huggable "Papa Haydn." This persisted well into the 20th century. My mother, for example, had studied music seriously during the Thirties and Forties, and I later got to read her textbooks, which characterized Haydn as "historically important" -- ie, not aesthetically important. It took the efforts of scholars like H. Robbins Landon as well as committed conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham and, later, Antal Doráti (the second to record all the symphonies; the first cycle, by Ernst Märzendorfer, had very limited release) to eventually push Haydn into standard repertory. Doráti began recording in 1969.
Companies have this weird (to me) idea that they need to re-record the same material with new artists in order to make money. Of course new artists need support, but do they really need to preserve their Beethoven's Pastorale? Will it significantly better Mengelberg's or Szell's? Why push new product with all the attendant costs of recording and editing when you already have superior inventory? I just don't get it. What results is new audiences ignorant of performance history -- the treasures and (I admit it) even some trash of the past.
Like most conductors of his era, Beecham has become a collection of anecdotes to the general classical public. I admit he left behind a superior collection of anecdotes and bon mots, but more importantly, he bequeathed a host of great performances. In many ways, he was bloody-minded, as shown by his notorious remark that "I would give the whole of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet's Manon, and would think I had vastly profited by the exchange". He knew what he liked and stuck to it. Fortunately, he liked the unfashionable as well as the fashionable. No one, not even Barbirolli, has surpassed his Delius recordings. In the Thirties, he was one of the few to record Haydn symphonies -- and not dutifully, either, but with real brio. He had a special affinity for Handel and resurrected many forgotten works by that composer. His was, I believe, the first "complete" Messiah, although in a Modern, super-glam orchestration. Numbers that hadn't been heard in decades appeared in an "Appendix." Haydn and Beecham usually constituted an ideal match. Haydn's drollness and sentiment chimed well with Beecham's personality. He, Szell, Doráti, and Bernstein stand among my favorite Haydn conductors, although all four view Haydn differently. Szell emphasizes Haydn's elegance, Doráti his warmth, Bernstein his power, and Beecham his singing wit.
Haydn wrote six symphonies for each of his two visits to England. These so-called "London" symphonies represent the height of his art, without a dud in the dozen. They all follow the same general plan: sonata movement; slow movement; minuet and trio; rondo-like finale, often sonata rondo. Within those general specs, Haydn creates enormous variety, including monothematic sonatas, innovative, poetic orchestration, and bursts of brilliant counterpoint. Beecham does especially well in quicker movements, with a "natural" spontaneous joy and rhythmic verve to his music-making. Haydn has always been known for his musical jokes (the famous one in the "Surprise" Symphony is only one of them, and by no means the best), and Beecham seems to get them all. I especially like his second movement of No. 93, where a lacy, delicate texture rips apart with a loud fart from the bassoon, and Beecham fully commits to it. In the slow movements, Beecham shapes a complex singing line. At times, I find him a bit too slow; in one adagio, he actually put me to sleep. But I have trouble listening to slow movements anyway. I need something, in the absence of lively rhythm, to keep my attention. Beecham usually gives me an unusually interesting shaping of the musical line, a bit like a great Lieder singer.
I highly recommend these discs, although I will mention a few points that might give some listeners pause. First, he uses larger forces than we today expect. No HIP here. Second, he uses pre-Landon editions, filled with mistakes and editorial accruals that put down not what Haydn wrote, but what he should have written. Beecham doesn't observe all repeats. Third, this set appeared on the cusp of the stereo era. EMI, worried that stereo would turn out to be a fad, got into the technology late. Hence, the first six symphonies came out in mono and the second six in stereo. The difference doesn't rattle me. Beecham's sheer musicality and the spectacular playing of the Royal Phil's reeds and brasses (especially the trumpets) grandly sweep aside such objections. The very greatest performances of Haydn's symphonies are marked in large part by great solo wind players, which the Phil obviously has. Textures are full but remain clear. Finally, unless one knows the symphonies extremely well, I strongly doubt that Beecham's departures from the true text will be noticed.
The bulk of Pristine's releases are mono. The label specializes in great performances of the past and in applying the latest techniques to "wash the face" of old vinyl. This involves much more than removing crackles and pops. Here, producer Andrew Rose has digitally standardized the variations in tape recording speeds, so that pitch changes between and within movements don't jar. Apparently, he has also reduced the excessive brightness of the EMI sound of the time. Most controversially, I think, he has submitted the mono recordings to a process misleadingly called "Ambient Stereo." To me, the controversy lies exclusively in the term "stereo," rather than in the results. Based on various descriptions I Googled, unlike the notorious "electronic stereo" of the Sixties, there's no attempt to "locate" the instruments left and right. Something else happens. Mono recordings tend to sound flat and compressed forward and back, as well as left and right. Ambient Stereo rounds out the sound, or as another description has it, puts air around it. It's as if it restores the ambience of the venue, so that the sound seems to originate in an actual room rather than from a radio speaker. It's a very subtle effect. I don't listen to historical recordings because I'm so interested in history. I listen to them because I enjoy great music-making. Consequently, I think Ambient Stereo an enhancement, rather than an accretion. Pristine has decided to apply the process to its entire catalogue. More power to them.