This is a recording of a live concert with Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in two works for which he had a particular affinity. Both of these symphonies contain some of their composer's most lyrical and warm writing. Both are sunny and genial works, and thus right down Beecham's alley. With works as rich as these two, it's impossible for one recording to be definitive, but Beecham's come close and live in august company.
The Beethoven is notable for its light and transparent textures, its loving detail, beautiful phrasing, and abundant energy. One critic referred to this work as Beethoven's "Janus symphony", looking both backward toward Hayden and forward toward the Eroica, and Beecham captures both personalities: the lighter textures and classical outlines of Hayden, and the robust energy and bursting creativity of Beethoven's middle period. It is a balanced, inspired reading, and it deserves to be on any serious music lover's shelf.
In the Brahms, Beecham opts for contrast. Rather than work with the homogeneous sound which most German-oriented conductors use, Beecham emphasizes the contrasts in instrumental color, thematic contours, rhythms and tempi. When I first heard the exposition of the first movement in this recording I thought it disjointed. As I listened more, I realized the wisdom of Beecham's approach. This is, by turns, a lyrical, dramatic, colorful, energetic performance, and all of those qualities describe the symphony itself to a "T". If you've grown up on Klemperer, Karajan, Boehm, Abbado or others like them, listen to this performance for a refreshing change. Like the Beethoven, this is an inspired performance, one to treasure.
The orchestral playing is good. The horn section in the Brahms is more gusty than elegant, but in general the Royal Philharmonic turns in well-executed performances -- not note-perfect, but they are live, after all. The sound is mono, lacks an open top and has a tubby bass, but it's tolerable listening.
Beecham has a mixed reputation these days. He was a tempestuous, irascible person and conductor, and he was prone to changing works around to suit his taste (examples: reorchestrating Handel's Messiah, eliminating whole passages from Schubert's 6th Symphony). He indulges in none of those excesses here. Beecham was a spontaneous performer, and many who heard his concerts and recordings while he was alive noted the improvisatory nature of his work -- in that sense, similar to Furtwangler. He had a notable sensitivity to orchestral color, as evidenced by his many recordings of Fredric Delius, whom he championed. What we have here is Beecham at his considerable best, with all of those elements working together.
Beecham recorded both of these works in the studio toward the end of his life in stereo for EMI. I've owned those LPs for years, and I keep coming back to them. The performances are a bit more restrained but the greatly improved sound more than compensates. Perhaps at some point EMI will see fit to restore these performances to the catalog. I must admit I play my personal CD transfer of those LPs more frequently than I do this CD!
These recordings are very close to being essential for any serious classical music lover. If you had to choose one performance of each of these works, you would not go wrong getting these. They reward with rehearing. Buy this CD before it goes away. You won't regret it.
Update: as of 2009, the studio recording of the Beethoven 2nd is now available on an EMI two-fer with an equally stunning performance of Beethoven's 7th. Sadly, the studio version of the Brahms 2nd, once available in EMI's Studio series, is now out of print, although there are a few used copies available on amazon's marketplace at a reasonable price (under $20). If your primary interest is in the Beethoven, I strongly recommend you get the studio version instead of this one. The performances are substantially similar and the sound is much better.