Like many of the Somm, 'Beecham Collection' series, this issue is valuable in providing us with two works which, as far as I know, Beecham never recorded commercially; Wagner's 'Rienzi' Overture, and Schubert's 'Great' C major Symphony. And although Beecham recorded Delius's 'In A Summer Garden', this 'live' recording from the 1956 Edinburgh Festival, easily surpasses the commercial recordings, both for its superb playing, especially from the RPO's woodwind section, and the greater expressivity and subtlety of Beecham's conducting. The Rienzi overture is a thouroughly theatrical performance which, although having little of the depth or drama of performances from Klemperer or Toscanini, is hugely enjoyable in its own right. But it is the Schubert symphony ( from a 'live' broadcast from the Festival Hall London in December 1955) that is of particular importance as it represents a major 'classical' symphony and will introduce Beecham's interpretation of for the first time to many listeners. I can well remember being told by people who had heard Beecham conduct the Schubert symphony in concert, that it was a very special experience; that Beecham brought out the 'vastness' of Schubert's last symphonic statement. So I was especially looking forward to hearing this Beecham speciality.
The introduction, with beautifully phrased horn playing, and subtle rubato, promised well. The transition into the main Allegro ma non troppo, was also well managed. But the Allegro itself, although projected with plenty of brio and strenghth, I found to be too thumpy, a little bashed out so to speak. The G major lyrical second subject was well contrasted, with lovely woodwind playing, but by the time we reach the crashing ostinato chords of the development section, Beecham seems to have run out of steam thus depriving the extended coda its sense of climactic release. Also Beecham adds some specious trombone figurations which this movement/symphony does not need, and which sound merely contrived. The A minor Andante again begins very well at a true andante pace, the tutti march-like sforzato interjections arresting and rhtymically charged with power and drama. But later in the movement, before the great A minor climax, the same march-like chords were not completely together, thus reducing the sustained drama of the movement. In fact, and throughout the performance there are many instances of quite untidy ensemble. The A minor climax itself is dramatically convincing with a beautiful transition to the contrasting lyrical A major on celli.
The third movement Allegro vivace Scherzo, with its sharp rhythmic contrasts, I would have thought made for Beecham. But in this performance every thing seems peculiarly understated, sounding more like a rehearsal run-through! There is none of the pulsating rhythmic verve here found in performances from Toscanini and Monteux. The bucolic trio, which really sings and yodels with full throat for Toscanini, sounds distinctly restrained and under-voiced here. Also I found Beecham's habit of ramming final cadences home with a crescendo/sforzato effect mannered; probably very exciting in the 'live' event, but tiresome on repeated hearings.
In the great finale Beecham prioritises dramatic excitement, which must have been effective in the 'live' performance, but now sounds rather shallow and contrived, underplaying much of the darker and 'terrifying'tone which Tovey found in this movement. Klemperer, in particular, was absolutely stoically attuned to this darker aspect. Also, with Beecham, the whole structure of the movement does not cohere as it should, again Klemperer outclasses Beecham here. However, Beechams 'hell for leather' approach attaines a 'white heat' in the coda, which, in itself, is worth hearing, despite, again, much messy ensemble.
Beecham admirers, and there are many of them, will find this issue invaluable, and indeed, as I hope I have made clear, there is much to admire here. But in general, and on the evidence of this performance, Beecham lacks the overal sense of symphonic integrity,so essential to this work, and so popwerfully projected by conductors as diverse as Toscanini, Klemperer, Monteux, van Beinum and more recently Harnoncourt. The mono sound is rather restricted in dynamic range at times , but it shouldn't seriously detract from an appreciation of Beechams conducting skills.