TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 31 January 2008
Away with revisionist deviationism, say I. For most of my life Beecham's has been regarded as the Boheme to end all Bohemes, and I maintain resolutely that it still is that, for all the advances in recording techniques since 1956. The digital remastering dates from as recently as 2002, but Beecham used to obtain very good technical quality of sound for his day, and for the usual reason that he demanded it and there was no use in arguing. I also offer the following consideration as regards sound-quality - when it is a matter of large forces, say a symphony orchestra let alone the battalions necessary for grand opera, the nature of the sound that can be offered to us in our sitting-rooms simply cannot resemble other than distantly their real sound in the concert hall or opera house. The effect resides to some extent on power of suggestion over the listener's ear, and although I routinely welcome every extra ounce of sound-quality that I can get, in the last resort once a certain level of quality and realism has been attained anything over and above that is secondary so far as I am concerned.
In fact I thought that this set started very promisingly in the matter of `real presence'. The sound is quite forward and it `socked it to me' quite effectively. However as matters advanced the general impact (in the technical sense) seemed to recede somewhat. I believe that this is due in part to the style of the performance. I never heard a more beautiful or affecting Che gelida manina than I do here, but I have certainly heard many that were more vigorous. I believe, simply, that Beecham and Bjorling have decided to ration the quota of `can belto' in their presentation, and it is let loose principally in duets and ensembles. This in turn, I'm inclined to think, is of a piece with the policy on tempi, which have drawn comment for being on the slow side. By way of a comparison in that respect I replayed my old Toscanini LP set, and the difference is admittedly marked, with Beecham taking 107 minutes and Toscanini, renowned and to some extent properly renowned for fast tempi, clocking out after barely 95. Without going through more exhaustive comparisons I suppose I can take Toscanini as representing the opposite extreme, which leaves me wondering how significant the issue of tempi can really be. At any speed this is a distinctly short 4-act opera, and I hope that anxiety regarding the extra 12 minutes is not a matter of the pace of modern life and fitting in La Boheme between other commitments, much as Sir Malcolm Sargent was suspected of speeding up symphonic finales in the interests of finishing before the 9 O'Clock News.
Myself, I could take any amount of musicianship like this. The performance came about at all through the alertness of a musical agent who spotted that Beecham, de los Angeles and Bjorling were all simultaneously in New York, and with awesome efficiency an orchestra and chorus together with a supporting cast were conjured up. It would have been worth hearing this Boheme for the sake of Merrill, Corena and above all Tozzi alone, as anyone ought to concur who has heard Tozzi's colossal `For He is like a refiner's fire' in Beecham's Messiah. However what most of us want it for above all is of course that sublime trinity. De los Angeles had possibly the loveliest soprano voice of her generation, and Bjorling, whose voice will bear comparison with any later tenor I can think of, even Pavarotti, did not live long enough to leave us the legacy we would have wanted. When I say, not for the only time, that I think Beecham the greatest conductor of the 20th century what I mean is this. His work has about it a peculiar sense of God-given grace (Beecham was of course an unbeliever), an aura of pure and abstract music, that is irrespective of the `weight' of the compositions he handles. He did not turn out complete Beethoven cycles (largely because he did not greatly like Beethoven) but he cast that special radiance on music of all kinds, finding and even sometimes implanting a shining particle at the core of works that had seemed base metal in other hands. At the very pinnacle of musical creation, this is the characteristic with which Mozart invests both his most obviously awesome inspirations and his seemingly lightest pieces.
I am in no hurry to get to the end of La Boheme, but there is another aspect to the matter too. The libretto is witty and the self-mocking banter of the penniless artists in their Parisian garret requires a certain kind of sophistication in the way it is sung and acted. When I ask myself Which conductor is most in tune with this kind of idiom, I reflect that greatly as I revere, say, Fuertwaengler I can hardly envisage him in this context, and indeed for this question to be answered it only has to be asked. I could point also to Beecham's handling of Puccini's orchestration, which he admired to the extent of rating it more highly than Strauss's, suggesting as I do so that you will hear good enough sound-reproduction in this set to appreciate what it is that differentiates Beecham from, say, Karajan, and which is far more important than any niceties of digital recording.
I have never yet wept at La Boheme, because to me it is not art imitating life but just Italian opera being itself. The gale of life blows high among this community of impoverished creators, but clearly they need youth on their side to sustain such a precarious existence, while in the meantime l'haleine de la mort (in Maeterlinck's chilling phrase) is there to envelop the weakest of them, catching the rest by surprise. Vita brevis, ars longa, and this is a recording for the ages.