MOZART: Requiem in d, K626 (rev. Beecham). SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D485.
Elsie Morison (soprano); Monica Sinclair (contralto); Alexander Young (tenor); Marian Nowakowski (bass); BBC Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham.
Pristine Audio MONO PACO 076 TT: 77:52.|

Lovely Requiem. Magical Schubert. Although he looked like the perfect British gent, perhaps slightly rakish, Beecham actually attracted and even sought controversy, mainly through his sharp witticisms ("The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes" and "I would give the whole of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet's Manon, and would think I had vastly profited by the exchange"), but also often in his performances. His Technicolor Messiah not only daubed Handel in Berlioz colors, but it was also the first recording to attempt to include all the numbers, many of which had fallen out of use in "traditional" performances. Like many of his generation, he routinely fiddled with a composer's instrumentation and score, brightening colors and omitting the "dull parts."

Beecham regarded Mozart as the supreme composer, and critics of the time tended to look on the conductor as the supreme Mozartean -- at least he was strongly in the running with vibrant, effervescent accounts. Yet even here, he tweaked. Of course, the Requiem presents itself as a prime candidate for such treatment, since the composer died about halfway through, leaving his sketches and instructions to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a composer -- to put it kindly -- simply not in Mozart's league. Beecham stands in a crowd of revisers and editors, all of whom intend the best but, curiously enough, fail to satisfy as much as poor old Süssmayr, who, for all his clunkiness, remains the only one actually to have consulted Mozart himself.

Almost no reviser can leave the "Tuba mirum" section alone. Beecham most obviously altered the score here by bringing in the trombone section rather than a solo trombone for the opening and replacing the solo trombone obbligato with a solo cello. One can find other places as well. I miss the trombone, but I do admit the musicality of Beecham's recourse. At least his emendations don't extend to changing the basic voices of the piece or swapping out measures for essentially pastiche material, as others have done.

Overall, this performance moves with passion and grace. The "Requiem aeternam" proceeds more quickly than many would be used to, but Beecham builds a beautiful dynamic arch. The double-fugue "Kyrie" -- Mozart probably got the basic theme from the Handel Messiah's "And with His stripes" -- is not only clear, but exciting. The "Dies irae" receives the best performance I've heard, truly apocalyptic. Again, Beecham takes the "Lacrimosa" at a pace faster than lugubrious, the concern being to avoid getting mired. The choir does particularly well here, distinguishing Mozart's deliberate addition of rests in the middle of the choral lines while retaining forward momentum. Troubled winds blow through the "Agnus Dei," and Beecham superbly shepherds his forces through to the radiant "Lux aeterna." I don't have a favorite Mozart Requiem recording, since all seem flawed to a greater or lesser extent. However, in general, one must consider this among the finest accounts currently available, certainly one of the most poetic.

Speaking of the choir, the BBC Chorus does well for a large group. Although diction isn't all it should be, they sound very good. For some strange reason, they cannot project a hard "k" sound, usually trouble-free. The soloists are mostly legends of British and Australian singing: Elsie Morison, a sweet soprano with plenty of projection, ideal in Mozart; Monica Sinclair, an all-rounder contralto equally at home in Mozart, Wagner, comic operetta, and Stravinsky; Alexander Young, a lyric tenor outstanding in oratorio. They'll melt your heart in the "Recordare." Bass Marian Nowakowski, the joker in the pack, can't get rid of the sludge and woof in his voice. His singing sounds like extrusion. That may be very well for Verdi or Wagner, but not Mozart. You need a cantando bass.

Based on the contemporary reviews of the LP (recorded in 1954 and 1956), I gather that the big complaint was the chorus and its balance, not only with itself (too prominent sopranos and tenors) but covered by the orchestra. I can say that Pristine has successfully resolved both problems.

The Schubert opens with Beecham and the Royal Phil at full warmth; in fact, the performance delights from start to finish. For some reason, we get lots of recordings of the "Unfinished" and the "Great C major" and few of their predecessors. Schubert fell hard for Mozart at this time, and the symphony shows it. Nevertheless, it's tough to do Mozart at Mozart's level, and Schubert succeeds. Furthermore, despite the taps into the Mozartean lyrical stream, something of what we recognize as Schubert stubbornly comes through -- a kind of lyrical yearning, especially in the slow second movement, often expressed in unusual modulations to distant keys, transitions that nevertheless sound perfectly natural. The following minuet shares more with Beethoven scherzos than the classical minuet. Proto-Romantic elements push themselves to notice: expressive accents, chord progressions, and extreme changes of mood. Beecham is especially good here at emphasizing Romantic pastoral elements, and the entire movement goes along with a bounce. The finale begins with Haydnesque wit and ends in animal spirits.

Pristine's Andrew Rose who remastered the recordings remarks that the later Schubert pressings (recorded 1958 and 1959) were in better shape than the Mozart to begin with. At any rate, they now have a sonic clarity, without the static of LPs and without brittleness.

S.G.S. (January 2013)