SIR THOMAS BEECHAM: AMERICAN COLUMBIA RECORDINGS 1942-1952
Works by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Rossini, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicolai, and Ponchielli
New York Philharmonic/Columbia Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestras/Sir Thomas Beecham, cond.
Sony Masterwork Heritage MH2K 63366 (2 CDs) (ADD) TT: 76:37 & 70:26
(Note:  This album has been discontinued)

Heir to a laxative fortune and a British barony, Beecham (1879-1961) bought himself a legend. Wanting to be a conductor, he learned his craft on the job by founding and financing a series of orchestras from 1909 on, three of them based in London. He recorded for half-a-century in England, Germany, France and the U.S. -- altogether some 500 performances. Light music attracted him from the beginning, what he called "Lollipops," and he prepared it painstakingly, then performed it with gusto.
One such -- Otto Nicolai's overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor -- is the best thing in this collection recorded by American Columbia. Beecham was unhappy with much of it, and tried to prevent publication of the Sibelius Seventh and Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphonies, both with the New York Philharmonic. Those were recorded in dull, dry-sounding Liederkranz Hall (rather than Carnegie) on two days in mid-June 1942, along with the "Melisande" movement from Sibelius' incidental music to Pelléas, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, and the concert suite from Rimsky's Le coq d'or.

Beecham managed to embargo the Cockerel (until now), and should have done so with the Capriccio, shaky, sloppy playing spoiled the entire opening section. At least, though, he was able to remedy that situation in December 1949 with the eponymous Columbia Symphony, recorded in the 30th Street Studios. Two days of sessions before and after Christmas also produced excepts from the Carmen Suites that Ernest Guiraud confected after Bizet's death; the "Dance of the Hours" from Ponchielli's La gioconda, charmingly elegant alongside Toscanini's iron-fisted versions), and the Nicolai overture. Beecham recorded one more time stateside, Rossini's Semiramide Overture, plus some Lord Berners music (not on these CDs) at Philadelphia, in February 1952, in the Academy of Music, whose acoustic anomalies Columbia could not turn to advantage as RCA Victor and Bell Laboratories had been able to do.  Small matter; it was not one of Beecham's more enkindling performances, despite the orchestra. Nor is much else vivid in this collection. Sibelius he remade far better at home later on, and the "Italian" likewise, although few if any have phrased the opening of the third movement with such instinctive grace. The unpredictable NYPSO responded beautifully, just as the Columbia S-O played Rimsky with panache. Lacking a score in hand, I don't know why Beecham boycotted it. But then he was unhappy in America where he sat out World War II (this his countrymen never quite forgave) by raising hell as music director in Seattle. He lectured audiences chronically -- until Suzanne Huston (later Ettelson) reviewed his concerts in the Post-Intelligencer by quoting in full the previous evening's abuse. Years later a Seattle matron, visiting New York, found herself in the same elevator car with Beecham. After he asked "How is Seattle, Madame?" and she answered "It hasn't changed much since you left," Beecham declaimed to all within earshot, "You know, they crucified me there!"

R.D. (Sept. 1999)