berlioz symphonie beecham warner

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2003 and the recording is still available.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, op.14 (1830)
Le Corsaire Overture, op. 21
Les Troyens: Marche troyenne
Chasse royale et orage
Beecham Choral Society
French National Radio Orchestra (symphonie), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1957-59
Originally reviewed as EMI 5679712
Warner Classics 5679712 [75]

Sir Thomas Beecham was ever a man of surprises, and one of his paradoxes was that, while he would raise the roof with rip-roaring performances of lesser fare, he could take a coolly classical view of certain pieces which ostensibly cry out for Technicolor treatment. One such was Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, a more elegantly cultivated version of which (nor a more musical one) has yet to be heard. Another such was Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique”, which he recorded only late in life, when he embarked on a programme of recordings with the French National Radio Orchestra, whose timbres and style of playing he found uniquely suited to this work. A mono recording was made in 1957, followed by the present stereo remake two years later. Here is no playing to the gallery, only steady musicianship and an acute realisation of the composer’s original sound-world; neither the powerful climaxes nor the withdrawn poetry of the “Scène aux champs” are allowed to draw attention to themselves. At times I felt I would have liked a little more sheer thrill, having settled down late at night with expectations of being knocked for six. There were those who felt the same way back in 1959, regretting that the volatility of the 1957 version had not been recaptured – the “Scène aux champs” alone was longer by three minutes in the remake.

Such an approach suggests a comparison with Klemperer which does not always produce the expected results. The introduction finds Beecham “settling in”, with occasional backwards and forwards spurts of tempo that segment the music. Klemperer’s steady unfolding is profoundly impressive. Thus far the tempi are virtually identical, but then Klemperer continues to hold back as the Allegro starts and risks sounding merely doleful. Beecham gets up a full head of steam and forges ahead (but he omits the repeat), though without ever letting things get out of hand; he still has his trump card in reserve for the biggest climax. It is true that Klemperer does gradually build up, but holding back as he does in order to place the later climaxes should not be taken so far as to alienate the listener.

In the Valse Beecham is steady and serious, almost cynically refusing the sort of grace he would have lavished on ostensibly similar ballet music by Gounod or Tchaikovsky. He lets his basses plod away rather lumpishly while Klemperer is a model of grace and lightness. I know it ought to be the other way round, but I can only report what I hear!

Both conductors unfold the “Scène aux champs” at a similarly timeless pace; the difference lies maybe with Beecham’s exploitation of the very French sound of the orchestra. Klemperer has a lighter bass-line (but beware; I’m comparing the Klemperer in an LP pressing and the CD transfer may tell a different tale) which results in a more “contained”, classical sound.

Beecham is not quite steady in his tempi in the “Marche aux supplice”, beginning slower then Klemperer (with impressively menacing effect) and then moving forward in the brassier moments. The smooth sound of Klemperer’s Philharmonia brass has not the character of the French playing but Klemperer’s straight-down-the-line approach is massively effective in its way.

Beecham is more phantasmagorical in the “Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat”, where Klemperer, at a slower pace, seems to want to invest the music with Brechtian irony. We are reminded that not so many years before he had led an outrageously tongue-in-cheek performance of Shostakovich 9 (never repeated in the studios but the Turin performance survives in all its orchestral fallibility).

The Beecham is certainly one of the classic performances of this symphony, though I hope the 1957 mono version is not to be shelved for all time. The recording is still extremely impressive. The RPO bonuses have all the fire and poetry we expect, though I have always felt this Corsaire to have been surpassed in sheer pizzazz by the roughly contemporary Boult and wonder if one of Beecham’s earlier versions of the piece might not have been a better choice.

Christopher Howell

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Recording details
30 November, 1 & 2 December 1959, Salle Wagram, Paris (symphonie), 7 November 1958 (overture), 19 November 1959 (Marche), 23 March 1957 (Chasse), No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London