Beecham Sibelius Birthday C

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 4

All of the performances on this disc except the Seventh Symphony come from Sir Thomas Beecham’s marathon 90th birthday tribute to Sibelius on December 8, 1955. Judging from the quality of the music making (preserved in perfectly clear mono), and notwithstanding the bronchial contributions of many members of the audience, it must have been one hell of an occasion. In the marvelous accompanying talk included with the recordings as a bonus, Beecham discusses his love of Sibelius’ smaller works, the incidental music in particular, where he discerns a more “human” side to the composer. His program was ideally chosen to make exactly this point, contrasting the Romantic warmth of Swanwhite and Pelléas et Mélisande with two of Sibelius’ most forbidding pieces: the Fourth Symphony and Tapiola.

It’s probably safe to say that Beecham’s way with these shorter works may have been equaled subsequently, but it hasn’t been surpassed. He plays this music with such love, care, and sheer character, that its greatness becomes a non-issue. Even the occasional eccentric tempo, such as the very slow “Entr’acte” from Pélleas, comes off as wholly convincing. In the two symphonies and Tapiola, Beecham is no less assured. His flowing tempos in the Fourth Symphony’s outer movements may raise a few eyebrows today, but the momentum he generates in this most forbidding of symphonies is simply irresistible. He’s helped by some very enthusiastic playing from the Royal Philharmonic wind section. The pastoral episode at the heart of the Seventh Symphony (recorded a year earlier) comes across with near ideal clarity, notwithstanding any limitations in the original sound source. Tapiola, in particular, offers a veritable clinic in How It’s Possible to Play Sibelius Without Sacrificing Momentum for Atmosphere. At a bit more than 17 minutes, Beecham simply plays the whole work in one huge, implacable span. You won’t hear it better done.

In addition to the radio talk and the British and Finnish national anthems, Beecham also addresses the audience and encourages them to give a shout of congratulations to the 90-year-old composer, who was presumably listening to the broadcast of the concert, and he includes as an encore the “Dance of the Nymphs” from Sibelius’ music to The Tempest. Given Beecham’s own advanced age at the time of these concerts, their generosity of spirit and enthusiasm are little short of astounding. Music lovers are besieged today by historical recordings that are little more than that: historical. Here’s one that’s also an artistic document of real value. No Sibelian should miss it.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonies: Vänskä/Lahti Sym. (BIS), Davis/Boston Sym. (Philips), Berglund/COE (Finlandia)

JEAN SIBELIUS - Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7; Swanwhite; Pélleas et Mélisande; Tapiola; "Dance of the Nymphs" (from The Tempest)


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