SIBELIUS:  Swanwhite, Op. 54.  Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63.  PellČas et MČlisande, Op. 46.  Tapiola, Op. 112.  Dance of the Nymphs.  Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105.
Royal Philharmonic Orch/Sir Thomas Beecham, cond.

BBC LEGENDS BBCL  4041 (M) (2 CDs) (mono)  (ADD)  TT:  70:29 & 68:26 

With the exception of the Seventh Symphony and Sir Thomas' spoken tribute to Sibelius, everything else on these two well-filled monodiscs from the BBC archives was recorded at a Royal Festival Hall concert on December 8, 1955, honoring the composer's 90th birthday. The Seventh was performed and broadcast a year earlier—on September 16, 1954—from the Royal Albert Hall.  Beecham taped his remarks two weeks in advance of the December 8 broadcast.

Before the birthday concert, though, he recorded most of the PellČas Suite in stereo on November 19 and 25 in EMI ‘s Abbey Road Studio 1, and added the Seventh symphony on the 21st and 25th. Following the concert, he recorded the rest of PellČas, Tapiola and The Oceanides in four sessions during a five-day period, December 15-19. In 1990 these were digitally remastered and issued by EMI on CD 63400— currently n/l/a but mightily deserving of a budget-price reissue, especially since the studio performances and recordings are one and all superior to the BBC broadcasts.

Overall timing differences between the studio disc and the broadcast are small, yet the concert performance of"At the Gate"—the PellČas first movement—sounds bloated, in spite of being 20 seconds faster (3' 06" vs. 3'26"). It should be noted that Beecham always deleted the third movement ("At the Seashore"), as well as the fifth movement ("The Prince Alone") from the Swanwhite Suite, from incidental music to Strindberg's play Svanvit, which I don't recall Sir Thomas having recorded commercially. The original theater score can be heard on a BIS recording by Osmo V”nska and the Lahti Orchestra that the Musical Heritage Society has leased, but truth to tell the concert suite is lovelier (and a bit longer!). Beecham gave an affectionate performance, but Paavo Berglund's in an EMI budget box of his Bournmeouth recordings (minus the symphonies) and Jussi Jalas' with the Hungarian State Orchestra in a collection on London are as keenly felt, and perhaps more idiomatic.

In any case, Swanwhite and the Fourth Symphony were off Beecham's beaten path, although he made the first recording ever of the symphony in 1937 for HMV's missionary Sibelius Society. It can be found on a Koch Legacy CD, remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, along with En Saga, Lemmink”inen's Return (No. 4 of the Op. 22 Legends), The Bard, In Memoriam, and Valse triste—all from 1937-39. His reading of the Fourth underwent the most extensive changes in the 18-year interval. The first and third movements were shorter in 1955; the second and fourth longer— but neither performance chills me the way others have, beginning with Artur Rodzinski's with the NYPSO in 1947 for American Columbia (Sony owes us a reissue of that). Fritz Reiner, although no fan of Sibelius, coupled it with the Fifth Symphony and Finlandia on a memorial program with the Chicago Symphony in the autumn of 1957, and gutted his audience emotionally (I went back the next afternoon and found it just as expressively gaunt but also sonically ripe). It is Sibelius' blackest work in the darkest of keys, A minor—relieved only by a four-minute scherzo (4'20" at Beecham's 1955 birthday concert) that begins in F major but has darkened by the end. Beecham opted for a bright-sounding glockenspiel in the last movement, whereas Rodzinski, Stokowski and Ormandy used tubular bells. In all versions of the score, Sibelius' "glocken" (with a period) has engendered an ongoing debate for more than six decades, but it seems to me that Reiner and George Szell got it exactly right. They began with the glockenspiel, added tubular bells the second time around, and the last time had just the bleak sound of bells.

What else? Beecham's affectionate remarks of November 24, 1955, are obviously read rather than extempore—and his performances of the two national anthems, Great Britain's and Suomi's (which is not Finlandia), are uncommonly po'faced, arguably stodgy. The BBC's Y2K technical staff has come up with a simulacrum of  "the Beecham sound," even managing to make the Royal Festival Hall sound inviting despite acoustic dessication during the first decade. I'm not sure who outside of Britain will find this "BBC Legends" issue more attractive than studio versions of all this repertory, but it never is boring or matter-of-fact, except in "God Save the Queen." Beecham was devoted to the music of Sibelius—responsible for the composer's immense popularity in the UK some have said—but he was a more inspiring exponent of his friend Delius (whose music he also edited, along with Handel's), and Richard Strauss, whom he conducted come scritto. .

R.D. (Aug. 2000)