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Format: Audio CD
Sir Thomas Beecham wasn't a noted Beethovenian - there are numerous Beecham quips denoting his reservations with this or that great work of Beethoven - and although he recorded almost all of Beethoven's Symphonies - 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8, plus the Mass in C and incidental music to The Ruins of Athens - they were one-offs, made for various labels (RCA Victor, Columbia, EMI) and never conceived as a cycle. But he did conduct the Eroica over 50 times in his career, and it was the last Beethoven symphony that he conducted, in Chicago, a year before his death. So it is fortunate that he made a commercial recording of it for Columbia (in two sessions, December 1951 and August 1952) and that Sony brought it back in CD form.
I'd be inclined to think that it is the Scherzo that was recorded in the additional session (or kept from the first one), because that movement is marred by a stronger background noise than the rest. Other than that the transfers are fine and the sonics are great for the vintage - probably much better than what the original LP revealed, judging from the contemporary reviews -, except that the horns (first horn was no less than Dennis Brain) are hardly to barely audible in some of their important solos, like the short statement of the main theme just before the recapitulation in the first movement at 8:29, where it is so distant as to be almost inaudible: sure it is written pp, but this is a bad case of over-reacting. Fortunately it is suitably potent on its return immediately after (written only "dolce") at 8:47. Another such case where the great horn theme does not come out enough and is deprived of its impact is in the "minore" section of the Funeral March, at 8:31, and likewise the glorious theme played by the three horns in the Finale at 6:08 shortly before the "poco andante" section.
The liner notes mention a favorable comment in the 1955 Record Guide's of Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, but they are very selective. Those early years of the LP were a crowded field for the Eroica: came out in short succession Toscanini's in the early months of 1950, Erich Kleiber's first version with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in 1951, two versions by Hermann Scherchen (in 1951 for Ultraphon and 1953 for Westminter - one more would come in 1958), Karajan's first version with the Philharmonia in 1952, Horenstein on Vox in 1952, Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic (recorded in November '52) and van Kempen with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1953, Leinsdorf with the unassuming Rochester Philharmonic (a version that attracted outstanding reviews), Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic dubbed "New York Stadium Orchestra", Jochum in Berlin in 1954, Reiner in 1954, Klemperer's first version in 1955. Among these, Beecham didn't make much of a splash, the reviews (including two in the Gramophone, by Harold C. Schoenberg in his "Letter from America" column and by Malcolm MacDonald) were unwelcoming - critics hit particularly hard on his Scherzo - and the recording soon disappeared from the catalogs.
The review by Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review of September 26, 1953 is significant: "the facts speak for themselves: everything about the work is trimmed down, reduced, rounded off, and carefully joined. Abandon, intensity, recklessness are absent--and so is the true measure of Beethoven, for my taste."
But in those years, Beethoven was Toscanini - especially in America, but not only: the Gramophone's Malcolm MacDonald lauded Toscanini's "fire and brimstone" and could say of Furtwängler's recording that it was "disfigured by extremely eccentric tempos". Now that we are less intent on finding the elusive "best" version - there have been so many of those in the course of the years - and possibly more partial to a performer's idiosyncrasies, which we find the mark of his "interpretive personality", it is good time to reassess Beecham's version.
Certainly his tempos are on the slow side, but only in the Scherzo and in the "poco andante" section of the Finale does he cross the threshold of extreme. His first movement is rather expansive but not to a Furtwänglerian or Klempererian or Barbirollian degree - it is the same as Walter's with New York in 1941, or Szell's in 1957 - but any impression of trudging that may have arisen is offset by the Toscanini-biting accents, and Beecham, while not generating the same visceral excitement as Toscanini, offered here a valid alternative to those who might have found too much fire and brimstone in Toscanini's breathless drive. The Funeral March is again taken at a moderate but not extreme tempo (and Toscanini, in his earlier, 1939 RCA recording, was, contrary to reputation, even more expansive), making it sound more like a despondent funeral lament than a true march, but its expression is suitably vehement and dramatic.
Tempo in the Scherzo is now at the extreme end of slow - slower than Furtwängler's contemporary account in Vienna, slower than Klemperer's two versions - and the allure is genial rather than bubbling, but Beecham keeps articulation commendably crisp and develops great power in the fortissimos. The strings enter the Finale with dignified stateliness, but the unhurried statement of the Eroica theme and the ensuing variations have a fine, debonair character. But, after the first climax, Beecham again crosses the threshold of "extreme" in the "poco andante" section at 7:00: he takes the section, up to the coda, in 5:14, compared to Furtwängler's 4:08 and Klemperer's 4:24 (in 1955) and 4:46 (in 1959), and is the slowest I've heard until Barbirolli (5:25) - but then Barbirolli was consistently slow (see my review of Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 - Eroica). Reactions may differ - and have: Kolodin hated it ("as for the finale, the exaggeratedly slow pace for the poco andante throttles the effect that might have emerged from the previous variations"), MacDonald loved it ("the finale, however, is exceedingly effective - the andante section is taken rather more deliberately than usual, and gains thereby: the end of the whole symphony falls finely into place"). I like it: it makes the music sound like a slow and wistful dance, and the slow tempo brings a stately majesty to the great brass theme at 9:11. Beecham's tempo for that section also makes sense in view of his energetic and animated coda, making it sound something like the sun triumphantly bursting through the gloomy clouds as in "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage", Beethoven's Cantata on two poems of Goethe.
Whatever you think of Beecham's Eroica, you can't deny that it is an Eroica with a personality, and it is topped off by a powerful and raging Coriolan Overture, recorded in December 1953, for a TT of 57:49.
Here are the links of Beecham's other studio Beethoven recordings:
The Columbia recording of the 2nd Symphony with the London Philharmonic from the mid-30s (there was an even earlier one with the London Symphony): Sir Thomas Beecham Conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis & Symphony No. 2
The other early Columbia recordings: Beethoven: Symphones Nos. 6 & 8
The EMI Recordings: Symphonies 2 & 7 / Mass in C
Sir Thomas Beecham. Schubert Symphony 8 / Mendelssohn Symphony 4 / Beethoven Symphony 8 (EMI)