These live mono recordings from the BBC Legends series suffer from hiss and a noisy audience, but the performances are riveting enough to make us forget any technical shortcomings. Sir Thomas Beecham delves into the heart of these two dissimilar masterpieces with fire. He's brisk, almost rushed at times, but his commitment is so commanding that the audience must have had a difficult time remaining seated.
The Sibelius 2nd has unlimited potential for heroism, with conductors like Karajan choosing to steep it in unabashed grandeur. Beecham certainly goes for fireworks, but unlike Karajan he doesn't do so by slowing the tempo and making each note ring with authority. Instead, he chooses a near-breakneck speed that threatens to push the BBC Symphony off the cliff. They never quite fall off, though, which is what makes it so electric. It's smoke, not mist that emerges from Finland's mountain peaks. Does he overdo it, then? Modern ears may think so, but I can't imagine walking away from this performance without being moved. For all his passion, Beecham is always down-to-earth, and amid his frenzies, we notice smiles. If you don't mind eccentric characters and dated sound, you'll be floored.
When we move to the Dvorak 8th, Beecham is still inspired, maintaining the same unique character that is at once fiery and sunny. The music is allowed to push and pull, with Beecham making no effort to morph into a classicist. I don't mind, loving his unabashed lack of sophistication. He moves along with determination but there's no dogmatism. Warm, romantic sounds pour from Beecham's own Royal Philharmonic. A previous reviewer stated that this reading is as "un-Czech" as you could want it. I agree overall, but Beecham is folksy and fun, keeping with the Czech spirit, even though his outworking is completely out of the ordinary. What makes him "un-Czech" is his British mischievousness that takes delight in flirting with vulgarity on occasion. It's an understatement to call this an unconventional reading, but if you're like me, that's the whole attraction.
These are two great readings witnessing a great talent in full swing. Expect the unusual, but also expect the exceptional.