You've heard me ask this before, I'm sure, but it bears repeating: Who would you rather have conducting French orchestral music more than Sir Thomas Beecham? I can think of no one. Whether it's Bizet or Berlioz or Franck or Debussy or Delibes or Faure or Saint-Saens or Massenet or Chabrier or whomever, Sir Thomas's name stands out a leading contender for best conductor of French music. Not that he didn't do well conducting other music, especially English pastoral music, but he seemed to have a special affinity for French music. The Bizet Symphony in C and L'Arlesienne album under review is a good example: Recorded in 1956 and 1959 by EMI, remastered by EMI in 2000 for their "Great Recordings of the Century" series, and rereleased by Warner Classics in 2015, it remains the one to beat in this repertoire.
Anyway, the Symphony in C is a composition French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) wrote as a student exercise at the age of seventeen. It's a remarkable work for any age, but doubly so given the composer's youth. What's more, it's held up well, considering that Bizet thought so little of it that he filed it away and forgot about it. It lay undiscovered in the Paris Conservatoire archives for some eighty years until Bizet biographer D.C. Parker found it, the work receiving its première in 1935.
Over the years there have been any number of fine recordings made of the Symphony in C, ones from the stereo era including those of Marriner and the Academy (Decca), Bernstein and the NYPO (Sony), Ansermet and the Suisse Romande O. (Decca), Barenboim and the Paris Orchestra (EMI), Plasson and the Toulouse Orchestra (EMI), Pretre and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hanssler Classics), West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (Reference Recordings), among others. But, as I said before, none of them have really topped the performance of Sir Thomas Beecham and the French National Radio Orchestra.
Beecham's performance possesses all the drive, energy, dazzling radiance, and youthful charm (though the conductor was nearing the end of his life when he recorded it) one could possibly want from this symphony. There is never a lag or a lull in the music, yet Beecham never overdrives it, either; it simply sounds "right" at all times. Thus, an Allegro vivo really does exhibit a brisk, lively manner, with more than a hint of impish enthusiasm added. The Adagio moves at a comfortable, leisurely, rhythmic, but not at all sluggish pace. The scherzo is elegant as well as energetic; and the finale is as playful and exciting as any you'll hear.
|Sir Thomas Beecham|
As with the Symphony in C, no one in my experience has conducted the L'Arlesienne music any better than Sir Thomas. He dispatches every movement of these two suites with characteristic humor, refinement, and swagger, as the situation demands. And the orchestra plays with an assured air of authority, as though they knew that no one would ever match them in these performances. No one ever has, really.
Producers Victor Olof and Lawrence Collingwood and engineers Paul Vavasseur and Douglas Larter recorded the music at Salle Wagram, Paris, 1959 (Symphony) and Abbey Road Studio No. 2, London, 1956 (L'Arlesienne). You'd never know it. The clarity and cleanness of the recordings continue to sound impressive.
In the Symphony, the sound displays good detail, a natural room resonance, a smooth overall response, and decent orchestral depth. You would not think this a sixty-odd-year recording, particularly as the remastering engineers have so well removed any background noise from the master tape. In the L'Arlesienne suites, recorded a few years earlier in London, the sound is very similar to the later production. It's realistically warm, with a pleasant ambient glow, if maybe a touch rougher, less wide, and less clear. Still, early stereo or not, it holds up about as well as most of today's recordings.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: