MOZART Symphony No. 40 in g. Symphony No. 41 in C, "Jupiter". Bassoon Concerto in B-flat. The Marriage of Figaro -- Overture*. ACOUSTIC/MONO/STEREO.
Gwydion Brooke (bassoon; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Beecham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham.
Pristine Audio PASC415 TT: 75:26.

Beecham's Mozart won't be everybody's. Once again, Pristine Audio has gone into the recorded archives to extract classic recordings and clean them up with modern digital technology. I've questioned some of their choices of late, but I'm ignorant. These performances come from 1912 (Marriage of Figaro Overture), 1950 (Symphony No. 41), 1954 (Symphony No. 40), and 1958 (Bassoon Concerto).

No question that Beecham was a great conductor, but he was also willful and eccentric, not so much in his actual music-making, but in what he chose to perform. He inherited a large fortune from the family patent-medicine company ("Beecham's Pills," a laxative invented by his grandfather), big enough so that he could afford to fund his own orchestras and opera companies, and he didn't have to answer to the programming demands of a board or even the general public. He could afford to indulge his own taste.

Trained as a composer in France (he taught himself conducting), Beecham had an aversion to the "heavy" Germans, although he excelled in Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and (when he chose to do them) Wagner and Strauss operas. He had a French sensibility -- an attraction to grace, wit, springy rhythms, and sensuous color. He could also make an orchestra sing. In opera, he preferred Bizet and Offenbach to Wagner.

Perversely, I'll begin with the last track, a curiosity, Beecham's first recording of a Mozart work, the Marriage of Figaro overture. The reasons for including it are, as far as I can tell, all historical rather than aesthetic. From the acoustic era, it sounds -- to be frank -- terrible, so terrible that not even Pristine's wizardry can save it. It races like the wind, probably because of the technology's time limitations. It comes in at just under three-and-a-half minutes, whereas Beecham usually took about four. Furthermore, the number of musicians that could crowd around the giant recording horn was certainly less than even an "historically informed" Mozart performance of the work today. It's terribly unfair to Beecham. The ensemble sounds like a mess, although how you could actually tell from the crackle, deadness, and extreme compression of the sound I have no idea. If you want to give Beecham a fair shot, listen to Warner's Beecham box The Classical Tradition.
The rest of the program should have been faultless. Unfortunately, Beecham -- for some unknown reason -- cuts the exposition repeat in the Symphony No. 40. Mozart sets this symphony in g minor, a key he often uses to express tragic emotion (see, for instance, his string quintet, K. 516). I consider such cuts on a case-by-case basis. In other words, sometimes I don't mind. Here, Beecham's cut and a generally too-light approach robs the first movement of its gravitas. I compared this performance to Szell's in the big Szell box. Szell gave me what I missed in Beecham. However, the slow movement sings gorgeously, the minuet swaggers, and the finale, appropriately, blows away the clouds, almost like one of Mozart's comic overtures. Why, oh why, did Beecham have to take that first-movement cut?

The "Jupiter" puts things back on track. I like Beecham's avoidance of emotional inflation in the first movement. In the second movement, he shows us the connection between Mozart's slow movements and his pensive opera arias. Beecham gets his players to deliver such cantabile that you can fool yourself into hearing a soprano with them. For me, this movement stands out among the rest of the tracks on the entire disc. The third-movement minuet may proceed a bit too leisurely for my taste, but again the cantabile line amazes. Beecham goes for grace rather than bustle. The finale fizzes with high spirits, despite rhythmic looseness in the fast runs. More importantly, Beecham reminds you that this music is pleasure and fun.

The Bassoon Concerto belongs to Mozart's minor works. He wrote it in 1774, during his early maturity. Beecham loved this sort of music -- an unpretentious, good-humored, well-made score that he could make sound better than it actually was. Gwydion Brooke -- principal bassoonist of Beecham's Royal Philharmonic and part of a legendary set of first-desk winds that included Gerald Jackson (flute), Terence MacDonagh (oboe), and Jack Brymer (clarinet) -- I regard as one of the finest, most musical players I've ever heard. Certainly, he contributes as much to the performance as Beecham and the rest of the orchestra do. However, nobody sloughs over anything, each phrase superbly judged and sung. One hears the often-lauded virtues of Mozart's music here -- poise, elegance, and even heart. If you want to know great Mozart playing, grab this disc.

S.G.S. (April 2022)