Sunday, January 13, 2013


Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of lollipops - not the colourful sweet you find on the end of a stick that delights young and (frequently) old but the often colourful and sometimes sweet pieces of music that he could conduct to delight his audience. Though he introduced Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra to London and championed the music of Delius, Sibelius and Berlioz he had his lighter side.  He was famous for including slight pieces as encores or often in suites he had arranged himself as part of his regular programming. 

His recording career began in 1910 and his first recordings were music from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus - not exactly the heavyweights that were to follow in his discography.   Fortunately along with his many recordings of the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss and Delius he included many of his (and his audiences) favourite "lollipops".   One of my treasured Beecham discs is a compilation of "French Favourites" he made between 1939 and 1957 with his London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and with the Orchestre National de l"ORTF.  

In an 1956 session with the RPO he recorded a suite of ballet music from André Grétry's Zémire et Azor.   The "Pantomime" based on the 1st Air de Ballet from this enchanting "comédie-ballet mêlée de chants et danses" was a great favourite, both as part of the suite and as an encore "lollipop".  In a relay from the 1956 Edinburgh Festival, during a performance of the Suite the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of the "Pantomime" and radio listeners were startled to hear Beecham's voice break in: Ladies and Gentlemen, I deeply regret to say that we have not yet come to the end of this piece...."  The response was a doubling of the applause and an uproar of laughter from audience and musicians.

Beecham held Grétry's music in high regard and said that he found in it "a lightness, a grace and a melodic invention surpassed only by Mozart".  At the Bath Festival in May of 1955 Sir Thomas conducted what was to be his last operatic performance in England: Zémire et Azor.   Leading an all French cast in a production that was designed by Oliver Messel, that most magical and elegant of British designers, the Belgian composer's charming version of the Beauty and the Beast story was a hit of that year's Festival.

At the time the reviewer in the Daily Telegraph wrote, "The production … is marvellously ingenious, and turns the smallness of the stage to positive advantage. Oliver Messel’s décor has a Cocteau-like whimsy, and Sir Thomas nearly deceives us into mistaking the tinselly patches in the score for pure gold."  I recently downloaded a radio broadcast of the opening performance and, despite Sir Thomas's enthusiasm for the piece,  I have to agree that there are certainly "tinselly' bits and I do question the Mozart comparison but it is indeed light, graceful and filled with melodic invention.

I had hoped to use the beautiful Messel designs from that 1955 production in this video but they are under copyright (and sadly hidden away in storage) at the V and A.  However a left click on the above link will take you to their collection and give you an idea of the beautiful designs that Messel created which to my mind go far beyond "whimsy" and perfectly wed the Oriental and the Rococo and look the way Grétry's music sounds.

I was able to find quite a few delightful designs from a production in Paris in 1824 on the website of the La Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF)*.   The costumes - very reflective of their period rather than Grétry's - were designed by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, son of the famous Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the scenery was the work of that genius of 19th century stage design Pierre-Luc-Charles Cicéri.  On the BnF's remarkable site I was also able to find, amongst 2,000,000 (yes that's 2 million) items, a print from the first production in 1771 as well as livrets from later productions of a work that was much loved and performed until the end of the 19th century.  Both display the most famous scene in the opera-ballet - Azor allows Zémire to see her father and sisters in a mirror; seeing her father ill and possibly dying she begs him to allow her to return if only for a week.  Probably managed by the use of a silvered scrim it had a tremendous effect and was the talk of theatrical Paris at the time.

I'm not sure how much of the effect of this lovely piece of "melodic invention" can be attributed to Grétry, how much to Sir Thomas's arrangement and how much to the playing of his Royal Philharmonic players but like that audience in Edinburgh I always feel like breaking into applause at the end.

13 January - 1842: Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company Army during the First Anglo-Afghan War, becomes famous for being the sole survivor of an army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers when he reaches the safety of a garrison in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
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Laurent said...

Very nice.

David said...

Agreed, we love our Beecham lollipops. The only conductor who comes close to him these days for the unique affection with which they need to be handled is surely Neeme Jarvi.