Magazine article Gramophone

Classics Reconsidered

Magazine article Gramophone

Classics Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Mike Ashman and David Patrick Stearns discuss the merits of Beecham's 1956 recording of La boheme--an impromptu affair that made opera history


La boheme Sols incl Jussi Bjorling ten Victoria de los Angeles sop RCA Victor Chorus and Orch / Sir Thomas Beecham Naxos [S] [2] 8111249-50

Beecham's tempi are on the whole slower than those adopted by Toscanini. In the light of what the composer told Sir Thomas in 1920 however we must accept that his tempi and emphasis, and not Toscanini's, are what Puccini meant. At the moments of lyrical expansion, in the accompanying of the duet between Mimi and Marcello in Act 3 and in the quartet in the same act, I find Beecham's fuller. There is more savouring, more grandly eloquent handling of the adorable music, and it is truer to what I feel about it. (These things end in purely personal tastes, between great artists.) Anyway, if there is anywhere a more sheerly gorgeous piece of 'soaring' than this Mimi in the episode 'Sono andati?' (Act 4, left alone with Rudi) one would like to know of it. At the words 'come il mare grand ed infinita', soprano and orchestra simply soar heavenward in the palm of Beecham's hand --I can think of no other way of describing it, but then Beecham's power of revivifying music remains indescribable. Time and again this score too is 're-heard' as one may re-see a picture 'with a rinsed eye' as the French say. In short, without denigrating Toscanini's ardent and springy performance, I do prefer this new set.

Victoria de los Angeles sounds wonderful a toute epreuve and Bjorling is likewise wonderful in being so reliable and stylish over every hurdle. The solos and duet of Act 1; the trio from 'Mimi e una civetta' in Act 3; and the whole of the last act from the entry of Mimi represent a totality of singing by principals and orchestra which is quite glorious. One goes head over heels in love with the opera all over again. Philip Hope-Wallace (1/57)

Mike Ashman I am still massively attached to this performance: my first La boheme, my first complete opera recording, the first time I heard Jussi Bjorling. I was already something of a Beecham fan but never before had I heard him conduct opera. After living with the set for many years, it is the fluent organisation by the conductor of the trickiest ensemble passages which still stands out for the listener. The Act 2 street/cafe scene flies by in less than 20 minutes, but for the performers it's a logistic nightmare comprising every grand opera musical effect, including both onstage and offstage extra choruses and children's voices, not to mention the dangerously independent brass band. There are an infinite number of nasty little tempo changes, but Beecham wraps them all together in one fluent and amazingly 'live'-sounding paragraph. Also in this act, the characterisation of, say, the little boy who wants the toy trumpet and the horse, Parpignol and Alcindoro, and Colline's naughty Latin jokes about Mimi and sex are clear and funny without being self-consciously blown up.

David Patrick Stearns You're speaking my language--absolutely. Whenever I pop in and out of super-busy Penn Station in New York City I pass by the Manhattan Center, where it was recorded, and imagine the wonderful La boheme cast coming and going--Victoria de los Angeles finishing up before setting off for what was then called Idlewild Airport, with some grizzled cabbie waiting outside--with none of them aware that opera history was being made.

And it was history that almost wasn't made. The recording was organised when the recording executives realised that Bjorling, de los Angeles and Beecham would be in New York at the same time. Much of the orchestra came from the Metropolitan Opera, the chorus from the New York City Opera. The recording circumstances were a generous eight days spread over three weeks. In contrast, the New York City Opera's own recordings were made live in the studio because retakes weren't affordable. …

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