Review: Bizet – Arlésienne Suites, Symphony in C Major

Once described as “the best conductor of French music the French never had”, Sir Thomas Beecham’s talents are on full display with these superb benchmark performances of Bizet’s irresistible works.

According to family legend, the Beecham family were of French stock, the name deriving from ‘Beauchamp’. The British tabloid newspaper the News of the World once described Beecham as looking “like a smart French army officer, being tall and slim, with neatly trimmed, glistening black hair, a thick black moustache and chin-beard, and large, dark, expressive eyes”. The affinities ran deeper as Beecham found a sophistication, elegance, wit and charm in French music which matched his own rambunctious character and he went on to become a distinguished conductor for a host of French composers, including Delibes, Offenbach, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Massenet and Gounod but most notably for Berlioz and Bizet. Thanks to his passionate advocacy, the jury of the Académie du Disque Français said that “Beecham has done more for French music abroad than any French conductor”.

The recordings on this album date from the end of Beecham’s long career and the performances positively bristle with youthful vigour and joie de vivre together with moments of great tenderness. These are altogether winning performances by a conductor whose powers were undiminished by age.

Georges Bizet composed the incidental music for the play L’Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet in 1872. The play was a flop and closed after only 21 performances but Bizet nevertheless arranged some of the music as a suite for full orchestra in four movements. After Bizet’s death, a second suite was arranged by Ernest Guiraud in 1879; this suite also incorporates music from Bizet’s opera La jolie fille de Perth for the famous Minuet. With Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in these suites, the result is one of unalloyed pleasure. There is a breezy confidence in the playing, a swagger even, with marvellously controlled changes in mood and dynamics; moreover, nothing sounds showy or forced. The high point has to be the Adagietto from the first suite, there has surely never been a more moving and deeply felt account than Beecham’s:  it’s as if the music was written for him. And the woodwinds delight throughout the two suites – as if the pieces belong to them.

It comes as a surprise that Bizet’s spirited Symphony in C major, written when he was only 17, was never performed or published during his lifetime. Perhaps thinking it was too derivative of other works Bizet suppressed the work. Following his death, the manuscript was passed on to the composer Reynaldo Hahn who, dismissing the work, deposited the papers with the Paris Conservatoire where they mouldered until their discovery in the 1930s. It was first performed in 1935 to instant acclaim and has remained popular ever since.  The recording here of the spritely 80 year old Beecham conducting the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, contains all the Beecham hallmarks of wit, elegance, a sense of proportion and, above all, fun. A contemporary musician said of Beecham after listening to this performance ‘Vraiment il est un artistocrate de la musique’. On this form, I think we can all agree with that assessment.

Rating 5/5 stars. 

Kevin Painting

Published on 26 February 2106 on primephonic


Georges Bizet

L’Arlésienne: Suite no 1; L’Arlésienne: Suite no 2
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Sir Thomas Beecham.
Recorded 1956.

Symphony in C major
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française.  Conductor: Sir Thomas Beecham.
Recorded 1959.

Label: Jube Classic Jube-NML1376