This is one of those magical Beecham discs in which you can revel from first note to last with the feeling that you are listening to recordings of true greatness. Sir Thomas' evident flamboyance and musicality are almost immaculately suited to French music, and this particular collection of Berlioz, Grétry, Massenet and Méhul is surely one of the most desirable parts of Sony's ongoing Beecham collection.
'Harold in Italy' was always a Beecham speciality and this version is afire with the romantic spirit that one is to expect in such a magnificent work. Primrose is a born soloist and he matches Sir Thomas' wild excursions into orchestral fantasy with a clean part that is almost made in heaven. I cannot recall any better version of this often underrated work which is also preserved in excellent mono sound. The BBC Legends performance with the same artists is also a viable alternative but the studio recording is, to my mind at least, slightly preferable.
The party then begins with the Méhul overtures. "Timeolon" is a dapper piece, played with instinctive charm and élan by Beecham whilst the dashing "La Tresor Supposé" is also full of zest and character. However the real fun is to be had in a gloriously rowdy version of "La chasse du Jeanne Henri" with the most effusive coda I have ever heard. This alone is worth the price of the whole disc. Massenet's sensuous 'Last Sleep of the Virgin' concludes an essential Beecham document that is surely one of the best releases of the past year.
Copyright © 2004, Gerald Fenech