Sir Thomas Beecham is the only man in history to liken the sound of a harpsichord to “two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.” And one seriously doubts anyone else has had the temerity to come up with the following definition of an upright piano: “A musical growth found adhering to the walls of most semi-detached houses in the provinces.” When Sir Thomas found that a particular trombone player was giving somewhat less than his all, he asked the musician, in his characteristic quasi-Mayfairian drawl, “Are you sure you’re producing as much sound as possible from that antique drainage system?” Well, there are enough Beecham quips, a whole book of them in fact, to stop this volume in its tracks — one could forget meanwhile that he was one of the best conductors the world has ever seen, a conductor of rare polish and charm, a first-class interpretive mind. Oscar Wilde had his epigrams. Beecham besides his quips had among other musical niceties his hairpins, brief and lovely intensifications of the musical line, nudges sublime that were hatched in performance as much as rehearsal.

Sir Thomas seems to have been born imperious — and full of fun, with a handsome independent income to lubricate his levity as well as his entrepreneurial interests. As Charles Reid, his fast-footed biographer, puts it: “His life was crowded, combative and loquacious to a degree which has no parallel whatsoever in English musical history . . he was the first volcano English music has ever known.” Listen!

A characteristic symphony program conducted by Beecham was composed with an unusual alphabet: one might travel in an evening from D for Delius to S for Sibelius with a little B for Bizet thrown in. Not infrequently there was H for Handel, arrangements perhaps, not without their whiffs of Offenbach, and yes, M for Mozart was frequently encountered, but the beefier B’s, Beethoven and Brahms, not to mention Bruckner, had generally to wait their place in the queue. In fact, Sir Thomas had a passion for denigrating these greats: one of his gentler digs, to his friend the novelist Frederic Prokosch, runs as follows: “Beethoven is grand but overemphatic, he drums his points with such a terrible insistence.” Sir Thomas didn’t utter it, but he would have been delighted to claim as his own Lytton Strachey’s remark following a “marvelous but apalling” listen to a Beethoven symphony in 1900, conducted very possibly by Henry Wood since this harrowing experience took place in London: “it grinds you to powder.” Which, come to think of it, sounds like fun.

And the fact is, Beecham behind that compulsive scrim curtain of mockery was in many ways a marvelous conductor of Beethoven and Brahms when he put his baton to it. Alas, some pieces he seems to have almost never performed: Brahms’ First and Fourth symphonies, for example. And where, pray tell, is Britten, Elgar, (but more on that later!), Vaughan Williams? But Beecham’s phobic Calais-bound repertoire even if it slid frequently into his beloved lollipops – think the Dance of the Priestesses from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah, a Champagne flute of delicately sinuous melody — was enormous. How many conductors busy in opera pits would be equally convincing in Otello and Manon, Goetterdaemmerung and Louise?

Fausto Cleva, a good Met conductor, used to say that the conductor is the most important person in an opera performance because he can do the most damage. Suffice to say that Sir Thomas passed the Cleva test with flying colors. I must have heard a hundred hours of Beecham and the only lapse I know is a few minutes on auto-pilot early in the second act of a particular 1937 London Tristan, the one on June 22 when Karin Branzell, very diffferent in style from Margarete Klose (June 18) took over the role of Brangaene and, could it be?, turned Sir Thomas off – or was it a bad dinner? At all events, airchecks of  both performances are available. The much-told story of Beecham entering the pit at Covent Garden and asking the concertmaster, “I say, what opera are we playing tonight?” – well, it could be true. This was the goateed paragon experienced in the Queen’s Hall by Virginia Woolf one Dalloway afternoon, “(his) face beaming, ecstatic, like a yellow copper idol: such grimaces, attenuations, dancings, swingings; his collar crumpled.” You can see it on DVD, the winks and giggles of his baton (I borrow that pairing of nouns from Edmund White’s autobiography because they fit here) coyly luring those nubile Saint-Saens priestesses from up his interpretive sleeve.

But to enemy territory: Beethoven! Relish the octogenarial joy of a “live” Royal Philharmonic performance of the Seventh Symphony 11-8-59, here is Beecham ebullient and poetic as can be making tempo decisions that give this perennial, as the cliché says, new life. The 6/8 vivace of Beethoven’s first movement can sound a little clattery, like a sort of symphonic Addressograph, if not given special attention. Sir Thomas’ excellent attention comes in the form of an unembarrassedly zippy tempo about sixteen beats to the bar faster than Beethoven’s (in this case!) rather moderate direction, so we’re talking 120 instead of 104. Now you wouldn’t want to restrain a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song: here the situation is similar, the fun and games of Beethoven’s vivace respond like a cat with a tempting ball of twine when the speed’s the thing. By the way, my preferred alternative is a tempo noticeably below Beethoven’s 104, as in performances by Hermann Scherchen and André Cluytens that uncover a dramatic side to the rhythmic hoopla of this vivace relatively rarely plumbed.

Now there’s a place in the second movement of the Seventh — where the opening trudge gives way to lyricism and minor turns to major – where one hopes something truly expressive will happen in a performance, not just a continuation, however attractive. Remember Richard Strauss at this point! Beecham obliges by slightly dragging the new chapter, extracting all the music’s yearning. With the intense little dawn of this mini-ritenuto we savor the musical equivalent of Paul Theroux’s “random glimpses that grant us the epiphanies of travel.”

And listen here if you wish to the finale of this ’59 Seventh . . .

Beecham’s 1950s recording of Beethoven’s Eroica with the RPO? Well, his more pastoral than heroic approach to the first movement may have been taken with a mind to saving us from being ground, like delicate old Lytton, to powder, but here is a lithe and genial piece of work, molto classico, with jaunty rhythm, lovely melody, an almost Mozartian delicacy at times. The opening with its rocking theme is velvety and seraphic. And note the glancing blows with which the Royals swat those famous six-chords-all-in-a-row a few minutes later on. Sir Thomas’ Eroica scherzo is relatively slow, taken at about 94-100 rather than the easily encompassed 116 dotted halves of the score, but the effect is winning: an upscale dance, leisurely and playful, the horns in the trio suggesting dashing blades high in the saddle. They know a thing or two about rubato too.

Interesting in Beecham’s finale is his sticking tenaciously to the poco andante of the lovely oboe interlude longer than a number of his colleagues. Thanks to this decision, a no-brainer for Beecham I’m sure, we’re rewarded with a singularly broad and heroic final Eroica chapter, driven home nicely by the RPO as it approaches the symphony’s closing sprint. Bloomfield’s Theory:  In not cancelling his poco andante marking for post-oboe innings Beethoven may have been banking on less tempo reduction than so many conductors elect, with frequently wonderful results, for his great oboe bit.

Moving up the alphabet we arrive at Beecham’s RPO recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, not as engagingly crazy as Berlioz from Comrade Fried in Moscow but a richly characterized performance gliding deftly on the tightrope encompassing urgency and elegance, lushness and despair. A performance here with a certain abandon and exquisite care in dynamics as well. Two examples of touch –  the purposely fragile and extremely poetical sound of the horn solo late in the first movement introduction, then the ineffable roundness of the second pair of fortissimo tutti chords after the double bar signalling the succeeding allegro agitato. The music de-boned as if for musique nouvelle! And there’s the nose-thumbing swagger of the pin-striped March to the Scaffold, so absolutely Beecham.

Sir Thomas was much associated with Bizet’s Carmen. I saw him conduct it in San Francisco when I was 12 years old and I’ve never forgotten the imperial stabs of his baton launching missiles, it seemed, in the direction of the all-important percussion department poised to crash and thump. For all his taste for up-market elegance, a daintiness fit for the gods, he could do the danger thing very well indeed. His Carmen Met broadcast of  3-27-43 — Sir Thomas was camping in the U.S. during much of the War, conducting for a couple of seasons in pre-Microsoft Seattle, which he labeled a “cultural dustbin” — has about it a sinuous unpredictability, a smoldering sarcasm, as well as the expected seamless flow. The clever Beecham’s imaginative rubato in the Habanera gives the heroine a fickle rhythm that fits her to a T. And the much-smitten factory-door Pepes and Panchos of the chorus (“We hurry in your footsteps!”) sound quite desperate after her little turn is finished, not ironically so. The stage is not filled with happy campers and the Fate motif hatched in the first act prelude to dog the opera’s steps is soon upon us again, absolutely drenched in sadness and anxiety. José, of course, is caught in Carmen’s tattered net.

Enemy territory again: Brahms! At the Toscanini memorial concert with the Symphony of the Air 1-23-57 Sir Thomas conducted a highly original but totally apposite Brahms Third, surely one for the proverbial desert island. He comes on amusingly furioso at the start, nailing the brio and passionato Brahms requested. Light and fizzy as Lambrusco this maestro d’Inghilterra, but with an ear ever-open to MELODY. See how he finds it like virtually no other conductor in the arpeggiated piano dolce sequences of the cellos at the return of 6/4 after the second theme, bars 50-51 and 53-55 to be precise. Cascading winds, marked piano leggiero, are always heard here, lording it over those groundlings with strings and bow who finally find their reward in this revealing performance. Then Sir Thomas, master of the bucolic, offers a lingering Pastoral Symphony of a slow movement. Cellos are favored again as they rock, pause-interrupted, toward the second theme at letter C.

One doesn’t especially think of Beecham as a Lisztian, but his fleshy, vibrant way with the exquisite tone poem on the subject of Orpheus – another RPO recording, this – is required listening. The contrast with the ethereal performance broadcast by Toscanini in 1938 is interesting, especially because each provides a performance one might have thought the work of the other. Sir Thomas’ RPO recording of the Faust Symphony is another winner, peppered with pain-filled lyricism and ample evidence of his talent for seizing fondly a lone and pliable note and giving it rich meaning thanks to the art of subtle oscillation. Meanwhile proper Lisztians shouldn’t lose sight of Jascha Horenstein’s taut and giddy way with this music, much ritenuto’d, from Radio Baden Baden. Also his Mephisto Waltz complete with the Mockery dear Weingartner left out!

No doubt about Sibelius being a staple of the Beecham oeuvre. Composer and conductor smoked cigars together, and highly approved of each other in their respective musical roles, even if the symphonic mountains of Sir Thomas’ Sibelian imagination can be less craggy than the next fellow’s, more velvety. The “live” RPO performance of the Seventh Symphony from 9-16-54 I would recommend especially for its wonderful pockets of intimacy that seem to have their own autonomy, an existence outside time, metaphorically at least, while in no way compromising the perfect coherence of the performance. The difficult 3/2 passage early on, in which Serge Koussevitzky was so persuasive, this passage Beecham showers with such verve it almost dances.

And Richard Strauss: a few items from this heady horde recurred quite frequently on Beecham’s agenda. There’s an RPO Heldenleben which, no surprise, comes on so light and jaunty, so anti-pompous, the first chapter might be subtitled Our Hero Goes to a Party. The intricate battle scene is an ironical waltz.

One day some years ago I had on the hi-fi turntable the Infernal Dance from young Thomas Beecham’s 1916 recording, with his own Beecham Symphony Orchestra, of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and a passerby outside my front parlor wherein the gramophone was bellowing rang my bell to tell me, that was the best darned Firebird he’d ever heard. And dazzling it is, that dance positively roaring to its conclusion. By the way, you can hear Beecham himself roaring in that Symphony of the Air Brahms Third. Historians speak with special fondness of the Beecham Symphony, launched before the Great War. Its players were mostly in their twenties, played with great charm, and were not above dropping firecrackers onto station platforms while touring the provinces! Now a Time Machine listen to Firebird bits . . .

On and off down the years Sir Thomas was much involved, musically and financially, with the Royal Opera Covent Garden. No better souvenir of his work at this location exists than his frisky Aida from 5-24-39, a performance as richly and irreverently characterized – by this I don’t mean to say it’s ever in bad taste — as his Carmen at the Met a few years later. The opening prelude is a textbook example of interpretive perfection, the theme of the love-trapped Aida exceptionally plaintive, the implacable priests who will condemn her lover entering, it seems, from another sphere. Princess Amneris in her first scene comes on appropriately nervoso as well as haughty and proceeds to have an argument with Radames as scrappy as something out of a Brando film. In the second act the urgency at the beginning of the Triumphal Scene is positively hectic, suggesting not all is well within earshot of those famous trumpets.

Beecham’s pre-’39 War orchestra was the London Philharmonic which he founded in 1932 and abandoned after that conflict in favor of his new RPO. The LPO under Beecham as revealed to us in “studio” and “live” performances alike had an especially vibrant, luminous, chamber-musicy sound when Sir Thomas, as he frequently did, charmed it out of them. Exhibit A has to be enchanting chunks from a 1936 Covent Garden Goetterdaemmerung – “terrible piece,” he called it. One can’t help enjoying the lithe, sparky energy of it all, the honest melodrama, as if this were some Boy’s Adventure, and then of course the almost outrageous charm of the string playing, its tingle, hum and head tone, the light portamento now and then, the warm, flickering weave of sound. Join me in our time machine, it’s Act 1 that spring night in London, willowy Gutrune in lively agitation is musing on the likelihood of the Mickey-Finn’d Siegfried becoming hers, while Virginia Woolf of course is writing in her diary just a mile north; and in a moment Beecham’s LPO cellos led by that perennial of the pit Anthony Pini sound a characteristic Gutrune phrase — tempting it is, but desolate — in a sultry croon, a hanging moss sort of tone, that sounds interesting enough heard in one’s gramophonic parlor at 10 a.m., and at midnight — after a glass or two of wine — drives one positively mad!

And a lollipop to close: Saint-Saens’ Dance of the Priestesses, with the RPO “live” in ’59.

. . . Footnotally I must add a little information I’ve come upon in regard to Sir Thomas’ record as a mostly non-performer of British music (we’re not speaking of Handel who was really German and Delius who was seriously expatriate): in the event the dashing Tommy did occasionally program Bax, Bantock and E. J. Moeran who wrote a very engaging symphony. Apparently the hot water he got into with Elgar for abridging one of Sir Edward’s symphonies was very hard to cool. But they made it up, and certainly Tommy’s Enigma Variations with the RPO 11-22-54 is one of the greatest trips through this orchestral gallery in the annals, the opening so bittersweet and horn-rich, then the composer’s wife “C.A.E.” emerging willowy in a ball dress not Malvern tweeds, “R.B.T” playful as can be, the argumentative “W.M.B.” the essence of hammer-and-tongs, “Troyte” a tempest 9 or 10 on Professor Richter’s earthquake scale. And so forth. But Sir Thomas is reported saying that Britain’s best musical export was Sir Arthur Sullivan in his mating with W.S. Gilbert. Well, no other country has produced anyone remotely like them . . .