EDUARD VAN BEINUM was a genial man whose warmth of heart could be seen in his open face, a conductor whose psychic makeup included little or none of the "temperament" and self-indulgence associated with his craft. He was not a glamorous figure, perhaps, but he was surely one of the most solid, expert and all-round dependable conductors of his time. He was the sort of musician -- one thinks of Nicolai Malko and Fritz Busch as others -- whose performances are more in the nature of "realizations" than "interpretations," who never lets an audience down, and who contributes greatly (and unostentatiously) to an elevated level of orchestral performance.
Van Beinum became an assistant conductor of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1931, then co-conductor with Willem Mengelberg in 1938. When the fiery Mengelberg had to end his remarkable 50-year tenure in 1945, it was Van Beinum's lot to succeed him, and to succeed brilliantly. During the period the great Dutch orchestra was in his hands he also commuted to Los Angeles and London, rebuilding the Philharmonic in each of those cities. He died during a rehearsal in Amsterdam on April 13, 1959, at the age of 58. His recordings soon disappeared because so few had been made in stereo, but now, with the 20th anniversary of his death approaching, Philips has brought out a specially priced eight-record set, "The Art of Eduard van Beinum" (6768.023), which is the most meaningful sort of memorial because it is so much more than a memorial.
The first three sides contain a previously unreleased broadcast performance (with applause) of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. No date is given, and the mono sound is a little constricted in range, but the performance, typical of Van Beinum's sensible, thoroughly musical approach to Bruckner, makes all the work's points without fuss, without exaggeration, without any gratuitous overlay of mysticism.
The sides are very generously filled. Debussy's three Images for Orchestra fit on a single side, with the three Nocturnes preceded by the Berceuse heroique and followed by the Marche ecossaise on another. Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade shares a disc with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Also included are Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, the Little C major and Unfinished of Schubert (with the first-movement repeat taken in the latter), Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A, the two most attractive sinfonie of Johann Christian Bach's Op. 18 set (No. 2 in B-flat and No. 4 in D), Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite, and a full disc of shorter pieces.
The first of these short pieces is one I don't remember coming across before among Van Beinum's recordings: a brisk, refreshing performance of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. It is followed by Sibelius' Finlandia and Valse triste, and Grieg's Two Elegiac Melodies for strings. Overside are three overtures -- Berlioz's Roman Carnival and those to Thomas' Mignon and Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor.
Only three of the 16 sides are in stereo -- the second of the two devoted to Debussy, the J. C. Bach, and the Sousa-Sibelius-Grieg sequence. The sound is good, and good on the mono sides, too -- good enough to make the set worth considering outside of the "historical" context, for there is not a single performance in it that could not stand as a most impressive norm for the presentation of the respective work.
Realities being what they are, though (and a Bruckner symphony in particular being the sort of thing one really wants in the most up-to-date sound), the set is likely to be regarded as more of a souvenir than in any sort of competitive context, and even at the "special price" it represents a big investment. Because the material is so worthwhile, one might hope some of it, and perhaps more from Eduard van Beinum's discography (Handel's Water Music, Mahler's Lied von der Erde, the Bruckner Seventh and Ninth), can be issued on individual discs in Philips's Festivo series or on the Mercury Golden Imports label.