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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92 a *** [35’12"]
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op. 93 a **** [23’34"]
Incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84: Overture a * [8’29"]; No.3 – Entr’acte No. 2 b ** [3’28"]; No. 7 – ‘Clärchen’s Tod’ b ** [2’49"]
a Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
b London Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
Rec. * 19 October, 1937 in the Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal, Vienna; ** 7 October, 1938 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London; *** 24 – 26 February, 1936 in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna; **** 26 February, 1936 in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110862 [73’32"]


Naxos here continue their series of reissues of performances of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Felix Weingartner (1862-1942). This conductor was, in fact, the first to record all nine symphonies and, having been impressed with his accounts of the first two, I was interested to see what he would make of these two products of Beethoven’s maturity. As Ian Julier tells us in his notes, these recordings were, in each case, the third recordings of the symphonies that Weingartner made. He had set down earlier versions of both in 1923 and 1927, on both occasions using British orchestras.

He leads a good account of the Seventh Symphony. In the first movement it’s evident that the conductor has a tight grip on the rhythm. Sometimes I’ve heard performances in which the impelling dotted rhythm sags and becomes sluggish. That certainly doesn’t happen here. The rhythm has "kick" and bite though, as Ian Julier observes, rhythm "never becomes an obsession in itself." I have to say, however, that in the last analysis the performance does not have the same degree of verve and élan that distinguishes Carlos Kleiber’s 1976 account with the VPO of a later generation. I’ve paid Weingartner the compliment of comparing his account against what I believe to be the finest, most incandescent version ever set down.

There’s an impressive gravitas and restraint to Weingartner’s reading of the slow movement. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t retain the same pulse throughout. He begins almost at a slow trudge but quickens the pace for the passage where the flute and bassoon counter-melody is heard (track 5 from 4’38"), accelerating further a little while later before resuming the original tempo around 6’28". The scherzo, in which repeats are not made, dances along effectively, though at nothing like Kleiber’s supercharged pace. However, I find that the much slower speed for the trio (track 6, 1’31") doesn’t work too well. At this pace the music gets bogged down. It’s interesting that Weingartner and Kleiber’s timings for this third movement are pretty similar but the younger conductor observes all repeats and is nothing like as slow in the trio.

I agree with Ian Julier’s observation that in the finale Weingartner’s decision not to rely on mere speed for effect is the right course. His is a poised account which builds tension progressively and impressively. It’s just a shame that the age of the recording means that the horns aren’t heard to ring out as they should. However, I don’t find that Weingartner conveys the same Dionysian sense of exaltation that Kleiber does in this movement (who does?) although Kleiber’s speed is not noticeably faster than Weingartner’s. The other comparison I made was with Toscanini’s 1935 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance (on BBC Legends). I found that the Italian maestro consistently conveyed a greater sense of excitement and occasion … and in the finale his horns "tell" more. That said, this Weingartner reading is still a very good, sane and tightly controlled account of this symphony and the VPO play well for him.

The recording of the Eighth Symphony is also a success. The first movement is bracing and alert; as usual, there’s no exposition repeat. The witty little pay off at the end is nicely turned. The perky second movement is given a pert reading with nice, crisp articulation from the VPO. In the third movement the second repeat is omitted, though other repeats are observed. The finale is not rushed off its feet but makes a good impact for precisely this reason. All in all this is a good, clear, unfussy performance of Beethoven’s most engaging symphony and I enjoyed it very much.

To complete the concert Naxos include three movements from the incidental music to Egmont. The account of the overture is thrustful. It’s more "conventionally" paced than the 1957 traversal by Klemperer, which I reviewed recently, and listeners may prefer that. In addition to the familiar overture Naxos include two less well-known items from the incidental music though I wish they had left a slightly longer gap between the Overture (track 1) and the following item. The overture was set down on the same day as Weingartner’s recording with the VPO of the First Symphony which Naxos have issued separately. I thought the orchestra were on more incisive form in the overture. The other two pieces were recorded on a different occasion, in London. ‘Clärchen’s Tod’ (track 3) is a particularly affecting, tragic lament. Weingartner does it very well though I must say that in his 1957 reading with the Philharmonia, Klemperer, at a slower tempo, digs even deeper and achieves the not inconsiderable feat of getting even more out of a piece of music a mere three minutes long.

These Beethoven performances are all unfussy, objective readings which respect the score. They come in good, clear transfers and are accompanied by well-written, informative notes. Even today, over sixty years after they were made, these recordings can teach us much about these familiar masterpieces. I am very glad to have heard them and will certainly return to them. They are well worth investigation, especially at the attractive Naxos price.

John Quinn

see also review by Chris Howell


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