Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 3 in E flat, op. 55 – "Eroica" (1), Symphony no. 4 in B flat, op. 60 (2)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1), London Philharmonic Orchestra (2)/Felix Weingartner
Recorded 22nd-23rd May 1936 in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (1), 13th-14th November 1933 in EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London (2)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110956 [75:27]


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Weingartner grew up in a world where political heroes were less sinister than they have come to be since. Times had already changed by 1936 in Austria but Weingartner remained true to Beethoven as he knew him. The first movement of the "Eroica" moves swiftly but with an easy one-in-the-bar swing so that you are never conscious of the music being driven. The opening melody sings like a great string quartet launching the first of Beethoven’s "Razoumovsky" Quartets. Weingartner is supple in moulding certain transitions, more so than his reputation for objectivity would lead you to expect. He is also adroit in picking up his basic tempo again without a bump. The overall effect is of a seamless unfolding of the vast movement with a great deal of inner vitality.

After one of the swiftest first movements on disc, now comes a very broad Funeral March. Weingartner does not try to give significance to every single note and dot; he concentrates on the long lines and gives the music a dignified eloquence which is memorable. In common with all conductors who essay a very slow tempo for this movement, he has to move forward in the major-key episodes; somewhat disconcertingly, when the March-theme is recapitulated against triplet-figuration in the strings he sticks to the faster tempo he has attained, dropping back abruptly to his slow main tempo at the strings’ E flat major threnody. This is nevertheless a deeply impressive utterance.

It may be of interest to list the timings in this movement of various conductors from the generation following Weingartner. Oddly enough, the only one to be longer still is the usually swift Erich Kleiber; the fastest is Weingartner’s declared admirer Sir Adrian Boult. In the middle come two who by reputation should be slower:

Erich Kleiber (Amsterdam 1950): 15.25
Weingartner: 15:11
Keilberth (Bamberg): 14:46
Klemperer (Philharmonia 1955): 14:43
Boult (LPO): 13:01

Weingartner’s Scherzo is a highly vivacious affair, with no slackening for the trio, while the finale unfolds with a steady momentum. The "Poco andante" passage is not transformed into an Adagio and the final Presto is a terrific display.

The recording is occasionally top-heavy and certain climactic passages retreat from the listener. It nevertheless gives a full-blooded impression of the pre-war VPO playing in the famed acoustic of the Grosser Musikvereinsaal. In comparison with the British orchestras heard in other parts of this cycle, the alleged superiority of the VPO is not so certain. They have a corporate feeling of style, certainly, but the oboe near the beginning of the Funeral March is woefully flat and there is suspect wind intonation in many of the chordal passages in this movement. The horns, on the other hand, are glorious in all four movements. Still, this is an important recording, without any doubt.

If you want to hear the difference between vitality and tense drive (any conductor can goad the orchestra along at a smartish lick), hear Weingartner’s Fourth. After an introduction which impresses for its slow but inexorable tread, the first movement proper is very swift indeed, yet with such a relaxed one-in-the-bar feeling that one is never conscious of speed in itself. The textures have the transparency of the best quartet playing. The second movement, too, is no six-in-a-bar plod; the pervasive dotted rhythm in the accompaniment sets up a gentle lapping movement against which the melodies unfold gently and expressively but with no hint of sentimentality. Weingartner was clearly a master of the genuinely vivacious scherzo, for the third movement is a highly spirited, up-front affair with only minimal slackening for the trio. On the other hand, he does not over-drive the finale, opting for a tempo in which every 16th-note can be clearly heard; again, real vitality as opposed to superficial brilliance.

Although Obert-Thorn’s note warns us that the original sound was "marred by a boxy acoustic and mastering flaws" the results in this transfer are remarkably satisfying, and the fine quality of Beecham’s LPO yields nothing to the VPO in the "Eroica". 70 years on this performance still shines as a model which few have matched since. I should point out that repeats are at a premium throughout this cycle, due presumably to 78 side-lengths but this hardly detracts from the vitality and humanity of the music-making to be heard in this first recorded Beethoven cycle.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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