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BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies Nos 5 & 7
Berlin State Opera Orchestra, Richard Strauss
Naxos Great Conductors, 8.110926 ADD, Playing time 60'01, Bargain Price

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Richard Strauss conducted his own works with some regularity, but he was also an illuminating interpreter of other composers. These Beethoven recordings, dating from 1926 and 1928, will not be for everyone, but they are certainly fascinating.

Strauss could be a diffident conductor. Indeed, one is tempted to say that there are moments during these performances when the sense of urgency is less to do with the metronome markings (and strauss gets very near Beethoven's own markings) than to do with getting off to his club for a drink. The opening four notes of the Fifth, for example, are not taken at Beethoven's tempo (and the fourth note is heavily accented), but by the twentieth bar Strauss has accelerated the pace. Whereas some conductors, such as Weingartner and Furtwangler, relax the tempo after the diminuendo, Strauss again speeds up taking us on a headlong dash to the first movement's conclusion. The scherzo is only just short of Beethoven's metronome marking - and it is thrillingly done. From 7'36 in the final movement to 8'14, Strauss gives us a hotch-potch of Beethovenian interpretation. It's all swings and roundabouts with tempos pulled back and then given free rein with the pressure released. Ultimately, it lacks both tension and direction. There are no exposition repeats and the playing borders on the perfunctory with ragged brass phrasing.

The 1926 recording for the Beethoven Fifith is quite spacious, but, unfortunately, the sound of the Seventh gives the impression as if it is coming from the bottom of a well. And, I'm afraid the performance should also have been left there.

Whilst the closed sound doesn't help, the performance is full of so many idiosyncrasies as to be no more than an interesting document by a great composer-conductor. There are times during the first movement when sense of Beethoven's metronome markings are all but muddied. It is swings and roundabouts again. The opening of the allegretto has cellos and basses groaning. It is like hearing an old man clear his throat. Having said that, the tempo are actually markedly slower than Beethoven wrote and the advantage is given in the sheen on the lower strings who breathe more naturally because of it. Some of Strauss' use of rubato adds a colour to the phrasing we would never hear nowadays, but it is not in any sense a preferred option. There are some ugly staccato passages where woodwind and brass are evidently out of sorts. In the finale, however, we are in very bizarre territory. The opening is fine up until 0'33 when suddenly Strauss virtually doubles the speed (it does not return to normal until 1'03). This is the start of another one of Strauss' infuriating moments of pulling and pushing the performance this way and that, almost tearing apart its organic development. Those familiar with Beethoven's Seventh will encounter horror after the third minute as Strauss cuts an enormous 275 bars from the performance as we gallop towards the conclusion. You will probably not hear a performance like this again. It is an anomoly and I found it grotesque.

The orchestra again have their problems with intonation, although there are moments of dynamic contrast in this Seventh which are quite illuminating (notably in the first movement). In no way do these performances supercede, or even begin to get close to, anything conducted by Weingartner or Pfitzner. The transfers have been handled supremely well (particularly that for the Fifth) and Rob Cowan's notes on the interpretations are outstanding.


Marc Bridle

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Marc Bridle

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