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Hermann Abendroth. Volume II: Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 3 Eroica Op. 55 (1803)
Symphony No. 9 Choral Op. 125 (1822-24)
Egmont, Overture Op. 84 (1810)
Coriolan, Overture Op. 62 (1807)
Romance for Violin and Orchestra Op. 40 No. 1 (c1802)
Violin Concerto Op. 61 (1806)
David Oistrakh, violin
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra all items except
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony No 9)
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra (Coriolan)
Hermann Abendroth
Recorded 1949-1954
TAHRA 129-131
[3 CDs 182.59]

Times have probably never been better for the assiduous collector of Abendroth material. A plethora of archive recordings has been made available over the past decade from a variety of labels – Arlecchino, Berlin Classics and Tahra amongst them – and there looks like being no real diminution of interest in the conductor whose famous LSO sets of Brahms’ First and Fourth Symphonies graced many a turntable in the later twenties and thirties.

Despite this early discographic success Abendroth recorded little Beethoven. Odeon set down his Fifth, Supraphon his First and Ninth and the overture to Fidelio was similarly set down on 78s. No concertos were issued which makes this 3 CD boxed set all the more discerningly chosen and deserving of currency as they catch Abendroth between the years 1949 and 1954 conducting some powerfully engaged performances.

The Ninth, which opens the set in heroic style, was taped at the 1951 Prague Spring festival, the sixth such event. A highly politicised affair the Eastern Bloc was well represented – Abendroth representing East Germany, the frequently incandescent and superb Straussian Georgescu represented Romania, Szymanowski champion Fitelberg was the Polish representative, and the home side put up Ancerl, Neumann, Smetacek and Krombholc. Hermann Scherchen represented Switzerland. There is occasional orchestral diffidence in Abendroth’s first movement and some rhythmic discursiveness too and though the slow movement is in many ways very beautifully sustained it is also very slow. There’s a little rather inconsequential shatter on the tape at the trumpet’s fortissimi. But there is a really remarkable fervour to the choirs’ singing that sweeps everything before it (they sing in Czech). Of the soloists all are fine – maybe Eduard Haken struggles a mite at the top of his compass but Blachut is commandingly ringing and the work proceeds in electric fashion towards a memorable conclusion.

Beethoven week March 1952 at the Berlin State Opera House saw the Concerto performed by David Oistrakh as well as the First Romance (Abendroth’s very first concert in Cologne had been all Beethoven affair conducting Carl Flesch in the Concerto and essaying the Fifth Symphony). The lower strings are a little indistinct in support of Oistrakh in the Romance but he is sweetness itself. In the rather weightier matter of the Concerto Abendroth’s highly individualised use of agogics in the opening paragraphs coupled with ensemble flexibility and control of rubati are immediately notable features of his conducting. He also lets loose powerful accents to inflect and deepen the supporting orchestral patina. Oistrakh is on very good but not utterly commanding form – a few split notes intrude – but he does have to contend with a horribly bronchial audience whose hacking coughs tell their own story. The soloist’s phrasing is raptly devotional in the slow movement, his intense vibrato faster and more coiled than usual whilst in the finale a sturdy orchestral exegesis affords him optimum room; this is not a will o’ the wisp finale by any means but it’s cogent on its own terms. More than a mere pendant Coriolan receives a strong reading in a very resonant acoustic (the Kongresshalle in 1949) with a commensurately long sound delay.

The final disc is devoted to the Egmont Overture and the Eroica Symphony. The former is dramatically portentous, with a massive almost Brucknerian weight to the lower strings and brass perorations; admittedly the sectional balance is not good, a fault of the recording levels I suppose, and this does give over-ripe prominence to the brass. But there is a marvellous crescendo at the conclusion, Abendroth revelling in drama and indomitable power. The Eroica won’t please those who prefer upholders of metrical rectitude. Elasticity and flexibility are more Abendroth’s province and whilst the trumpets can sound rather untamed the conductor’s first movement rises to peaks of crises of almost elemental schism. In the Funeral March second movement an initial feeling of somewhat détaché bowing is supplanted by the increasingly passionate development of the movement.

Abendroth’s many admirers will doubtless know what to expect from this selection. Consistently stimulating and full of fervour this set is an invaluable addition to his scanty Beethoven discography. Notes are tri-lingual, French, Italian and English with source material noted in detail – to the extent of including archive storage numbers. And much of lasting value.

Jonathan Woolf

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