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.