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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [26.19]
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [30.34]
Leonore Overture No. 1, Op. 138 (1806-07) [8.03]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Rec Oct 1937 (Symphony No. 1) and June 1939 in Queen’s Hall, London. ADD
NAXOS 8.110854 [64.55]



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I have never been a huge fan of ‘historical recordings’. I used to believe that there was more to be said for modern technique inspiring a ‘near-perfect’ performance of any particular piece than for a ‘warts and all’ recording of a particular artist’s interpretation. That belief, however, has all but faded away over the last decade as I have been fortunate enough to review more and more discs and attend a greater number of live concerts. When I first met the Naxos historical recordings series – the Rachmaninov playing Rachmaninov discs – I was completely converted on the spot and have become a great admirer of transfer artists like Mark Obert-Thorn, who again achieve an almost miraculous integrity with this digital transfer from a total of seventeen copies of the original recordings. Not even he can delete Toscanini’s humming in a couple of the more exposed spots, but even this transgression I can forgive for the sheer ‘bubbliness’ of these performances.

"…one of the best orchestras I have ever conducted" said Toscanini of the BBC Symphony after first playing with them in 1935. By the time of these recordings two and four years later, the feelings between conductor and orchestra had blossomed into something more approaching a love affair than a normal respectful and professional relationship. Boult had taught the orchestra discipline, collective responsibility and flexibility. Toscanini seems to have taught them how to have fun. The third and fourth movements of Symphony No. 1 in particular just exude Mediterranean sunshine – unusual in a Beethoven symphony but by no means out of place in this recording.

I wouldn’t dare to say anything about the music itself – Beethoven’s works having inspired more column inches of analysis and discussion than perhaps any other single composer’s – but these performances are stellar in every sense of the word. They do great damage to my previous beliefs that only ‘perfect’ performances should figure in a serious collection. These two symphonies (not to forget the particularly zesty overture) offer radically different interpretations from any other in my own collection and for that reason alone will be among the performances I reach for regularly. No matter how well you think you know these works, and no matter whose is your favourite interpretation, listen to this release. You will quickly discover why the recordings have rarely been out of the catalogue since their first release some 65 years ago.

Tim Mahon



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