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.