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Hermann Scherchen rehearses and conducts
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 (1807)
Orchestra della Radio Svizzera Italiana/Hermann Scherchen
Recorded during rehearsal and concert performance 24-26 February 1965, Auditorium RTSI Lugano
AURA 138-2 [77.38]
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To the long line of conducting rehearsal sequences – Toscanini, Walter and Beecham spring to mind – can be added Hermann Scherchen. This 1965 rehearsal in Lugano of Beethoven’s Fifth will not bring the animal fury of the Italian, or the cultivated insistence of Walter or the laconic witticisms of the bold bad Bart but they do reveal Scherchen doing something he did well, albeit controversially, which is conducting Beethoven. Following the rehearsal is a performance of the Fifth and one beset on occasion by orchestral indiscipline but which does at least reflect the broad and powerful contours established by the seismic figure on the rostrum who is still, in concert, not entirely able to stifle the moans and yells he visits upon the work in rehearsal.

And what a rehearsal it is. It begins with a Scherchian exegesis – he speaks in German-inflected Italian only occasionally groping for the mot juste – guaranteed to send English orchestral musicians to the point of suicide. Even one of his Italian players can be heard plucking his violin strings – a sure sign of terminal boredom – before being shushed by another. On and on he goes for what seems like an eternity but is probably only a few minutes. Accompanied by baton taps on the desk, huge thumps, elephantine stamping and handclaps his soft but unquenchable voice outlines the aesthetic of the piece and indulges in a few little swipes along the way. In the space of a few sentences one can hear the names of Toscanini, Hindemith, Mozart, Wagner and Busoni and whilst my Italian is poor even I can work out that he refers to late nineteenth century performance practice (which he reinforces by singing a pum-pum-pum-puuum motto theme). I believe Scherchen only visited America to conduct once, and that not long before his death; even so listeners may well be surprised to hear him talking about the "stupid exactitude" of American orchestras.

The rehearsal runs along expected lines. They play through each movement, rarely stopping, with Scherchen shouting instructions as they go. "Piano" is a constant exhortation as is "tranquillo", the latter accompanied by what will soon become a recognisable feature of his rehearsal technique, the anguished Scherchen howl. Fluffs – and they come a-plenty – are ignored. Scherchen only stops the orchestra once in the first movement and then to insist on a pianissimo entry, shortly before the end of the movement, which he rehearses until he’s satisfied. He makes constant demands in the slow movement, constantly alert to dynamic values; pianissimi followed by commensurately powerful attacks. It’s especially interesting to listen to one moment of politesse amongst the exhortations ("Senza crescendo…grazi.") He is very particular on beauty of tone and on the cantilever arc of a melody emerging naturally. Again he stops them just the once to insist that the clarinet is "timido…non crescendo" before spitting out constant instructions - "triste" and "crescendo…non piu forte." The sound of one of Scherchen bellowed crescendos, which mirror the effect ("cre...scen….DO"), could be truly awe-inspiring; he begins triple forte and works his way up. He stops the third movement, unusually almost immediately. The Allegro is slow anyway but he is insistent that it is more so. Rhythmic strictness is his goal here but at this tempo one can sympathise with the orchestra. At the start of the finale a huge unearthly animal bellow can be heard; it’s Scherchen (in the concert he makes a mini howl at this point). This extraordinary sound, a compound of pain and exaltation, marks his utter physical involvement with the music; at this point he is almost hoarse, his animated cries and instructions taking on a manic edge. He hammers out the vowels in "crescendo", italicising each one with a rhythmic thump and there is something driven to him here. At the conclusion of the movement he again asks for more power and again embarks on a political and spiritual lecture, taking in the spirit of man and even, good God, eliciting a few laughs.

After which the performance seems, if not an anti-climax, at least terra cognita. Or would be were the orchestral infelicities not so marked. Brass crack, ensemble is shaky, things go seriously wrong at one point in the first movement, Scherchen’s outwardly rather ponderous progress causing indecision and escalating indiscipline. And yet there is something awe inspiringly granitic about parts of his conception that linger in the mind. His animal moans fleck the score and haunt the performance like some wounded soul unable ever to achieve redemption. He is viscerally alive to the humanity of the score and dares the orchestra to follow him as he yells and screams his way to the end, facing his own extinction – he died less than a year later - with undimmed passion and unbridled fury.

Jonathan Woolf

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