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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55 Eroica (1803)
Symphony No. 8 in F minor Op. 93 (1812)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Pfitzner
Recorded Berlin 1929-33
NAXOS 8.110910 [69.40]


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All of Hans Pfitzner’s contributions to German Grammophon’s anniversary collection of Beethoven’s symphonies are now available on Naxos – as indeed is the entire cycle. Pfitzner took the bulk of the recordings – five of the symphonies – and the others went to Erich Kleiber, Richard Strauss and Oscar Fried. A subjectivist romantic Pfitzner’s conducting career was well established by the time he came to make this unusually protracted cycle between 1929 and 1933. And if at times he could appear somewhat enervated – the First Symphony is a distinct case in point – he could equally be a dedicated and flexible exponent of the central repertoire. The Eroica is here a case in point.

He establishes his aesthetic in the opening movement right from the start with subjective rhythmic pulling of the line, generating tension through rubati and rallentandos (he doesn’t play the exposition repeat). Characteristically he expands the tempo for the second subject imbuing the music with a constant series of fluctuations and a sense of genuine malleability. In the Funeral March he cultivates velvet black bass sonorities and still broadens at lyrical points whilst lightening the string texture where apposite. The fugato section is animated with booming basses and some searing string playing (the Berlin Philharmonic are on notably good form throughout) and the coda shaped with genuine sensitivity and assurance, supported by supple wind choirs and chording. Maybe the balance is a little dim in the Scherzo but the scampering and splendidly reduced and terraced dynamics are laudable with an adept timpanist sharing the limelight. Phrasing in the Finale is elegant and alert, fugal episodes alert and entries on the beat, and Pfitzner maintaining pulse and direction to the very end.

In the case of the Eighth Symphony once more, though perhaps to a lesser degree, we can feel the weight of Pfitzner’s romantic affiliations. Rubati feature powerfully, of course, as ever a flexible component of his expressive armoury though his rallentandos less so in this work. His occasional italicisation of developmental passages adds its own personalised profile to the recording as well. There is some fine, taut yet flexible phrasing in the Allegro vivace e con brio, some significant deadpan humour in the second movement - resilient wit relished entirely musically, with those violin pizzicati and arco bass lines conveying all with mordant effectiveness. The rustic horns of the Minuetto are matched in style by the chirpy rhythm of the lower strings and the finale – at a very steady tempo – is full of clear-eyed optimism.

Pfitzner’s part in the Beethoven cycle was a considerable one so it’s good to have all the symphonies now available at super budget price in such recommendable transfers. However idiosyncratic he may be – metrically, in terms of expressive device and all the other components of approach – these are seldom less than fascinating documents of a distinguished composer’s interpretative approach to a great one.

Jonathan Woolf



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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Hortus
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Nimbus
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Sheva
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