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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 6 in F, op. 68 – "Pastoral" (1), Prometheus, op. 43: Overture (2), Coriolan, op. 62 (3), Egmont, op. 84 Overture (4), Die Trommel gerühret, Freudvoll und leidvoll (5), Klärchens Tod bezeichnend (6)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer, with Birgit Nilsson (soprano, 5)
Recorded 7th-8th October (1), 25th November (2), 21st October (3), 21st and 25th October (4), 21st and 25th November (5, 6) 1957, Kingsway Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5 67965 2 [77:20]


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When I reviewed the coupling of Beethoven’s 5th and 7th Symphonies under Klemperer in this "Great Recordings of the Century" series I ventured to suggest that the Klemperer myth was at least partly born of the necessity to find a myth at that time and in that place, and that several other German conductors around in those days would have done just as well. Somewhat facetiously I compared the recordings of the same two symphonies under the baton of the alleged dullard Joseph Keilberth and found there was often little to choose between them. At the risk of taking the joke too far, I should like to bring in Keilberth as a comparison again here, but I must immediately point out that, whereas in Symphonies 5 and 6 his approach and Klemperer’s were broadly similar, in the case of the "Pastoral" they take quite different views (a double-CD pack of Symphonies 5, 6 and 7 plus Egmont and Leonore III Overtures under Keilberth is available on Teldec 0630-18946-5).

In one sense, the comparison with Keilberth was never wholly valid, for Keilberth was first and foremost an upholder of the grand tradition while Klemperer, during the first part of his career, was essentially a propagator of modern music. His readings of the classics were controversial and not especially appreciated. So I would like to bring in for comparison the recording by another German conductor who was similarly a great advocate of his contemporaries, a fervent proponent of Mahler and a controversial interpreter of the classics, namely Hermann Scherchen (two companies seem to be issuing Scherchen’s Westminster recordings, in different couplings and packaging; I have Symphonies 6 & 8 on MCA MCD 80077). But I would also like to go back to the beginnings of Beethoven on record and consider the only recording of the "Pastoral", from 1927, by the first conductor to have set down all nine works, Felix Weingartner (the Weingartner cycle is available from Naxos; Symphonies 5 and 6, which I shall be reviewing separately in due course, are on 8.110861). And lastly, I wish to take into consideration Klemperer’s own first recording, made in 1951 (this is a Vox recording which I have on LP; I am not sure about the availability of a CD transfer).

Although timings and metronome markings are hazardous terrain, let us start from there:

I
II
III
IV
V

Beethoven’s own metronome markings

half-note
= 66
dotted quarter-note
= 50
dotted
half-note
= 108/TRIO: quarter-note
=132
half-note
= 80
dotted
quarter-note
= 60

TIMINGS FOLLOWED BY METRONOME SPEEDS (R = repeat observed)

Weingartner,
RPO 1927

9:01
63

10:56
56
2:44
116/120
3:06
108
7:48
66

Keilberth,
Bamberg
?1961

9:34
56-58
11:56
48-50
5:30R
96/126
4:12
80
9:02
58
Scherchen
ViennaStOp
1958

7:43

66

10:52
50
3:09
88/138-144
3:32
80-84
8:52
60

Klemperer
VSO 1951

11:20R
52-56
12:40

44

5:55R
80/132
3:17
80-104
7:50
72

Klemperer

Philharmonia 1957

13:04R
48-52
13:22
44
6:33R
76/116
3:43
76-88
9:12
56-60

One thing strikes us immediately; although certain conductors of the "original instruments brigade" have spoken about Beethoven’s metronome markings as if they had discovered them themselves, in every case at least one of the above performances has matched them and, with the sole exception of the first movement, at least one conductor has actually exceeded them, often by a considerable margin. However, the important thing is not the actual tempo, it is the phrasing and the breathing of the music.

In the case of Weingartner’s 1927 recording, which sounds remarkably well in Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer, we must bear in mind the recording conditions of the day. It has been demonstrated that in this conductor’s first electrical recording of the 5th Symphony the second movement is swifter than in his previous acoustic version. This was because the electrical process resulted, initially, in slightly shorter sides, and Weingartner was thereby obliged to speed up the tempo. We must at least consider the possibility that he would have taken parts of the symphony at a more relaxed pace in ideal conditions; and we can be fairly certain that the omission of the repeat in the scherzo, and maybe that of the first movement, was not what he would have wished. But if this is so, we can only gasp in admiration at what he achieved under the circumstances; this is one of the freshest and most vivacious accounts ever put on disc. The first movement begins as it means to go on, with a spring in its step. Weingartner’s urgency does not preclude a couple of small ritardandos at structural points in the development, and he underlines the harmonic shifts more tellingly than any of the others.

The opening of the second movement is striking for Weingartner’s very clear division of the music into 3-note cells, setting up a minuet-like lilt. Once you have got used to the idea that this is not a sluggish stream on a drowsy summer afternoon but a fresh mountain brook, the performance is intoxicating, and it certainly doesn’t sound hard-pressed.

The curious thing about the scherzo is that having adopted a really exhilarating tempo for the 3/4 sections, Weingartner then takes the 2/4 section rather steadily. Did he deliberately intend to equate the two tempi? His storm is absolutely thrilling; as will be seen later, several conductors who begin at Beethoven’s slowish metronome mark get gradually faster in their excitement. At least there’s no risk of that with an opening tempo as fast as this. The finale begins only a jot faster than Beethoven’s indication but is soon forging ahead rather more swiftly. All the same, the phrasing is kept so clear that the effect is never hard-driven, just wonderfully joyful. Weingartner is the only conductor I know of who treats the last bars, not as a fading sunset reverie interrupted by the two final forte chords, but as a crescendo leading to those two chords.

All this was made possible by the excellence of the orchestra (the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society, not to be confused with Beecham’s post-war band); articulation is remarkably clean, the string playing virtually free of portamento slides between the notes and textures beautifully clear and transparent. A comparison of this with a "period-band" performance can only provoke the reflection that there is nothing new under the sun.

Much that Keilberth does is in the Weingartner tradition – the 3-note cells at the opening of the second movement are clear in exactly the same way – but there are also signs that he was not unappreciative of the art of Furtwängler. His tempi in the first two movements are only a notch slower than Weingartner’s (and in three movements out of five he is virtually spot on Beethoven’s own markings) yet the timings suggest a different story. Without exactly dawdling, he allows himself more space to shape transitions and the result is an amiably relaxed account, though not without weight in the storm.

Scherchen is the one conductor here to match Beethoven’s marking in the first movement. In theory the gap to be bridged from Weingartner’s 63 to Beethoven’s 66 is minimal but the results are actually rather uncomfortable. This for two reasons. First of all, the other conductors, even Klemperer in 1957, are agreed that the music should have a one-in-the-bar feeling so that, whether faster or slower, it has a lilt. Scherchen opts for a tense two-in-a-bar. This leads to some crackling excitement but come the more lyrical episodes and Scherchen seems to be forcing things ahead, stopwatch in hand, as though he’s scared stiff of falling behind the metronome (did he have it ticking over, silently but visible, on the rostrum? It sounds terribly like it). One is reminded of Richard Osborne’s memorable description of certain "period instrument" performances where the music is not so much interpreted as "barged through". Unfortunately Scherchen has defeated his own object; he has shown that the metronome marking is physically possible (did we doubt it?) but he has not convinced us that it its observance is artistically desirable.

Luckily the second movement poses no great problem since the prescribed tempo is not so very fast. Scherchen adopts completely smooth phrasing at the opening, unlike Weingartner and Keilberth, and allows himself less elbow room at transitions than the latter; it is this rather than his actual tempo which results in a timing a minute shorter. He is not unresponsive to Beethoven’s sublimity, but he is possibly a little bland.

Scherchen was, furthermore, a law unto himself. At times he would stand pedantically by a written metronome mark, then he would get out of bed the other side and do his own thing entirely. Whereas Weingartner had flattened out Beethoven’s contrasting tempi in the third movement (and Keilberth got them proportionally about right), Scherchen exaggerates them, with a lolloping scherzo within reach of Klemperer’s and an upfront contredanse. How odd, too, that his respect for most of Beethoven’s unmarked tempi was aligned to such a cavalier attitude to repeats. Weingartner was probably obliged to omit the scherzo repeat; on a 1958 LP there can be no possible excuse.

Scherchen is very fine in the Storm, allowing his (and Beethoven’s) original tempo to move ahead marginally – while Keilberth, starting at the same tempo, goes for weight rather than dynamism and so produces the longest timing of those under consideration – but impressively concentrated nonetheless. His finale is also a magnificent demonstration that Beethoven’s markings can be given coherent musical effect. Scherchen was an exasperating artist with the seeds of greatness and his performances usually demand to be heard for the sake of their finest parts.

In 1951 Klemperer the modernist justifies his slowish first movement tempo with a spiky Stravinskian clarity of phrasing and texture (the staccatos are very staccato). The movement proceeds on even keel with a certain gruff good-humour but no great revelations. In the slow movement he lets us hear the 3-note cells at the beginning (this goes for the 1957 version too), but without pointing them out as Weingartner and Keilberth do. Again, his principal concern seems to be a clean presentation of the score. It is interesting that he sides with his fellow modernist Scherchen in exaggerating the tempo contrasts in the third movement. His Storm is certainly dramatic, and is treated as a gradual accelerando, beginning at Beethoven’s tempo and virtually ending at Weingartner’s. What price his reputation for objectivity! But it is impressive in its way, as is the rather bracing finale. Like Scherchen, he seems most engaged by the last two movements. This is not a performance that aroused widespread enthusiasm in its day and is interesting chiefly in the light of what followed (but he was already 66!).

In so far as Klemperer’s earlier years are documented on disc, there is little point in arranging his recordings in chronological order and expecting to find a logical development. Only six years separate the two "Pastorals", but something profound happened to him during those years. In 1951 he was not a great conductor; in 1957 he was. In attempting to work out the metronome speeds of the 1957 performance I came up against the fact that he allows himself continual breathing space, he moves backwards and forwards in his tempi but with such naturalness that most people seem not even to notice it. The first movement is hardly slower than before, and the second movement has the same tempo, but the actual timings are considerably longer. He also has a quite different style of string playing, much less staccato, much deeper in the bow. This restless, wandering man had found a stability in has last period which corresponded to that which the post-war public needed. He finds in this music a heartfelt thanks for deliverance from the terrors of the past and a prayer for a better future. In view of the wholeness of his statement, it is scarcely relevant whether we always agree, for example, with his clod-hopping tempo for the scherzo, or whether we note that the storm is still treated as an accelerando; it is scarcely even relevant that the finale, at least as powerfully urgent as before, flows for much of the time at Beethoven’s own marking.

The Symphony is preceded by three overtures and some additional "Egmont" music, all played with unvarnished strength and conviction. The "Prometheus" overture responds remarkably well to this treatment; I thought the "Egmont" overture hung fire a little but the coda is terrific and in the first of the two songs (with Nilsson in gleaming voice) Klemperer’s deliberation gives stature to what can sometimes seem banal. The recordings still sound very fine; this is Beethoven you must have. As long as you don’t have only this Beethoven.

Christopher Howell

 



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