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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 7 in A, op. 92 (1), Symphony no. 8 in F, op. 93 (2), Egmont: Overture (3), Entr'acte no. 2 (4), Clärchens Tod (5)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 2, 3),
London Philharmonic Orchestra (4, 5)/Felix Weingartner
Recorded 24th-26th February 1936 in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (1), 26th February 1936 in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (2), 19th October 1937 in the Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal, Vienna (3), 7th October 1938 in EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London (4, 5)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110862
[73:32]



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No luxuriating in full orchestral sonority in the opening forte chords of this 7th, just a quick sweep of the bow and on with the job. Thus the stage is set for a purposeful, onward-moving reading of the introduction.

So many performances of this symphony come to grief over the rhythms in the first movement. If the first dotted 8th-note of the pervasive dotted rhythm is allowed to get too short, the 3rd and 6th 8th-notes of the bar are anticipated to sound like the 2nd and 4th 8th-notes of a bar of 2/4, the 6/8 spring is lost and the movement just slogs. Tempo is crucial; beyond a certain speed it is practically impossible to enunciate this rhythm correctly. Very few performances avoid this trap entirely, the development section being particularly vulnerable. Weingartner spells out the rhythm on its first appearance with almost fanatical insistence; thereafter there is exactly the right spring so that what seems at first a steady pace builds up inexorably.

The second movement is notable for the clarity with which the various melodies and counter-melodies are presented. Weingartner does not drive the music but lets it unfold naturally, as though presiding over a chamber music group rather then an orchestra. Swift, joyful scherzos are another Weingartner feature and this one is no exception, with a gently carolled trio which is not allowed to sag. The finale sets off at a tempo which lets us hear all the notes, depending on inner vitality rather than furious driving. Occasionally the movement runs ahead of the tempo but the spontaneity is irresistible. In its day this performance had to compete with the famous Toscanini New York version which many critics still consider to be the greatest performance of this symphony on record. Those who set store by humanity, depth of feeling and tradition in the best sense of the word will feel that Weingartner is not to be set aside lightly.

The performance of the 8th Symphony is surely exceptional by any standard. There is no question of this being a minor interlude between the serious matters of nos. 7 and 9; the first movement immediately impresses by its full-bloodedness, weighty but not heavy, forward-moving but not over-driven. The "metronome" movement is brisk and insistent rather than delicate. Weingartner seems to suggest that, rather than making a joke of Maelzel's invention, Beethoven is telling us that it got on his nerves; thus the occasional bursts of real rage come to have a meaning. After so many swift and bracing scherzos, Weingartner gives full dignity and breadth to the one real minuet in all of the nine symphonies. Quite exceptionally delicious are the horn and clarinet exchanges in the trio, and when the strings take over with their creamy Viennese sound you feel that the music was born to be played by this orchestra. The finale is kept relatively steady, its main theme entering furtively as though looking around to see if the coast is clear before giving way to a great burst of joy. Weingartner's subtle pacing of this movement, gathering hymn-like expressiveness, exuberance and a certain mystery into one single sweep reveals a truly great musician at work.

Throughout these performances the Vienna wind are not always infallible in their intonation but the strings are magnificent in the clarity of their articulation and the precision with which they place their accents. They are so again in the Egmont Overture, which does not hang fire as I felt the recently-reissued Klemperer version did; the listener is carried along by a powerful surge of feeling. The two items recorded in London show that Weingartner's essentially lean and transparent orchestral textures were a constant feature of his work, no matter which orchestra he had before him.

Mark Obert-Thorn obtains sound from these recordings which is as good as one dare hope for considering their age. I have an idea that, the next time I listen to one of these symphonies purely for pleasure, these are the versions I will play. This first Beethoven cycle on disc still takes a lot of beating.

Christopher Howell



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