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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No.6 in F major Op. 68 The Pastoral
Symphony No.8 in F major Op. 93
Symphony No.9 in D minor Op. 125 The Choral
New Philharmonia Orchestra, (No. 6) London Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 8 and 9), Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Anne Reynolds (contralto), Robert Tear (tenor) and John Shirley-Quirk (bass) and the London Symphony Chorus (No. 9), conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.
recorded at the Abbey Road Studios, London, in January and April 1968 (Pastoral), and Kingsway Hall, London in November 1972 (Nos. 8 and 9). (ADD – stereo).
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 585490-2 [72.39 + 72.32]

EMI reissues of three well-loved performances, only one of them (No. 6) remastered recently, the other two being re-releases of recordings digitally remastered in 1987 and 1991.

Hearing them again after 5–10 years of period performances, they seem to belong to an earlier world. Tempi are slow, repeats are removed, and a big orchestra is used. This will probably delight traditionalists and greatly infuriate lovers of period performance techniques. Giulini is too good a conductor to be dismissed however, and strange as it may seem, these performances radiate the conductor’s love of the scores, shining through the music-making like a beacon.

The peasant’s dance in the Pastoral is slow, but not as slow as Klemperer, the all-time slouch in this work. This is followed by an absolutely gorgeous account of the Shepherd’s Song. The concentration of the New Philharmonia is remarkable and the symphony comes to its great conclusion, slowly but almost regally. The only performance which displays a similar level of dedication and love is the one by Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Sony. I would not rate this Giulini version as highly as the Walter, but it comes pretty close.

When we come to the Eighth Symphony, this is done by the LSO in Kingsway Hall, and the recording quality, normally excellent in that location, is somewhat recessed, and less immediate than No. 6. The slow tempi sound sleepy and I was less impressed than with the Pastoral. The second movement is almost static, as is the third. The finale redeems itself slightly, but this is not what I would rate as a normal Giulini performance. In this symphony, I like to hear some exuberance and it is totally missing from this performance.

I doubt that even the New Philharmonia displaying the form they showed in the Pastoral could redeem the Eighth beyond what I rate as a very ordinary performance.

We stay with the LSO for the Choral and its excellent roster of soloists, again recorded in Kingsway Hall. I am afraid that the same lassitude that affected the Eighth saturates the Choral. The drama of the first movement is toned down, apart from some spirited horn playing at 2’12" in the first movement, which is not allowed to be repeated. If it had, some of Beethoven’s extreme drama in this movement might have been let live. As it is, the movement becomes a long, tedious journey which in the right hands should be alive and kicking. Even the cataclysmic central climax of the movement is very tame. Maybe the LSO was having a bad day in the studio – it certainly seems so as the playing doesn’t even come up to their normal standard.

The scherzo is a lot better, more like I would have expected with Giulini, pointed and properly phrased – it even sounds like a scherzo!

When we reach the slow movement the tempo slows right down again (as you would expect) but the phrasing is much improved, so much so that I actually enjoyed this movement, some insecure horn playing notwithstanding.

The finale is normally expected to open as if the heavens were being stormed, but here it is far from this. The reprise of the first movement is as sleepy as it was earlier, and the beginning of this movement as Beethoven summarizing what has gone before seems to take a age, with heavy phrasing from the LSO. When the famous theme is arrived at, there is a delicacy about the phrasing which I find most attractive so at least it is not a complete write off.

John Shirley-Quirk is his usual superb self but he is let down by the accompaniment which is sluggish. When the chorus arrives, the training given them by Arthur Oldham comes to the fore and there are certainly no problems with the choral, or indeed the remainder of the movement, provided you can put up with the sluggishness. This is one occasion when I longed for the breath of fresh air brought to this work by the likes of a Zinmann, a Gardiner or a Pinnock, or heavens above, (to those who don’t know it) a Karajan.

Given the competition, I cannot really recommend this issue although there are some nice things in it. Even at its low price for two discs, the set is not in the least competitive, and there are much better offerings to be had elsewhere.

John Phillips


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