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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803)
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807)
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808)
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812)
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
Eileen Farrell (soprano), Nan Merriman, (alto) Jan Peerce, (tenor) and Norman Scott (bass) Robert Shaw Chorale
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini.
Recordings 21/12/51 {No.1), 7/11/49 and 5/10/51 (No.2), 6/12/53 (No. 3), 3/2/51 (No. 4), 22/3/52 (No. 5), 14/1/52 (No. 6), 9/11 and 10/11/ 51 (No. 7), 10/11/51 (No. 8) and 31/3 and 1/4/52 (No. 9) in Carnegie Hall, New York. ADD
available either individually or as a set.
RCA RED SEAL 82876-55702-2 [5 discs: 322.50]


The record industry is in recycle mode again. These definitive performances have been in and out of the catalogue intermittently since the 1950s; more in than out, I am pleased to say. Each repackaging makes the cycle more convenient moving from single discs at full price, single discs at mid price, twofers at mid-price, to the current format, a boxed set at bargain price.

Each time they are re-issued, we are told that the miracles of modern technology have been applied to them, making a giant step forward in sound quality. Fortunately, although the booklet informs us that the recordings have been re-mastered yet again (2003), there is no marketing blurb informing us of the dramatic improvements once again. This is very good, as to these ears, there is very little difference in sound quality between this issue and the twofers, which were released about five years ago. These made an improvement albeit fairly slight on their predecessors with a taming of the upper frequencies and a definite warming of the sound. If you have these versions, there is little need to invest in the current set, unless you are looking to save space on your shelves, as the present box, containing card sleeves is a definite advantage in this area. In addition, there is a very informative multilingual booklet which enhances this issue.

These performances are extremely interesting to those of us who have experienced the sometimes bogus claims to authenticity of the period performance brigade. Tempi in this set, are often as fast as many of the competing versions, and Toscanini is well known for his strict adherence to the composer’s instructions. Although academic research has opened our senses to Beethoven’s tempo markings, many of these are almost met in the present very fine performances.

Toscanini’s was insistent on his orchestras playing accurately and together. What is clear from listening to these performances is that standards of orchestral playing in the 1950s have certainly been improved upon in the intervening years. Modern cycles can be and often are better played than these, but are there any other factors which should direct your intention towards the current set – most emphatically yes!

As was the fashion in the 1950s, no first movement repeats are played. The commitment from conductor and orchestra alike is total. This shines through in these incandescent performances. One recalls the Toscanini quote "Is not Napoleon. Is not Eroica. Is Allegro con brio." These are pure performances defined clearly by the scores and nothing else. Gone are the interpretative features of other contemporary great conductors (Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Weingartner, to mention just three), each of whom recorded complete Beethoven Symphony cycles at about the same time.

Comparing these cycles one is struck by how deeply felt they are and that they are like chalk and cheese. Mengelberg, and to a lesser extent Furtwängler, impose a thick layer of interpretative detail on top of the scores with fluctuations in tempo etc which add to or subtract from the performances depending upon your likes and dislikes. Weingartner is perhaps closer to Toscanini than the other two, but he does not appear to galvanise his players to the same extent.

No. 1 starts strongly and continues in this vein, with rapid tempi being utilised throughout. The second movement is straightforward with no nonsense playing from the orchestra. The scherzo explodes onto the scene with the orchestra playing for all it is worth. The finale hurries along with aplomb, and makes an extremely favourable impression.

The Second, is played in a similar vein to its predecessor, with the scherzo and finale as energetic as I am sure Beethoven intended. This is edge-of-the-seat playing with a trace of distortion evident, but much less than on earlier releases.

The Eroica, with the Allegro con brio first movement just that, is a model of how Beethoven’s first major symphonic utterance should be played. Once again, there is a little distortion at the central climax of the movement, but not sounding nearly as uncomfortable as before. The virtuosity of the NBC players is clearly evident even though there are one or two slipshod moments. The scherzo and finale, with suitably bucolic horns thrill as few other performances.

The Eroica is coupled with No. 4, which is played absolutely straight without any of the rhythmic distortions of the first movement introduction as performed by many other less able conductors.

We then move on to a violent performance of the Fifth, coupled with the Pastoral. This gives you an idea of how rapidly these performances are played. Again there is a little distortion, particularly near the end of the fifth, and in the storm of the Pastoral. This slight overload is not surprising given the amplitude of the sound which the engineers were trying to capture that day.

Disc four couples the 7th and 8th Symphonies. The Seventh bowls along with emphasis on the speed, rather than the dance. I wonder if Wagner’s description of this symphony as "the apotheosis of the dance" would have been given to the work if he had heard this performance.

The last disc in the box gives us the Choral, which starts off with each tremolando note being clearly audible (compare this with Furtwangler, who conjured up an impression of wonder by, contrary to the dictates of the score, running these notes together to satisfy his interpretative requirements). The last movement includes the wonderful Robert Shaw Chorale, one of the finest choirs in the world in its day. Often used by Toscanini in his choral and operatic recordings, one can easily hear why this should be so. All parts are clearly evident and the balance between the different voices is managed superbly well. In addition the soloists are all first rate. At the conclusion of the symphony, one feels that all concerned have indeed scaled the highest heights, and must have satisfied Beethoven’s vision.

Very highly recommended in its new format, unless the highest of fi is a strong requirement.

John Phillips



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