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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 Op. 21 in C Major
Symphony No. 2 Op. 36 in D Major
Symphony No. 3 Op. 55 in E Flat Major Eroica
Symphony No. 4 Op. 60 in B Flat Major
Symphony No. 5 Op. 67 in C Minor
Symphony No. 6 Op. 68 in F Major Pastoral
Symphony No. 7 Op. 92 in A Major
Symphony No. 8 Op. 93 in F Major
Symphony No. 9 Op. 125 in D Minor Choral *
Magda Laszlo (soprano) *
Hilde Rössl-Majdan (contralto) *
Petre Munteanu (tenor) *
Richard Standen (bass) *
Choir of the Vienna State Opera *
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London/Hermann Scherchen
Recorded 1951-54
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0201 [5 CDs: 52.50 + 59.55 + 72.27 + 76.34 + 72.18]


The exploration of Scherchen’s classicist credentials continues apace. No sooner do we have his box of some Haydn Symphonies on DG Original Masters (ex-Westminster LPs and recently re-released) than we have this consolidated box of his Beethoven Symphonies. True, some of Scherchen’s Beethoven symphonies have been doing the rounds for a while but the Japanese Westminster reissues were tricky to track down and were in fact not these monos but the stereo remakes as indeed were MCA’s earlier releases which, in any case, were of the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ variety. This current release is the 1951-54 London/Vienna mono cycle and Archipel are now in on the act. This will give the conductor’s admirers (and detractors – but am I alone in finding the critical tide turning defiantly pro-Scherchen after many years in the wilderness of bewilderment?) a great deal to mull over.

I’ve previously reviewed a Lugano rehearsal and live Beethoven Five from Scherchen - a document of some remarkable status in its revelation of Scherchen’s attitude towards Beethoven and in its exploration of the conductor’s priorities of rhythm and colour, amongst much else.

That 1964 Lugano cycle has been released over the years but has never achieved wide commercial distribution – the vicissitudes of a live cycle are also part of the fabric of the performances and rather more so than in many others. Scherchen never insisted on absolute orchestral discipline (which was fortunate because even in some of his Vienna-based recording sessions, as here, he never got it even when, presumably, he, his producer and the engineers might have liked it). So this Beethoven cycle begins with some caveats; rather desiccated sound in places, occasional faulty balances, and shaky ensemble. It was recorded with two orchestras; the shakier, the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera and the Royal Philharmonic, going by the contractually necessary moniker of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London (in which capacity they recorded for Boult inter alia in those Westminster LPs of the time). I think I should add a note of caution, and hope that I have this right. Scherchen certainly did record some, but not all, of the cycle on 78s, Nos 2, 3 and 4 in 1950. He also made stereo re-recordings, as noted above, in 1958 (Eroica and Pastoral).

The thing that most people remark on when it comes to Scherchen’s Beethoven is his speed. Some movements are, it’s true, fast – though Scherchen was hardly the first conductor on record to startle with his approach to the thorny issue of Beethoven’s metronome; Weingartner casts a long shadow here and even a conductor such as Albert Coates showed how there were some musicians prepared to take Mozart and Beethoven by the scruff of their necks, even on 78s in 1926. The most notable example of this trait (his Haydn showed very little of the same impulse) comes in the stereo remakes of the Eroica and the Pastoral. These earlier recordings don’t share that kinetic impulse though they’re driving and lucid interpretations in their own right. Scherchen’s attitude to the Eroica in any case varied. I don’t have access to his 1950 Vienna recording but this 1953 remake takes 48.22, the famed stereo Viennese disc (out on Westminster and MCA over the years) takes 43.35 and the live Lugano (from the 1965 concert cycle) is broader still than the 1953, taking 49.31. Timings tell only part of the story, of course, but the cantilever of these representative examples of a twelve year examination of the symphony show the fluctuations and fissures Scherchen found in the music and, importantly, that his response to them was anything but static.

Similarly the Pastoral, which here takes a reasonable 39.00, was dusted down (in the first two movements especially) in the stereo remakes and the vitesse the elderly Scherchen came to prefer is fully mirrored in concert survivals – Paris and Lugano from 1964 and ’65 respectively taking 35.28 and 33.56. Not taking things for granted was of course a Scherchian trait and one that gave his music making its sometimes maverick strength, its sense of constant revaluation.

So in the 1953 Pastoral we find a tempo that’s not unconscionably driven at all, with an acutely judged sense of rhythm, fine explication of the harmonic implications (never didactic – listen to the clarity of the horns) and we find intact the lyrical curve as well as a necessary sense of stout abruptness. He gives rein to the clarinets in the third movement, audible even in the most rustic of moments and takes care over phrasing in the finale. It’s not as warm hearted a reading as, say – to take an unusual point of comparison – that by Karel Ančerl who favours much more a sense of legato and romanticised generosity, but Scherchen’s individuality offers great rewards for the listener. Similarly the Eroica opens in driving fashion but always with clarity of articulation uppermost. Certainly ensemble is not watertight but there is great power in this reading and a reserved dignity to the Funeral March (in keeping with his generally dry-eyed approach) and a splendidly controlled fugato. It’s certainly not as combative a reading as the later stereo remake.

The Fifth is quick, insistent and truly symphonic in his hands. He takes a Toscanini-like tempo in the second movement and not a Weingartner one (Weingartner was considerably more pressing than Toscanini here). The Scherzo is relatively relaxed but he serves up the greatest muscle in the finale – which really does take off, though Scherchen always manages to integrate those crucial moments of relaxation and mould them in a cohesive way – even if the relative crudity of the recording highlights a constant feature of these recordings, the raw timpani. The playing tends to be dutiful rather than expressive. In the Second Symphony one finds the Haydnesque affiliations are putty in Scherchen’s hands – this is an affirmatory, life enhancing reading, close to the celebrated Beecham in terms of tempo relationships, and showing many of the virtues of Erich Kleiber’s much earlier reading. Where he differs from both men is in the athleticism of his finale, which does tend to advance speed over charm, in the same way that his slow movement had moved closer to an Allegretto. But in the Scherzo and indeed throughout there is a delightful sense of buoyancy and liveliness. His finales did tend to drive, as the finale of the Fourth shows quite graphically. Earlier this persuasive reading sails closer to the Pfitzner-led disc of the Berlin complete symphonic cycle but in the finale Scherchen disappears into the stratosphere. It’s, notwithstanding issues of speed and tempo relation, a marvellously sinuous and convincing reading, strong on the power of projection. Not for Scherchen the even numbered lyricism of this Fourth; it’s confrontational at moments, with subtleties of shading and accelerandos (try the slow movement) that are full of Scherchian insight and provocative wisdom. The orchestral playing is also several notches above the Vienna sessions – the London Philharmonic on very fine form. The Eighth is one of the very best readings in the cycle. He seems always to have taken it fast and in fact the Lugano performance is even quicker by a full minute. Right from the first bars we feel the anticipation, the rhythmic control that prepares one for the controlled drama Scherchen unleashes. And yet the Allegretto scherzando is chock full of wit and warmth and a sense of relaxation and in the Minuet he relishes the pomposo aspect, and the wind chording. It’s a rare conductor who can explore and unfold, at a relatively swift tempo, those oases of calm and relaxation at the heart of this movement. The finale is suitably galvanic, driven to the nth degree and as with the rest of the performance very close to the metronome markings.

The Seventh underwent re-evaluation during Scherchen’s career. Whereas in Vienna in June 1951 he took over 36 minutes, in his live Lugano performance he had tightened considerably, knocking a full four and a half minutes off that timing. Through flexibility and lightening of string chording he sculpts the Seventh’s Allegretto with acumen. Even here though he vests the music with vitality, as he’d moulded the symphony’s opening - quite measured. It’s an attractive reading though rather done down by the recording and the underpowered strings; this is particularly so in the finale where there are patches of glassy tone – though lithe enough. His First Symphony, to go back to the beginning of the cycle, opens with a pretty measured Adagio molto and in fact this opening symphony reveals Scherchen in relatively expansive mood all round though he was seemingly consistent in his attitude here, his Lugano reading being only fractionally slower. The big surprise I suppose is his sedate attitude to the finale, an unusual occurrence for him. From the First to the Ninth. This is an authoritative, brisk and demystifying reading; some parts are almost impatiently harried though Scherchen’s characteristically decisive tempi are part and parcel of his linear approach to these works. He favours clarity of voicings in the opening paragraphs to Furtwänglerian evolutionary power and whilst the second movement is not objectively fast it is sharply contoured and etched. The vocal quartet are serviceable, the choir a little blunt around the edges, the conception striving for an objectifying truthfulness that occasionally comes close to italicisation and occasionally stentorian projection.

Always provocative, invariably affirmatory, Scherchen always has things to say about the core repertory even as he strove to present contemporary works with such assiduous and intelligent dedication. He is at his most exciting and revealing in the Second, Fourth and Eighth Symphonies but admirers will find almost everything worthy of interest.

Jonathan Woolf


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