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Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Hermann Scherchen
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)

Coriolan Overture, op. 62: (1807) [8.05]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (mono June 1954)
Symphony no.8 in F, op. 93 (1812) [23.20]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (mono 30 Sept 1954)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)

L’Oiseau de Feu (1910): Suite (1919) [19.50]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (mono September 1954)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874 - 1951)

Suite in the Old Style (G Major) for Strings (1935) [17.43]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (stereo 1 September 1959)
Carl ORFF
(1895 - 1982) after William BYRD (1543 - 1623)
Entrata (1940) [8.35]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo 17 November 1960)
Emil Nikolaus von REZNIČEK (1860 - 1945)

Donna Diana: Overture (1894) [5.38]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo June 1957)
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)

Symphony in G, Hob 1:100 "Military" (1794) [23.06]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo July 1958)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)

Symphony no. 1 in c, op. 68 (1876) [44.14]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (mono October 1952)
Vienna Recordings made in the Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria. (1952-60)
British recordings made in the Walthamstow Town Hall, London, UK (1954)
German radio recording made in Lankwitz Studio, Berlin, September 1959.
Hermann Scherchen conducting
Recordings are monophonic except the Schoenberg, Byrd/Orff, Rezniček and Haydn. AAD
EMI CLASSICS IMG ARTISTS 7243 5 75956 2 9 [78.26 + 73.23]


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Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966) has always been one of those conductors with an underground reputation; his admirers swear by him and avidly collect the various live offerings that have come out in recent years, which might give you the idea that he didn’t make many records. Well, his fans like to insist that his recorded repertoire represents only a small part of his absolutely vast total repertoire – a high proportion of 20th century première performances were given by him, most famously the Berg Violin Concerto – but even so he recorded untiringly for Westminster from 1950 to the end of his life, accumulating a recorded legacy of considerable scale and importance. Let me just give you an idea: of Bach he recorded the Brandenburgs, the Orchestral Suites, the Musical Offering, the 2 Violin Concertos (with Walter Barylli), the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, 12 Cantatas and the Mass in B minor twice (1950 and 1959); of Bartók, the Piano Concertos 2-3 (with Edith Farnadi, a Hungarian pianist urgently in need of rediscovery); of Beethoven, the Piano Concertos (with Paul Badura-Skoda), 10 overtures including the rare Namensfeier, the symphonies, some more than once (1951-1958) (and a complete 1965 cycle with the RTSI orchestra of Lugano has also been issued), the complete Egmont music and Christ on the Mount of Olives; of Berlioz, the Fantastic Symphony, Harold in Italy (with Riddle and the RPO), the Grand Messe des Morts (Paris 1958) and Les Troyens à Carthage (Paris 1952); of Brahms, Symphony no. 1 and the Double Concerto; of Handel, the 12 Concerti Grossi (with the English Baroque Orchestra, 1954), the Water Music (I’ve reviewed a recent reissue of this) and the Messiah twice (London 1953 and Vienna 1959); of Haydn, symphonies 44, 45, 48, 49, 55, 80, 88 and 93-104 complete (mostly 1950/1) and the oratorio version of the Seven Last Words; of Liszt, the Piano Concertos (Farnadi again), some rhapsodies and Les Préludes but also, more enterprisingly, Hunnenschlacht and Mazeppa; of Mahler, symphonies 1, 2, 5, 7 and the adagio of no. 10 (but various live and broadcast issues have filled all the gaps except no. 4), of Mozart, the Requiem, twice (1953 and 1958); of Rachmaninov, the second concerto with Farnadi (I can testify that it is among the finest versions); of Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, the Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Festival but also, enterprisingly, Antar (LSO 1953); of Stravinsky, the present Firebird and Petrushka; of Tchaikovsky, the piano concertos 1-2 with Farnadi (the second is timed at 33:23 so must be the cut Siloti version) and symphony no. 4; of Vivaldi, the complete op. 8 (not just the 4 Seasons!) and the Gloria; plus many, many lighter pieces by Auber, Offenbach, Smetana, de Falla etc (a terrific Enescu First Rhapsody, for example).

So where’s it all gone? Well, the Westminster catalogue had disappeared from view by the time I started collecting in the mid-sixties; it was sometimes drawn on by World Record Club, then by EMI for its cheaper labels. Recently Universal seem to have acquired the rights and have put out a handful of selected items. MCA has a Hermann Scherchen edition, of which I have the present Beethoven 8 coupled with no. 6. But it is high time some sort of a systematic and accessible edition of the bulk of this material was made available, starting with a boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies and others of the Haydn last 12, the Bach cantatas (which have some of the leading Viennese soloists of the day) and the Mahlerian half-cycle.

Would it be worth the bother? I am quite sure it would. Scherchen was essentially a modernist but he also had a profoundly enquiring mind and never ceased to call into question the correct style in which the basic classics were to be interpreted. I have already pointed out in reviewing his Handel Water Music that by 1960 this had got him approximately where the authenticists had got about forty years later, and so it is with his Beethoven. Perhaps to his contemporaries his insistence that the composer’s metronome markings meant what they said appeared just a zany fad, but ever since Roger Norrington’s first cycle came out in the 1980s with the metronome marks printed on the sleeves things have looked rather different. There is probably little point in comparing this performance timed at 8:27, 3:54, 4:36, 6:23 with a "normal" one of its time – a swiftish-normal 1970s "traditional" performance such as the Cleveland Kubelik takes 9:17, 4:00, 4:58, 7:29, but what of Knappertsbusch at 10:59, 4:38, 5:20 and 9:22? – but rather with recent original instruments recordings such as the first Norrington – 8:43, 3:50, 5:36, 7:01, the longer minuet reflecting his dubious practice of including repeats even in the reprise after the trio – and, even more, such modern instruments versions reflecting the "authentic" experience as Zinman’s – 8:14, 3:50, 4:16, 6:40. The conductor’s daughter Myriam Scherchen describes its "strict adherence to Beethoven’s metronome markings following the Weingartner school", but Weingartner’s recorded tempi in this symphony are considerably slower in three of the movements – his finale takes 8:13, the timings of his first and third movements tell us nothing in view of the omitted repeats but they are certainly slower – while in the third he established a precedent for a faster-than-Beethoven tempo (3:39) which has occasionally been followed down the years, for instance by Monteux (no timing available but the fastest of the lot to my ears) and Tennstedt (3:39, nestling rather incongruously in an otherwise fairly broad reading). Where Scherchen does approximate to the Weingartner example is in his cultivation of a lean and clear orchestral sound far removed from the denser textures of the alternative German romantic tradition.

It will be seen that a declared allegiance to the metronome does not necessarily produce equal timings. For one thing, the metronome is a cussedly unreliable contraption and if you bring several together and set them all to beat, say, 60 to the minute, they won’t all go exactly together. But even more it reflects the fact that each interpreter, even if he respects the basic tempo, still has to make the music breathe and to make decisions over any rallentandos and pauses the composer has marked. To my ears Scherchen and Norrington have the same tempo in the first movement, but Norrington worries the music more, imposing little crescendo-diminuendos in the inside parts and chopping the phrasing up into tiny units. This is an aspect of modern "authentic" performances which Scherchen did not anticipate; he goes for the long line, with results that are fiery and satisfying while Norrington, however ear-catching, is ultimately distracting. Zinman is noticeably faster than either and, in an attempt to prove that phrasing is still possible at such a speed, inserts some exaggerated dynamic shading that sounds quite effete to me and, frankly, this spot of extra tempo seems to go beyond the realm of the possible; I felt pressurised and breathless listening to this while with Scherchen and Norrington I didn’t.

Another aspect of modern "authentic" performances which Scherchen did not anticipate was the use of original instruments or even a reduced band – he would have no truck with this and it should be said that his obedience to the metronome markings was not born of a desire to go "back to Beethoven" but simply to seek the truth about the music for our own times.

A point where Scherchen scores is in his ability to give more lyrical subjects their just phrasing while maintaining his tempo; it is by this means (and helped by the virtuosity of the RPO of the time) that he achieves the shortest timing of all in the finale. His tempo does not seem faster than Norrington’s but he holds it with impressive conviction while Norrington has little slackenings followed by spurts forward of an "oh-my-God-I’m-getting-behind-the-metronome" nature. Also in the middle movements Scherchen seems to have time to express the music steadily while the timings tell another tale.

Though it is likely to be the issue of tempo for which this recording is held up for discussion even today, I hope this will not obscure the overall sense of fiery conviction which was a characteristic of all Scherchen did and which surely proclaims a conducting talent of a far greater order than Norrington or Zinman, admirable though they be.

Untrammelled by the metronome mark (there is none), he adopted a tempo in Coriolan (8:05) closer to Klemperer (7:58) than, say, the Weingartner-inspired 1950s reading under Boult (6:50). Though the recording is close and overbearing (the symphony sounds remarkably well) the performance is essential hearing, comfortably (nay, uncomfortably) surpassing either of the two just mentioned in its combination of structural grip with tense and fiery drama.

Having spread myself over Beethoven I will be brief with the rest: the Stravinsky gets a performance which is colourful, brilliant and tender as required, and sounds well for the date; one of Schoenberg’s less-appreciated works is vindicated with burnished string tone and a good radio recording; Orff’s proto-minimalist reworking of music by William Byrd is realised with a magical ear for its sonorities and the "Donna Diana" overture shows he could make the lighter repertoire fizz (it’s interesting how many "modernist" conductors had this ability: think of Leibowitz’s Offenbach).

Haydn and Brahms call for more comment. To judge from his discography Scherchen was a rare case in his generation of preferring Haydn to Mozart. The brilliance of the outer movements could perhaps be taken for granted (the finale goes at a terrific lick, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end) but there is also a Viennese lilt to the minuet, much affection to the phrasing and all the surprises are superbly pointed. The wonderful poise with which the slow movement enters testifies to Scherchen’s deep love of the composer and when the military effects arrive something far more phantasmagoric than a mere joke is at foot; it sounds like an uncanny preview of Shostakovich 15. This is big, big, big Haydn and if the other eleven "London" symphonies are remotely on this level their reissue as a set is a matter of urgency. Don’t let anyone kid you that only Beecham did good Haydn in those days (and there were the Mogens Wöldike recordings with the same orchestra if anyone’s listening …).

Brahms was not a Scherchen speciality but this performance hardly suggests a lack of empathy with the music. It has a number of notable features. One is a matter which worried Toscanini every time he returned to this piece. The introduction and coda to the first movement, marked "Un poco sostenuto" and "Meno allegro" respectively, are based on similar material over a repeated-note bass and look, on paper, as if they are supposed to go at the same tempo. Well, Toscanini never succeeded in making them do so to his satisfaction and the normal solution (Klemperer’s, for example) is to make the coda go a little slower than the main body of the movement without trying to relate it to the much slower introduction. Scherchen succeeds where others have failed, so you will hear an introduction that is unusually swift and dramatic and a coda that is much slower than usual. As so often, Scherchen makes his unusual decisions sound convincing.

Another interesting point is that he evidently feels that the descending-note motto theme which dominates the finale is also present in the first movement and discovers it in the inner textures at a number of points. More importantly, the first movement is propelled along with great vitality but also much warmth. If in Beethoven Scherchen seeks a lean and muscular sound, in Brahms he continually probes into the inner and lower parts, creating textures of great richness.

Scherchen’s middle movements are extremely expansive – at 10:33 and 5:12 we are in Furtwängler territory; a 1952 live Furtwängler performance in Berlin took 10:35 and 5:16, though interestingly a month later, in Turin with a much less rich-toned orchestra, Furtwängler took a minute less over the slow movement. Klemperer’s timings for these movements were 9:25 and 4:42 while Boult, who always believed that when Brahms wrote Andante he didn’t mean Adagio, took 8:24 and 4:48. Scherchen encourages his players to give full rein to their Viennese instincts with results that would be schmaltzy were it not for the evidence of a fine intellect governing the proceedings, continually probing into the inner parts and the harmonies. In spite of the slow tempo the trio of the third movement is not allowed even the slight accelerando conceded by Klemperer (but not marked by Brahms).

Also the finale contains a few indictments of tradition: the introduction is less of a free rhapsody than it often is and during the famous horn theme we hear, not an impressionistic wash from the strings but their sextuplets clearly enounced, preventing the music from becoming static. When this theme returns at the height of the finale, in a syncopated passage where even Klemperer allows a rallentando and a considerable (unmarked) pulling back at the fortissimo, Scherchen holds his tempo, as he does in the final coda, with the chorale theme blazed out absolutely in time. I hope I haven’t given the idea that this is a didactic demonstration, for it is also one of the most dramatic, spontaneous and warm-hearted performances I have heard. The only reservation is that Scherchen allowed some passages of poor ensemble to pass, perhaps preferring this to the possibly clinical results of rerecording and editing. The recording is close but strikingly rich and alive for the date.

So, if Scherchen is only a name to you, get this. Some of the "Great Conductors" in this series have been questionable presences, or else the selection has not proved their case. I don’t think you could doubt that a great conductor and an original, enquiring mind was in charge of every track here.

Christopher Howell

EMI/IMG Great Conductors of the 20th Century



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