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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklaviera (1818, orch. Weingartner 1925). Overture, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43b (1801) [4’29]. Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67c (1808) [32’18].
aRoyal Philharmonic Orchestra, bcLondon Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner.
From Columbia aLX43/47, bLX277, cDX516/19. Rec. aCentral Hall, Westminster, on March 26th-18th and 31st, 1930, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London on bNovember 14th, 1933, cJanuary 31st-February 2nd, 1933. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110913 [78’33]

 

Orchestrating the almighty ‘Hammerklavier’ is a task not to be taken lightly. That Felix Weingartner was himself a prolific composer surely must have helped in his understanding of Beethoven’s processes, and it certainly is true that this sonata seems to go beyond the capabilities of a keyboard instrument - even modern Steinways, never mind Beethoven’s piano. Yet the work does lose that edge of danger. The sense of strain, fear, panic, about the perilous opening left-hand leap, for pianists that don’t cheat, that is! is lost here. It just sounds like the orchestra does not start together, with cellos and basses coming in early. There is also textural weakening, some cushioning of sonorities. A similar effect came across when the Philharmonia recently gave an unfortunately under-rehearsed account of Weingartner’s orchestration of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge at the RFH (http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2001/Nov01/Pletnev_Beethoven.htm ), a wasted opportunity if ever there was one.

Yet despite all this, Weingartner’s recording remains fascinating from first to last. There are some impressive felicities of scoring with some amazing shifts of colour around 8’40. What they have to do with Beethoven is sometimes beyond me, but fascinating they remain. Where Weingartner’s ear for sonority really kicks in is in the Adagio sostenuto slow movement, painted in appropriately black, bleak colours. Portamento in this movement is present but undistracting, and everywhere there is an underlay of profound peace. Weingartner the orchestrator and Weingartner the interpreter clearly have fullest grasp of this movement, and the playing of the Royal Philharmonic positively glows in response. A pity the Scherzo is far too hard-pressed. Where’s the Beethovenian wit?, especially at the very end!

Track 4 on this disc begins at the transitory passage that separates slow movement and Fugue - no separate mark for the fugue itself, which begins at 2’22. Here Weingartner and his orchestra approach white-heat at times. This orchestration clearly meant much to the conductor. Passages such as that at around 4’50 are quite astonishing in their ferocity. Alas, there is no way the final chords are going to sound triumphal, indeed all-conquering, in the manner they almost always do when a single, valiant pianist gets to the end.

Despite the various caveats, do try to hear this. It is a fascinating insight into Weingartner’s mind and a window onto another era. For some reason, I can imagine this sitting well in a Prom programme in future years …

Now let’s hear Weingartner conducting Weingartner - there exist recordings of Schäfers Sonntaglied Op16/1, Frühlingsgespenster Op19/4, (with Lucille Marcel, soprano), Der Sturm - Scherzettino, amongst others, all of which appear to have been available in Japan (SGR8644, coupled with this very ‘Hammerklavier’). It would be great to have them over here - unless any reader knows of a modern recording/European issue?

The Prometheus on this disc dates from November 1933 (the VPO 1936 version previously came my way on EMI Great Conductors of the 20th Century 5 75 965-2 (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Apr04/Weingartner.htm ), an indispensable collection. The LPO performance features a marvelously flowing introduction and a main body that is perhaps more playful than might be expected.

The Fifth Symphony here is that of early 1933, the last of Weingartner’s four disc versions (the version from March of the previous year is on 8.110861: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Apr03/FelixWeingartner_Beethoven.htm ). There is a great sense of purpose to this LPO reading. What today might be seen as a slow tempo for the Allegro con brio actually carries great power. The repeat has an enormous point, enabling the ‘fate’ opening to carry even greater dramatic weight. It appears here as almost interruptive to the music’s progress. This is a blazing performance, unstoppable in its momentum.

There is a similar authoritative rightness to the Andante con moto. True, there would be more moto these days, yet what exquisitely hones playing (listen to the cello shaping at the outset, for example). Notable also is the depth of the journey this movement takes the listener on. The underlying repeated note figure that regularly recurs to add tension (try around 3’08) is imbued with meaning by Weingartner; around 7’30, the LPO positively glows. All credit to Mark Obert-Thorn’s restorative abilities for enabling us to hear the tonal nuances of this memorable reading.

The Scherzo has a natural and inexorable flow, the Trio has real gusto and energy. And listen to the transition into the finale, where timpani ominously and quietly tap away under held strings that are truly senza espressione. It is an unforgettable effect and one that is at one with the heightened drama of this moment. The (repeatless) finale proper is born of old-style grandeur (but how!).

A remarkable and fascinating document of the utmost historical and musical value. Obert-Thorn’s transfers are impeccable. And at a fiver, there is nothing to be lost in trying the ‘Hammerklavier’ for size. You just might enjoy it.

Colin Clarke



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