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Hermann Scherchen – the Nixa recordings
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830) [51.53]
Harold in Italy Op.16 (1834) [42.18]*
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy overture (1880) [22.54]
Marche slave Op.31 (1876) [10.37]
Capriccio Italien Op.45 (1880) [16.39]
1812 Overture in E flat major Op.49 (1880) [15.09] +
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Antar – symphonic suite Op.9 (1868, rev 1875, 1897) [34.33]
La Grande Paque Russe Op.36 [15.24]
Capriccio Espagnol Op.34 (1887) [16.01]
Band of the Irish Guards +
London Symphony Orchestra
Frederick Riddle (viola)/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra *
Hermann Scherchen
rec. Nixa, London, 1953-54
TAHRA TAH 413-416 [4 CDs: 51.53 + 42.18 + 65.38 + 66.36]


It’s splendid that these Nixa discs are once more back in the catalogue. I believe they saw some life back in the late 1980s with transfers by Mike Dutton but those have, in any case, long been unavailable. Scherchen takes on rather Stokowski-like repertoire here – Berlioz, Rimsky and Tchaikovsky and in the case of second composer, certainly, he proves a formidable guide. His Berlioz has divided critics for half a century and that’s not likely to change, however attractive the presentation – and it is extremely attractive with full colour artwork depicting the original LP sleeves, some excellent photographs and useful ancillary material in the form of critical commentary. This is one of Tahra’s increasingly valuable “book” sets – the four CDs and text and artwork housed in book form, ten inches tall.
 
Scherchen’s Antar is a treat. He achieves some evocative colouring from all the sections of the LSO, a band not then otherwise in the rudest of technical health. But it plays splendidly for him – warm and evocative cellos, scampering flautists, a well-balanced (that is not over prominent) harp and in the largo sections of the first movement some estimable wind and violin phrasing. He is incisive in the dramatic music and languorous and warm in the slower – especially of course the “love” music of the slow movement. Crisp rhythm galvanises the March and the finale has some sensual string cantilena and a real sense of emotive engagement. Coupled with it is La Grande Paque Russe which is cannily paced – quite a slow start – and which once again shows off the LSO principals; is that George Stratton as leader? The brass is suitably saturnine, the leader of the cellos shines, and the whole thing is extrovert without becoming Technicolor. The Capriccio Espagnol impresses the more for not being remotely gaudy.  
 
Another disc gives us Scherchen’s Tchaikovsky. Romeo and Juliet conforms to the standard Scherchen polarity – fast is very fast and slow is very slow. This makes for rather an episodic ride and the kinds of exaggeration to be found rather rule it out of court, except to admirers of the conductor and those who welcome such licence. Nevertheless it should be stressed that Scherchen is an exciting and properly incisive Tchaikovskian and that much here is, despite the strictures, enjoyable and passionate. Marche Slave was, if not a novelty, then rather unusual repertoire for the early fifties and Scherchen does well by it, having less opportunity to deviate. There’s nothing really problematic about his handling of Capriccio Italien nor of the 1812 Overture. I can add one addition to the track details regarding the latter – amidst the bluster and grapeshot we can hear the (uncredited) Band of the Irish Guards.
 
After the unreservedly recommended Rimsky and the more problematic Tchaikovsky we come to Berlioz, of which there are two discs. The Symphonie fantastique is one of the most famous of the echt-Scherchen discs currently available. It bears his indelible mark as to rhythm and tempo relation and remains a highly inflammable artefact. It’s a powerfully personalised reading and speaks of Scherchen’s typically concentrated approach. But the sforzandi tend to grate and the rhythmic eccentricities will be a cause of concern – the Ball is particularly lugubrious and there is rather a sense of a lack of atmosphere. Part of that may be to do with the original recording, which doesn’t show the LSO in nearly as good a light as Antar – but certainly not all.
 
We also have Harold in Italy with Frederick Riddle, principal violist of the RPO, in their only outing of the set. I once read an article by some hapless American which referred to Riddle as a “competent” player, rather as if one were to refer to Szymon Goldberg as an “adequate” violinist. In fact Riddle was a superb instrumentalist, though his live Edinburgh recording with Beecham on BBC Classics is far superior as a performance though far inferior with respect to sound to this one. Scherchen is rather dogged here and can’t compare with Beecham’s incisive shaping of phrases and paragraphs. In fact the opening sounds more like a Bach Passion than Berlioz. Riddle plays with flexibility and fine tone for Scherchen but with far greater flair and personality for his own conductor, Beecham – not least in matters of timbral variety, phrasal elasticity and dynamic flexibility. Still, listening to the two makes for fruitful comparison; Beecham’s contemporaneous commercial disc with Primrose remains the best recorded and most centrally recommendable of his own contributions. But the live Riddle has great flair, if imperfect sound – coughs, veiled sound et al.
 
There is some tape hiss present – you’ll notice it in Antar, though you’ll equally be swept up in the performance and will cease to notice. Otherwise the restorations have been well done and the documentation, as indicated, is a pleasure to see. Scherchen lovers will speedily sweep up this set.

Jonathan Woolf
 

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