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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral (1808) [38.59] +
Overtures: Fidelio, Op. 72, Act I [6.16]*; Leonore No. 3, Op. 72b [13.07] *; Coriolan Op. 62 [7.26] ^; The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 [4.46] #
BBC Symphony Orchestra **
London Symphony Orchestra ^
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra + and *
British Symphony Orchestra #
Bruno Walter
rec. 5 December 1936 +; 21 May 1936*; 21 May 1934**; 12 September 1938^; 16 May 1930#
NAXOS 8.111032 [70.35]

 

 

These Beethoven recordings all pre-date Bruno Walter’s emigration to the USA and they are very well worth hearing.

The performance of the Pastoral was included in the volume devoted to Walter in EMI’s Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century series. It boasts a joyous, delightfully fresh first movement. Walter doesn’t take the exposition repeat but I don’t think that’s a crucial issue on this occasion. He takes the second movement at a pretty steady pace. This, it seems, is a view of a brook on a warm summer’s afternoon. The music sounds easeful and at ease with itself but it is most certainly not somnolent. The music making is distinguished by smooth, graceful lines. Despite the age of the recording the fine quality of the VPO strings is readily apparent and the wind playing is most characterful, especially when it comes to the bird song at the end of the movement (11:00 in this reading.)

The third movement is sagely paced: the speed is lively enough but there’s sufficient steadiness to let the phrases breathe and register. The storm is exciting and after the storm clouds have passed the Shepherd’s Song simply glows. Walter shapes this part of the symphony beautifully, just letting the music speak for itself yet guiding it unobtrusively. The VPO responds keenly to what Ian Julier calls in his notes the conductor’s “relaxed creative benevolence”.

The whole performance is splendid and very satisfying. To quote Ian Julier again, it is “both flexible and energised.” It comes up very well in the transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. I compared it with the afore-mentioned EMI transfer, which sounded to me a little bit more rich and warm. EMI have eliminated hiss whereas, in the interests of clarity, I suspect, the Naxos transfer retains a slight, but not distracting amount of surface noise. The Naxos sound is a bit more clear than the EMI effort. I have a very slight preference for the extra warmth of the EMI version but other listeners may feel that this warmth comes at the cost of a certain tubbiness in the bass. I doubt anyone purchasing this Naxos release will find the transfer anything less than fully satisfactory.

And that’s true of the four overtures that fill out this generous CD. These are far more than “fillers”. Leonora No. 3 is dramatic and taut and is captured in sound that is really quite amazing, given that the recording was made almost seventy years ago to the day as I write this. The coda in particular is thrilling and exultant. Fidelio was set down exactly two years earlier to the day. There’s some more fine playing in evidence here, this time from the fairly new BBC Symphony Orchestra and Walter directs them with great purpose. I’ve long thought that this Coriolan is one of the most trenchant performances of this gaunt piece that I know, the ending being particularly bleak. The oldest performance on the disc is The Creatures of Prometheus, recorded in May 1930 but this reading is neither disgraced sonically nor in terms of the playing from the British Symphony Orchestra.

There’s some very fine and understanding Beethoven conducting to savour on this CD. I warmly recommend it.

John Quinn

See also Reviews by Jonathan Woolf and David R Dunsmore

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