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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Great Conductors • Bruno Walter
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, Pastoral [38:59]
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a [13:07]
Fidelio Overture, Op. 72 [6:16]  
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 [7:26]
The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op.43 [4:46]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Pastoral, Leonore No. 3); London Symphony Orchestra (Fidelio); BBC Symphony Orchestra (Coriolan); British Symphony Orchestra (Prometheus)/Bruno Walter
rec. 5 December 1936 Musikvereinsaal (Pastoral); 21 May 1936 Musikvereinsaal (Leonore No. 3); 12 September 1938,
Abbey Road (Fidelio); 21 May 1938, Abbey Road (Coriolan); 16 May 1930, Central Hall Westminster (Prometheus). ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111032 [70:35]

Only a fool would presume to criticise Beethoven. When I say that there is a bit too much smiling benevolence in the outer movements of the Pastoral, and the work only really comes alive with the peasants' dance and the storm I hope readers will understand that this is very much a personal reaction to the kind of music I want to hear. All the same I do wonder if Beethoven's heart was really in it, especially perhaps the last movement, where he seems to be doing little more than going through the motions.
The sixth of Beethoven's symphonies is, of course, hugely popular, and many would cite it as their favourite amongst the nine. Bruno Walter's reputation leads one to suspect he would be particularly suited to the work, and so it turns out to be. This is the earliest of three commercial recordings he made of it, and I have not heard either of the others, which date respectively from the ’forties and ’sixties. He is on superb form here, as is the illustrious orchestra, and the performance is captured in sound which, whilst inevitably limited, is nonetheless perfectly acceptable. I do not subscribe to the view that period performances are almost bound to be finer than those available today, and in any case too often I find that execrable sound is enough to discourage me from listening to an otherwise convincing performance. This is not the case here. Indeed, despite a slight boominess in the bass the actual notes are easier to distinguish than in many a modern recording. I don't feel expert enough to comment on the work of engineer Mark Obert-Thorn, but congratulations do seem to be in order. At no point does the limited sound interfere with the considerable pleasure to be had from the performance.
Smiling benevolence – Beethoven's and Walter's – is indeed in evidence in the first two movements, but Walter was much more than that, particularly in the earlier part of his career. It is interesting to observe his control of pulse, for example, and to notice how often a crescendo – where greater tension is desired – is often accompanied by an immensely subtle, almost imperceptible acceleration in pulse. The overall tempo for the second movement is quite slow and I confess my attention wandered from time to time here, but then it usually does, I guiltily confess. The dance is splendidly done, with rousing, brassy horns long before the period performance movement. A pity, then, that they are placed quite far back in the sound picture. The storm, also, rises to a real fury.
The orchestra plays wonderfully well, with certain of the wind soloists earning particular praise. I was reminded, at the end of the second movement, that where I live in Southwest France, the cuckoo, without exception, sings a minor third, and not a major third as here. The first one that Delius heard, that famous spring, also sings a minor third, but perhaps that was a French cuckoo too.
Overall a fine, enlightening performance which it is a privilege to have on the shelves. Going back to the curiously mixed bunch of Pastorals already there I find that Klemperer with the Philharmonia in 1957 finds more sinew in the work, a view which better suits my own than does that of Bruno Walter. Klemperer's slow movement, even more relaxed in tempo than Walter's, seems more eventful, perhaps for the same reason. The present disc is superb value though and anyone remotely interested in Beethoven, Walter and the history of recording will want to acquire it.
The performance of the symphony is completed with four superb overtures. Fidelio is wonderfully dramatic and outstandingly well played by Adrian Boult's BBC Symphony Orchestra. Walter pushes on irresistibly in The Creatures of Prometheus – Klemperer adds three quarters of a minute to Walter's 4'46" – but the players of the British Symphony Orchestra are more than willing participants. The warmth and richness of the sound in the slow introduction merits a special mention. Coriolan is again dark and dramatic where required, but in the more lyrical passages Walter's control of tempo is masterly, knowing just when and how far to relax without losing the feeling of a basic, underlying pulse. The London Symphony Orchestra are on magnificent form, as are the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic once again, in a thrilling Leonora No. 3, with wonderfully atmospheric offstage trumpet, recorded earlier in the same year as the Pastoral.
William Hedley

see also reviews by John Quinn, Jonathan Woolf and David R Dunsmore


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