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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [50:59]
Symphony No.5 in C minor (1805) [31:28]
Symphony No.6 in F major Op. 68 Pastoral (1808) [40:18]
Symphony No.8 in F major Op.93  (1812) [24:53]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Victor de Sabata (No.3)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Victor de Sabata (Nos.5 and 8)
Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia di Roma/Victor de Sabata (No.6)
rec. 1946 (No.3); 1947 (No.6); 1950 (No.5); 1951 (No.8). ADD
ANDROMEDA ANDRCD 5071 [76:12 + 71:51]


These are advertised as de Sabata’s complete Beethoven recordings – or “His Complete Beethovenian Recordings” as Andromeda puts it, with rather more gravitas. This amounts to two well-filled discs’ worth containing four symphonies. We can but hope that, even after this long time, more performances might emerge from archives and from private collections.

None of this of course is new. You may have caught, with pleasure or displeasure, transfers of the commercial Eroica in various forms – maybe Grammophono or Iron Needle. The Fifth was on Nuovo Era’s de Sabata edition as was the Eighth (013.616 and 013.6338). The Pastoral was on an Italian EMI CD 081 483475-2. This is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that all four have been collated in this way. For that at least de Sabata’s many admirers will be grateful, though I’ve not been able to audition any of the rival transfers for the purposes of A/B comparisons.

The Eroica was recorded in London in 1946. It and the Pastoral are the two commercial sets; Nos.5 and 8 are derived from live performances in New York. In many ways the Eroica is the least impressive of the quartet. Whether conditions were gruelling or whether he and the orchestra didn’t really get on the result is a curiously underpowered affair – curiously un-de Sabata-like. The first two movements have plenty of sophisticated music-making but fail to ignite. The slow movement is unusually expansive and tends to suffer, as does the first, from an incremental lessening of symphonic tension. Might this have been a response to insensitive side breaks? Probably not – nothing of the same happened the following year in Rome, though here he was, it’s true, on home ground. I would add that the Eroica has plenty of good things – balance, phrasing and the like – but it’s not one of the conductor’s more elevated documents.

The Fifth was recorded live during one of his concerts with the New York Philharmonic. He gave around twenty concerts with the orchestra between 1949 and 1951. This is an intensely powerful and dramatic performance but is quite unlike, say, Toscanini’s driven drama of around the same time. De Sabata’s means were entirely different. He conducts with a controlled intensity and quasi-operatic sweep that compel total concentration. He characterises paragraphs with the highest acuity bringing new perspectives to bear, enlivening every bar though without drawing undue attention to himself. He thinks in long paragraphs, never forces tempi and generates the highest excitement through sheerly musical means. The Eighth is not an exercise in lightness; it has its strenuous and powerful moments. De Sabata is not one to indulge an effete Allegretto and indeed does not. He brings a balanced command of texture and colour.

The Pastoral was a Rome set recorded in January and February 1947. Here one can feel the full force of a particular kind of bel canto lyricism. Its not one that seeks to impose obviously anachronistic precepts – rather it joyfully explores the humanity and warmth of the music with sculpted and flowing, glowing lines. The musical paragraphs, aided by acute rubati, flow inexorably onwards; the scene by the brook for instance is affectionate, unfolds naturally and with beauty. It’s a deeply satisfying performance, one that gets close to the heart of things.

There are a few clicks in the Pastoral and also one mangled side-break at 4:49 in the finale. Hum and surface crackle harry the Eroica – though the constricted sound is a bigger worry. Of course one can imagine these things being better done. I trust they will be. It’s only as a stopgap that I recommend this but the interpretations themselves leave me with the greatest admiration.

Jonathan Woolf




 


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