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Jonathan Woolf
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Hermann Scherchen - de Purcell à Varèse
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 D485 (1816) [26:52]
Symphony No. 6 D589 (1822) [31:28]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen (extracts) (1692) [11:13]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1759-1795)
Symphony No. 29 K201 (1774) [23:02] Edgar VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Déserts (1954) [27:32]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra, recorded 1950 (Schubert Symphony 5)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra, recorded 1951 (Schubert Symphony 6)
RTF Radio Symphony Orchestra, live recording 1954 (Purcell and Mozart)
Orchestre National de France, world premiere 2 December 1954 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées de Paris (Varèse)
TAHRA 599-600 [59:02 + 62:17]

Ever wished you’d been at the premiere of the Rite of Spring? Ever wondered what it must have sounded like, with all those boos and whistles? Well, use some imagination and this performance of the 1954 premiere of Varèse’s Déserts might just do the trick. The theatre is the same one that saw the premiere of the Rite about forty years before, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. And boy can those Parisians vent displeasure; I’ve never heard anything like it.

The concert was given on 2 December and I was curious to see what Scherchen contrasted it with; Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The problems – or fun – begin around 5:45 when the tape is first introduced. It inspires a Gallic largesse of boos, whistles, catcalls and shushing noises. Things simmer away until five minutes later when at a seemingly innocuous point in the proceedings shouts and jeers erupt, followed by sympathetic applause – directed presumably at the orchestra and Scherchen. By 12:24 laughter is in the air and at 14:15 someone shouts out in derision. Unrest continues until by 19:00 collective hysteria seems to have set in. Wild applause, laughter, boos, applause and chanting rent the air. Two minutes of incredulous laughter and approbation greet the end of the work. All right, this is more gladiatorial than musical but full marks to the Parisians. At least they care.

After which the rest of the programme seems somehow amazingly sane. There are brief, big band extracts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, here given under its Shakespearean name in French. Scherchen also did service for Rameau in this series of concerts in the French capital. This concert, with Purcell and the Mozart, was given in January 1954. Scherchen brings accustomed gravity to bear, lacing the Puck scene with the dignity of a Sarabande and bringing a veritably Passacaglia-like intensity to the final scene.

His Mozart Symphony is unostentatious. Once over some ensemble imprecisions this is a sane, middle-of-the-road performance, neither over perfumed, as Beecham was inclined to be in the slow movement, or callously driven. Maybe it’s a touch stolid here and there but it gathers momentum and confidence as it goes; the last two movements are fine.

The two Schubert symphonies derive from commercial recordings made for Ultraphon in 1950 and 1951. Both were recorded in Vienna. The Fifth is fast, energetic and dynamic. But unlike the Mozart this one definitely lacks Beecham’s wit and affection. Phrasing is inclined to be matter of fact and the wind players are not given enough time to phrase optimally. The slow movement is warmly done though orchestral pitch sags toward the end. The Minuet is possibly the best movement – bluffly charismatic. The Sixth symphony followed a year later. It’s big and bluff. The flutes shine in the slow movement and the trumpets sound cracking and crisp in the finale. Scherchen reserves the best for last with a verveful finale. Overall though it’s a reading that ultimately lacks distinction.

This is another in the long line of essential releases for the Scherchen admirer – it’s been splendidly realised all round. Pugilists and admires of sporting combustion might appreciate the atrocities visited on the Varèse – but in any case this disc represents Scherchen the exploratory analyst as much as the Viennese inheritor.

Jonathan Woolf



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