The overture to
Weber’s opera Oberon (tr. 1) makes a great curtain-raiser.
Tennstedt is attentive to its every mood and to the economy
with which the worlds of delicacy and verve contact and coexist.
First there’s the evocative opening with Oberon’s magic horn
solos answered by muted violins, intense streaks of viola and
cello, carefree flecks of flute and clarinet, a delicate fairy
march at 1:29 before violas and cellos begin sketching a theme
of utter contentment at 2:03. Crash at 2:49, that spell is broken,
and we’re into the first theme proper which is dashing in both
senses, an Allegro con fuoco, and fire is something Tennstedt
could never be accused of lacking.
Neither is contrast,
as those horn calls return and the second theme at 4:08 on clarinet
is the full version of what the violas and cellos started earlier,
treated expansively as if wishing to stay in the moment as long
as possible. But this extension itself contains from 4:53 a
vivacious tail which is to provide, after a rigorous development
from 6:01, an irrepressibly high kicking close from 7:53, played
here with great fervour.
This is the second
LPO/Tennstedt performance of this overture to appear on BBC
Legends. I compared the first (BBCL 41582) which comes from
a 1990 Prom in a recording with more body and glow in the Royal
Albert Hall acoustic. The account overall is slightly slower,
the actual performance time without applause being 9:40 against
1984’s 9:05. The introduction is a touch smoother and more reflective
but misses the edge of the earlier account and the appealing
quality of its violas and cellos’ theme sketch. The 1990 strings
show plenty of verve in the Allegro and at the end of
the overture their playing is more shiningly stylish, with firmer
dynamic contrasts, but the 1984 strings are more gutsy and prominent
in relation to the brass, so the whole effect is more dynamic.
The 1990 second theme has become still more expansive, almost
to the point of torpor, whereas in 1984 it still has some shape.
Also its extension on first appearance in 1984 still has some
gentleness where in 1990 it’s a bundle of zest from the start.
As a performance I prefer this 1984 account.
Next the main event,
Schubert’s Great C major symphony. The opening horns’
theme has an engaging directness of expression. Tennstedt provides
a steady view of unfolding events with momentum ever present
even in the Andante introduction. Schubert’s accents
on the first beat of the bar, so one accented note is followed
by two unaccented, are well observed without being overstressed,
as is the closing 3 note softer phrase as echo (tr. 2 0:23).
This gives the whole a clear shape and lilting progress which
is maintained in the clean-cut flow of the presentations by
woodwind (0:29), the violas and cellos’ expansion (0:52) and
then a new tone of resilient grandeur with the trombones’ first
contribution (1:26) which alternates with the litheness and
flexibility of the first oboe’s delivery from 1:53. When the
woodwind have the theme again, over triplet figures in the violins,
for the first time without the accents (2:56), Tennstedt creates
a sudden feeling of freedom which is an appropriate preparation
for the slow crescendo launch into the exciting, jubilant
trombones’ sforzandi, sudden strongly accented chords
from 3:35, catapulting us into the energetic and festive first
theme and exposition (3:40).
The rather more
skipping second theme (4:30) makes a cool contrast in its first
appearance in E minor but Tennstedt still gives it plenty of
swing. The trombones prove significant again in the episode
from 5:34 in which they present a motif based on the horns’
theme which gathers in dynamism like an animal determined to
break out and also prove the telling feature in the eruption
of the following crescendo, especially in the recapitulation
after the brass’s fiery contributions to the development. There’s
no exposition repeat, which would come at 6:26. The coda (11:25)
is marked faster. Tennstedt takes it slightly faster so it’s
exhilarating without being breathless and presents the return
of the horns’ theme at 12:38 triumphantly with the trumpets
boldly hammering out the triplet rhythm against it, only marginally
held back when the strings grandly repeat it so the closing
triplets on horns and trombones are emphatic without being stodgy.
movement (tr. 3) is intriguingly full of shifts of focus, most
plainly between dance and march, clearly presented by Tennstedt.
The opening beguiling theme for oboe here belongs to the dance,
with something of pertness about it and then coyness in the
decrescendo from 0:27, then racier when joined by clarinet
at 0:34 with trill added. And on the end at 0:47 is an altogether
homelier wisp of a theme, hardly established before a crashing
chord signals the orchestra’s determination to champion the
march elements of the opening theme, sprucely engaged here.
The second theme
proper (3:04) brings a contrasting gentleness like a landscape
coming into flower, a kind of more meditative match for the
mood evoked by that earlier wisp of a theme. It too has an orchestral
march in tow and, more memorably, a series of horn calls (5:02)
which Schumann said were like “some heavenly visitant quietly
stealing through the orchestra”. When the opening theme returns
at 5:32 it’s made more dance like through the graceful elaboration
of the first violins’ accompaniment, realized with a lovely
lightness of touch here. But the orchestral march also intensifies
to a stark, stonily gazing climax and stunned silence at 8:32.
Then a theme for cellos, also derived from part of the opening
theme, a consolatory response which seems the most mature and
humane of all. Yet loud and soft sonorities, brusque and solicitous
manners continue to the end. Tennstedt scrupulously presents
the ambiguities and doesn’t take sides.
To the third movement
scherzo (tr. 4) Tennstedt brings vigour in the strings, chattering
fun in the woodwind and brass ballast. He enjoys a waltz springing
out of the opening theme at 0:24 with great ease and flexibility
and, in the second section which finds the oboes and clarinets
sounding really rustic, another, rather more wistful waltz at
1:59. The trio features the grandest and most extended waltz.
Though not so marked, Tennstedt takes this slightly slower,
thereby securing a glowing full tone and joy in shaping the
melody. As ever there’s plenty of orchestral detail to relish,
such as the double basses crescendo at 6:21 as they slide
down to give a little boost to the final and quietest, most
reflective return of the theme, sensitively realized here. In
both scherzo and trio first section repeats are made but not
second section repeats.
and festivity abound in Tennstedt’s finale (tr. 5) which is
a true Allegro vivace. Here’s all the spontaneity of
live performance writ large. The violins in particular have
their work cut out in their accompanying triplets yet respond
with feathery finesse. The second theme (1:40), the one beginning
with 4 identical notes, Ds on the first appearance, is finely
articulated with accents neatly pointed and contains near its
end (1:58) a phrase derived from Beethoven’s Ode to joy
in his Ninth Symphony. That this is a deliberate homage is confirmed
in a longer quote (3:55), creamily delivered by the clarinets
here, at the beginning of the development and then transformed
in an eerie strings’ tremolando before trombones provide
the first of the sturdy brass treatments of the 4 identical
notes at 4:45 which are to become really stomping Cs from strings,
horns and bassoons at 10:43 in the coda for whose beginning
(9:52) Tennstedt finds an equally telling hushed quality. To
the final chord Tennstedt follows old edition practice of applying
an accent and then diminuendo where the 2002 Barenreiter
Urtext marks only a sforzando accent. As in the first
movement there’s no exposition repeat, which would come at 3:55.
I compared the ‘studio’
recording Tennstedt made in 1983 with the Berlin Philharmonic
(EMI CDZ 4795162, no longer available). Here are the comparative
timings, the bracketed one for 1984 being the actual music time
of interpretation are the same but there are some differences.
The generally slightly slower speeds of the earlier version
I’d say are owing to being able to consider tempi more meticulously
through recording playback facility. This results in greater
uniformity but arguably less spontaneity. The introduction of
the first movement is a case in point. The Berlin Philharmonic
version is smoother but the London Philharmonic has more character
in its greater individuality of phrasing and attention to accents.
On the other hand the Berlin Phil Allegro has more magisterial
vigour and seamless flow, with the entire movement now one great
surge. Tennstedt’s handling of Schubert’s long crescendi
is equally exciting in both accounts, but the greater dynamic
range and weight of the EMI recording make a more spectacular
effect. The London Phil coda is more contrasted in tempo and,
if the return of the horns’ theme is better balanced in Berlin,
London’s closing triplets are snappier.
I prefer the LPO
second movement. It’s more active, ‘in the moment’ than the
BPO’s more beautifully crafted nature. So the LPO wisp of a
theme is more notable and expressive as a meditation aside.
Their first violins’ accompaniment of the opening theme’s return
is more delicate, the cellos’ theme in response to a tenser
climax more expressive, the return of the second theme has a
balmier flow and the strings’ decoration is more pleasingly
kept subservient. The BPO account has more marked dynamic contrasts
and a climax of epic proportions which thereby becomes too stagy.
I also prefer the
LPO scherzo because the texture is more transparent, the woodwind
have a fresher, more open air quality and that freshness extends
to the strings in the waltz themes. The BPO are smoother and
suaver and more is made of the long crescendi in the
scherzo but there’s less sheer expressiveness in the quieter
moments, like the second waltz theme of the scherzo, where the
LPO strings are sheenier and a trio in which the LPO woodwind
are given the space to play more expressively.
The more fiery BPO
finale, with greater dynamic contrasts, is less easy to live
with than the homelier festivity of the LPO whose crescendi
are still sufficiently exciting. The BPO violins’ triplets skitter
smoothly but are less feathery than the LPO. There’s a more
infectious momentum about the LPO performance, especially the
way the second theme swings more with the span of the melody.
Its trombones are heard to more thrilling effect in the exposition’s
climax from 3:08. The LPO homage to Beethoven is sweeter, even
if the closing stomping isn’t as massive as the BPO’s.
This disc ends with
Brahms Tragic Overture (tr. 6). Tennstedt’s opening has
a heroic, Spartan striving quality, the marked sforzandi
notable in the first loud passage for full orchestra (0:20).
Here’s a steely gaze and progress in D minor, a sense of endeavour
in times of crisis with uncompromising proceeding onward. The
second theme (3:03) has warmth and affection but an equally
passionate resolve. The development (6:08) is a mysterious meditation
only to gather strength to face up to the necessary action.
The heroism of this is honoured in the warm version of the essence
of the opening theme provided briefly by horns and trombones
as a recapitulation in D major at 9:36 against sympathetically
slowly descending first violins. The reprise of the second theme
on violas at 9:59 is still warmer and more fluent. But the opening
chords return at 12:08 and the steeliness takes on an added
urgency as the tragedy plays out with only a briefly honouring
lament from the clarinets at 13:00.
I compared the Berlin
Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan ‘studio’ recording made 2 months
earlier (DG 4496012). This has a more de luxe upholstered
sound but the early sforzandi are less biting than Tennstedt’s.
Karajan’s strings in the climactic passages are more rhetorical.
I preferred Tennstedt’s greater grit. Karajan makes the passages
of calm creamier and the second theme gentler. His development
is a thing of beauty of repose in itself as well as the transitional
phase that Tennstedt emphasises. This accounts for Karajan being
a little slower overall, 14:36 against Tennstedt’s 13:44 performance
time before applause. Tennstedt’s development has more character,
at first a sweet meditation but consistently infused with a
sense of progression. With Karajan you’re more aware of the
overture’s structure, with Tennstedt you feel it more as an
ongoing experience. Tennstedt’s recapitulation has just a little
more burgeoning glow. Karajan’s second theme reprise is comparatively
reflective and his conclusion more scintillant than steely.
In sum, Tennstedt’s is the more gripping, dramatic interpretation.
These BBC recordings
have decent clarity which doesn’t match the vibrancy of the
performances. But fittingly the symphony’s comes out brightest
and best. My abiding impression of this disc is one of zest
and vibrancy, also the ability to draw out expressive playing,
factors more significant than having state-of-the-art recording.