The first thing to say about these two performances is that one
must be grateful to have them at all. Eduard van Beinum left precious
few recordings of works by either of these composers and though
he made a commercial recording of the Bruckner Eighth for Philips
he never recorded Mahlerís Sixth at all. In the case of the present
Bruckner performance its survival is particularly remarkable because
in the booklet we read that ďThis previously unissued recording
exists in the form of 10 acetates (18 sides) recorded by the Dutch
radio NRU that were found in a flea market by R. Mauritz.Ē.
This live Bruckner
recording is, in fact, the fourth of six live performances that
van Beinum and the Concertgebouworkest gave over several weeks
prior to the Philips recording, which was set down in June 1955.
That undoubtedly explains why the interpretation and playing
sounds so well settled. The symphony was a significant one for
van Beinum, who directed it at his debut concert with the orchestra
in 1931, soon after being named their Second Conductor, ranking
Thereís much to
admire in this performance. The orchestra plays very well indeed
throughout and itís clear that the conductor has the measure
of the score. In the first movement I had the strong impression
that van Beinum was in command of the structure. The music flows
nicely and the choice of tempi is generally judicious. The first
main climax (7:51 - 8:31), with an accelerando in the
preceding bars, has grandeur and is also exciting. The climax
between 12:36 and 13:19 is equally imposing. But itís not just
the big moments that van Beinum handles well. The quieter passages
are done with some delicacy Ė the textures are clear and thereís
some good work from the woodwind section. The desolate coda
is well brought off.
The scherzo is exciting
from the outset, with a pleasing degree of urgency. I feel van
Beinum rather over-extends the pause before the trio, though,
and the pacing of the trio itself is just a touch too deliberate
for my taste. Under van Beinum the great Adagio sounds dedicated
and noble, though the basic pulse is somewhat swifter than that
adopted by several other distinguished conductors. Taking a
few versions at random from the shelves I noted that whereas
van Beinumís account lasts 23:27 Haitink, with the same orchestra
(1981), takes 29:16; Karajan (VPO, 1988) clocks in at 25:13;
and GŁnter Wand, in two live recordings takes 28:45 (1993) and
27:26 (2001). I mention these timings for comparison only so
that readers may have some idea of what to expect. In fact I
never felt that the music was being rushed in this performance.
True, there is urgency at times, such as between 9:38 and 10:21
in the build up to the first great climax, and indeed van Beinum
is appreciably faster at this point than many a rival performance
that Iíve heard. Overall, however, I find his performance sensibly
paced and purposeful. The main climax, which includes the cymbal
clashes, is superb and is very well prepared. The magnificent
coda is done very well, with some excellent contributions from
the horns and Wagner tubas over a rich bed of string tone.
the finale that may divide opinions. Van Beinum is fiery in
the majestic opening paragraph and that rather sets the tone
for his view of the whole movement. However, thereís no lack
of sensitivity in the quieter passages. His approach to the
proud passage between 5:08 and 5:48, where the brass fanfares
are underpinned by pounding timpani, is arresting Ė the treatment
is very emphatic, with the timpani as prominent as Iíve heard
them. Some of the tempi that van Beinum adopts are unusually
fleet Ė though I find him convincing in his own terms. Itís
notable, however, that overall he dispatches the movement in
just 20:24. The four versions I mentioned above take between
23:53 (Haitink) and 26:21 (Wand, 2001) and in his 1996 performance,
also live, Pierre Boulez, who is no slouch, takes 22:19.† To
be fair to van Beinum, however, he never sacrifices the essential
grandeur of Brucknerís conception and his account of the movement
is exciting, though itís not the way Iíd always want to hear
it. Thereís no lack of space at the start of the coda (17:55)
and the coda is powerfully built.
Overall, van Beinumís
interpretation of this symphony is far from negligible and it
merits the warm applause he and his fine players receive from
the audience. The sound quality is not at all bad, especially
when one considers the provenance of Tahraís source and the
fact that this is a recording from a radio broadcast from over
fifty years ago. There is surface noise but the ear adjusts.
Also one must note that occasionally the sound fades a bit in
the loudest passages, such as the start of the finale Ė at this
particular point I wondered if the radio engineers had taken
fright at the sheer volume of sound and had adjusted the levels.
But I didnít find that the sonic limitations spoiled my enjoyment
and we must be glad that this performance has not been lost
forever, especially since I donít believe that the Philips studio
recording is currently available.
It will be noted
that the Mahler symphony is contained on a single disc. This
is not the only single disc recording of the work but, in my
experience, compromises sometimes have to be made to effect
this. In the case of Leonard Bernsteinís 1967 New York recording,
for example, he sets a controversially fast basic tempo for
the first movement. Van Beinumís tempo for this movement is
more measured than that but, sadly, he omits the exposition
repeat, thereby enabling him to get through the movement in
just 16:36. (Bernstein, with repeat, takes 21:29). I regret
this omission by van Beinum, especially as his overall conception
of the movement is pretty convincing.
He sets off with
a purposeful tread Ė the speed seems just fine to me Ė and his
players are alert and deliver the music with the right amount
of punch. Later, when the nostalgic passage with cowbells arrives
I like the way van Beinum puts across the nostalgia without
slackening the tension. There are excellent violin and horn
solos in this section. When the material of the main allegro
returns the performance has great drive but never sounds overwrought.
Alas! At the start of the coda the whole horn section inexplicably
misses a crucial entry (15:33), leaving a gaping hole in the
texture. Fortunately, the rest of the orchestra doesnít miss
a beat and the momentum is quickly recovered.
I think Iím right
in saying that at the time this performance was given majority
opinion favoured the placing of the Scherzo second and the Andante
third. The appearance of Edwin Ratzís critical edition of the
score in 1963 confirmed this view but in more recent years more
conductors have come to favour Mahlerís own preferred ordering
of Andante followed by Scherzo. (For a more full discussion
of this point I refer readers to Tony Dugganís detailed survey of
recorded versions of the symphony.) Van Beinum places the Andante
second Ė I wonder if, in so doing, he was following the example
of Mengelberg? Personally, I prefer to hear the Scherzo second.
Partly, I suppose, this is because I first heard the work in
this way some forty years ago Ė in the aforementioned Bernstein
account Ė but also because the material and overall mood of
the first movement and the scherzo link together in the same
way that the first two movements of the Fifth belong together.
However, in this performance van Beinum puts a pretty convincing
argument forward for the order he adopts, not least because
in his pungent, deliberately paced rendition of the Scherzo
he ďbrings out all the demonsĒ, as the booklet annotator puts
it. In a reading that contains no little amount of sardonic
bite I find he presages the finale very well.
I enjoyed also his
account of the Andante. The music flows convincingly and van
Beinum evidences an intuitive understanding of the idiom. The
orchestra plays very well indeed, with some lovely string tone,
and one must single out for special mention the principal horn.
The climax (from 10:14) is ardent but van Beinum keeps the music
moving forward so that he doesnít underplay the emotion but
never gives any impression of wallowing. The quiet conclusion
is beautifully managed.
The extraordinary finale presents a huge
challenge to any conductor or orchestra although, with the general
rise in orchestral standards over the last three decades or
so orchestras seem increasingly able to take Mahlerís manifold
difficulties in their collective stride. It wasnít always so,
however, and there are times in this performance where the members
of the Concertgebouworkest sound stretched. For me, this actually
adds something to the performance; itís good to feel that the
players are living on the edge in music like this.
Van Beinum leads
a convincing, well-controlled performance. There are a few small
points on which I donít agree with him; for example, the brass
and wind chorale (2:40) is articulated in a very staccato
fashion that I find robs the music of menace and mystery. But
thatís a very rare misjudgement. For the most part van Beinumís
grip and authority and his ability to realise the drama without
resort to hysteria impress the listener. The first hammer blow
(12:04) must have been very powerful in the concert hall on
the day though the recording canít report it fully. The second
blow (16:45) is very well prepared by van Beinum and the sense
of a plunge into the abyss in the paragraph immediately afterwards
is well realised, though at times the orchestra is pressed to
the limits to deliver, one feels. The pages that follow offer
a vision of darkness and raw emotion. I think van Beinum observes
the third hammer blow, over which Mahler had second thoughts
(26:43), though the limitations of the recording make it hard
to be sure. The coda (27:43) is dark and desolate. Here van
Beinum adopts a slow and measured speed Ė Niek Nelissen, in
his note, rightly observes that van Beinum does full justice
to the marking ďimmer langsamerĒ. Superbly prepared as it is,
the final shattering chord and the pounding drums have huge
impact, even when one knows the score and is expecting them.
I donít usually mind applause after live recordings but on this
occasion I think I would have preferred silence.
One canít overlook
the sonic limitations. A couple of examples will suffice. In
the first movement the recording becomes overwhelmed by the
sheer weight of sound at around 12:30 and quite often the percussion
sounds dull. At the start of the finale (0:22) the recording
simply canít cope with the volume of the huge climax and the
sound regresses, almost as if a door were being closed to keep
out something thatís not quite nice. As Iíve mentioned, the
hammer blows donít register as they would in a modern recording.
But we must remember that this recording is over fifty years
old and was never intended for preservation and reproduction
on modern equipment in 2008. I think Tahraís engineers have
done wonders to capture as much as they have. The key thing
is that an interpretation of no little stature and which would
otherwise be lost forever has been preserved.
Both of these performances
repay careful listening and study. They are directed by a thoughtful
and dedicated musician, who clearly knew these scores intimately.
Tahra are to be congratulated on making this set available.