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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896) Symphony No 8 in C minor (Ed. Haas) [72:42]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No 6 in A minor* [73:24]
Concertgebouworkest/Eduard van Beinum
rec. ‘live’ 21 April 1955 and *7 December 1955, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
TAHRA 614-615 [72:42 + 73:42]


Experience Classicsonline

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 Mahler’s Sixth at all. In the case of the present Bruckner performance its survival is particularly remarkable because in the booklet we read that “This 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.”.

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 behind Mengelberg.

There’s much to admire in this performance. The orchestra plays very well indeed throughout and it’s 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 it’s not just the big moments that van Beinum handles well. The quieter passages are done with some delicacy – the textures are clear and there’s 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 Beinum’s 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 I’ve 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.

It’s particularly 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, there’s 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 – the treatment is very emphatic, with the timpani as prominent as I’ve heard them. Some of the tempi that van Beinum adopts are unusually fleet – though I find him convincing in his own terms. It’s 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 Bruckner’s conception and his account of the movement is exciting, though it’s not the way I’d always want to hear it. There’s no lack of space at the start of the coda (17:55) and the coda is powerfully built.

Overall, van Beinum’s 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 Tahra’s 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 – 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 didn’t find that the sonic limitations spoiled my enjoyment and we must be glad that this performance has not been lost forever, especially since I don’t 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 Bernstein’s 1967 New York recording, for example, he sets a controversially fast basic tempo for the first movement. Van Beinum’s 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 – the speed seems just fine to me – 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 doesn’t miss a beat and the momentum is quickly recovered.

I think I’m 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 Ratz’s critical edition of the score in 1963 confirmed this view but in more recent years more conductors have come to favour Mahler’s own preferred ordering of Andante followed by Scherzo. (For a more full discussion of this point I refer readers to Tony Duggan’s detailed survey of recorded versions of the symphony.) Van Beinum places the Andante second – 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 – in the aforementioned Bernstein account – 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 “brings out all the demons”, 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 doesn’t 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 Mahler’s manifold difficulties in their collective stride. It wasn’t 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; it’s 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 don’t 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 that’s a very rare misjudgement. For the most part van Beinum’s 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 can’t 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 – Niek Nelissen, in his note, rightly observes that van Beinum does full justice to the marking “immer langsamer”. 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 don’t usually mind applause after live recordings but on this occasion I think I would have preferred silence.

One can’t 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 can’t cope with the volume of the huge climax and the sound regresses, almost as if a door were being closed to keep out something that’s not quite nice. As I’ve mentioned, the hammer blows don’t 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 Tahra’s 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.

John Quinn


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