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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) [41:52]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802) [34:25]
Arthur Grumiaux (violin)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, June 1957 (Concerto) and May 1954 (Symphony). ADD
ELOQUENCE 480 0428 [76:20]

Experience Classicsonline

I have rarely heard a more exhilarating reading of the first movement of Beethoven's Second Symphony than this one, and the following slow movement begins in Olympian calm. The scherzo and finale, on the other hand, are characterised by a kind of purposeful heaviness. The work is generally seen as one of Beethoven's good-natured essays, but in van Beinum's hands there is more to it, the relaxed side of things rather underplayed, the conductor apparently looking for - and finding - demonic energy. This might sound daunting, and indeed I wouldn't want to hear the symphony this way every time, but as one view of the work it is totally convincing. Only the scherzo seems a little slow compared to today's manner, but the weight van Beinum finds in it is surely there by right. The phrasing in the slow movement is delicious, and smiles there are aplenty, particularly in those passages which remind us that Beethoven was already an adopted Viennese by this time. There are thrilling moments in both outer movements, but it's true that some of the humour in the finale - Beethoven and Haydn so close in spirit - is neglected in favour of weight and drama. Almost throughout one would ideally hope for a little more lightness of touch, that forte and fortissimo passages might be toned down a notch or two. The balance favours the strings, of course, as was the way in 1954, but the orchestra plays superbly well. Each of Beethoven's symphonies has its particular attraction - except the Pastoral in my case, a personal blind spot - and I can quite imagine that the next time I feel like listening to the Second I will take van Beinum down from the shelves.

Even if you react unfavourably to van Beinum's view of the symphony, it makes a generous and challenging coupling to Grumiaux's superb reading of the Violin Concerto. This version from 1957 is the earliest of Grumiaux's three recordings of the Beethoven. He later went on to record it with the New Philharmonia and Alceo Galliera and later still with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, as here, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. I had never heard the present performance before receiving it for review, nor have I heard the performance with Davis, so I'm badly placed to judge whether the accepted view that the reading with Galliera is the finest of the three is the right one or not. There seems little doubt, though, that the soloist is more rapt and poised in that second reading - also available on Eloquence, incidentally - than in his first. More to the point, though, is the orchestral contribution, where van Beinum offers more in the way of character than Galliera later did. Interestingly, in this sweetest of concertos, van Beinum's view of Beethoven remains the same as in the symphony recorded three years earlier, which is to say that whilst he accompanies his soloist with the utmost tact and precision, when it is the orchestra's turn to shine things become more forceful and muscular. He never overplays his hand, though, and a glance at the score shows just how frequently Beethoven marked the music to be played fortissimo. The long orchestral passage about half way through the first movement, almost like a second exposition, is a case in point: van Beinum does not shrink before the sustained fortissimo markings here, and I'm not sure that I've heard it quite like this before. The contrast between the occasionally somewhat gruff voice of the orchestra and wonderfully sweet, calmness of the soloist cannot be ignored, but it never leads to tension; on the contrary, it makes for a fascinating reading of the concerto quite different in atmosphere from others I have heard. In any event, the distance between soloist and conductor is less in evidence in the divine slow movement and in the finale.

Both recordings are mono, that of the symphony just slightly congested from time to time. In the concerto the soloist is rather forward, bringing passages which are merely figuration a bit too close to the listener, sometimes to the cost of orchestral detail. There is also a curious, faint fluttering sound from time to time, audible only when the orchestra is not playing, such as in the first movement cadenza, but overall the sound is fine for the period, slightly less harsh than that of the symphony, and in any event perfectly capable of making for a pleasurably listening experience. The appeal of this absurdly cheap disc is further enhanced by a typically friendly and informative booklet essay by Raymond Tuttle.

William Hedley 

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