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CD: Pristine Audio

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, Pastoral (1808) [36:13]*
Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92 (18) [35:46]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Paul Paray
rec. Orchestra Hall, Detroit, February 1953, *November 1954. ADD
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 206 [71:59]

Experience Classicsonline
Paray begins the Pastoral Symphony as he means to go on with irrepressibly blithe, perky energy. It’s founded on cheery pace, zest and swing, with an emphasis on light, rhythmic articulation. The result is entirely appropriate to Beethoven’s ‘Pleasant, cheerful associations awakened on arrival in the countryside’ (tr.1). Paray’s treatment of the second theme (1:04) is thin in tone, not in itself beautiful, but affectionate and admirably clear in progression through the strings and wind. This leads to a cogent, heartfelt conclusion radiant with passionate belief. There’s no exposition repeat, as is the norm in recordings from this period. However Paray’s revealing of organic development is equally fine in his handling of the gradual crescendo from 2:20 through to the thrilling tremolando violin and viola climax from 2:41. The potential for sheer beauty, such as the diminuendo (from 4:09) tapering the violins to piano and then their pp staccato after their trill, goes for little. Karajan is smoother here. With Paray there’s a skipping enthusiasm approaching the triumphant tutti affirmation of the recapitulation of the opening theme. It’s crowned with a sturdy, heartening coda.

I compared the recording made by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan the same year (EMI 5158632). Here are the comparative timings:

Timings
I
II
III
IV
V
Total
Paray
7:54
11:00
5:01
3:21
8:57
36:13
Karajan
9:22
12:11
3:02 (5:28)
3:33
9:21
37:29 (39:55)

Karajan’s first movement is a more leisurely affair - a visit to the country by the refined. Where eagerness is the main impression with Paray, in the case of Karajan the conductor’s shaping hand is always evident. So the progression in the development is impressively achieved but you appreciate it as symphonic architecture rather than Paray’s spontaneity. The Philharmonia’s playing is more beautiful than that of the Detroit players. The EMI recording has more perspective and bass than the clean, bright but rather dry Mercury recording for Paray.

Paray's 'Scene by the brook' (tr. 2) flows agreeably, quite swiftly in a warm environment. He brings an affectionate, appreciative observation of its teeming life. The melody evolves naturally and expressively. You notice the greater space around it when it returns for the first violins in the upper register (1:40) and how the bassoon with the subsidiary theme (2:22) is joined by violas and two solo cellos before its sunny ascent to the first violins. All this is seamlessly presented by Paray as the first theme later passes between flute and oboe and is then elaborated by clarinet to a warm backcloth of strings. Here is idyllic calm. The late trio of birds (9:58), flute - nightingale, oboe - quail and clarinets’ - cuckoo, is quite naturalistic. Karajan’s slightly slower tempo and fuller recording result in a more sultry, torpid atmosphere but also less spontaneity. The violins’ trills have more finesse and all is more consciously surveyed and moulded. Emotion is beautifully recollected rather than presently felt. You can tell the flute (nightingale) knows he has an audience.

Paray’s ‘Merry gathering of the country people’ (tr. 3) is noteworthy for its clear accents and surge of energy (0:28). These peasants are cheerful and very light on their feet with no let-up in the ‘Trio’ (0:50). A slower, more rugged dance (1:31) allows due observance of the sforzandi at the beginning of every bar. Karajan shows even greater dynamic range, with a really soft opening, but this makes the fortissimo passages very much a mass force and rather intimidating. His Trio feels studied. Karajan omits the written out repeat of scherzo and trio, the equivalent timings to Paray’s are therefore in brackets in the above table.

Paray’s ‘Storm’ (tr. 4) begins ominously in the string bass and soon a truly thunderous fortissimo explodes in its first tutti. The later tutti sforzandi and the timpani, kept silent in this symphony till now, also have plenty of impact. The other instrument newcomers, trombones and piccolo, could be more prominent. Karajan reveals them better, is more poetic in the softer passages and displays a fuller dynamic range, but still doesn’t have the sheer bite of Paray in the more dramatic moments.

Paray’s ‘Shepherds’ song: Beneficent feelings bound with thanks to the Godhead after the storm’ (tr. 5) has an attractively simple candour. It also sports an unfussy presentation which concentrates on melody within an atmosphere of fervour. All the layers are clear and the rhythms pointed. The first tutti is hearty rather than, with Karajan, majestic and moving to a summation. For some, Paray may seem insufficiently smooth but he shows a consistent emphasis on the rustic. Nevertheless his presentation of the theme in running semiquavers beginning with the first violins (3:44) and passing in turn to the second violins (4:00), then violas and cellos (4:15) has an attractive plasticity. Arguably the Symphony’s climax (7:16) is a touch too objectively plain. Karajan makes more of this and had earlier brought serenity in his soft opening but often seems effortful in comparison with Paray.

Paray handles the introduction to Symphony 7 (tr. 6) well: its recurring loud chords are pointed and emphatic. For me this is just right though some may find them abrupt. Paray’s early string contributions have steel and resilience. The woodwind on their own sound a bit sleepy but are nicely balanced later against the genially soft violins in a purposive progression before the closing playfulness. I compared the recording made the same year by Karajan and the Philharmonia (EMI 5158632). Here are the comparative timings.

Timings
I
II
III
IV
Total
Paray
12:34
8:08
8:29
6:35
35:46
Karajan
12:45
9:09
8:43
7:00
37:37

Paray is overall uniformly more pacy than Karajan. That said, Karajan’s introduction, timing at 4:04, is a touch faster than Paray’s 4:13 yet has less sense of progression. His more mellifluous woodwind have greater presence but his loud chords are podgy and less forceful. In the Vivace main body of the movement Paray’s flute solo opening is light but cheery. The first tutti is lively, with the important horn parts prominent. There’s light and shade in the dynamics as marked. Although there’s no exposition repeat, the application of tension from a quiet beginning with admirable discipline is also evident in the development (from 6:36). Here the memorable oboe solo is cheery. In the coda (11:25) the brooding lower strings and gradual crescendo make a firm impression. You could say Paray’s approach is clean, classical, stoical. Karajan is more exciting because the full sonority he achieves is grander and more weighty, the glowing horns’ contribution more glorious, the dynamic surges more marked, the oboe solo creamier, the brooding strings in the coda more ominous and mightily built up.

The Allegretto (tr. 7) is presented by Paray with a tuneful but relentless seamlessness. The melody first appears on lower strings, soft, quite warm, but with a touch of furtiveness, its even softer final phrase carefully observed. The counter-melody arrives on violas and cellos, the melody now on second violins (0:46), tunefully flowing yet desolate. Beethoven’s layering is clear as is the increase in tension and sonority. By 2:09 the violins are presenting the counter-melody in impassioned manner as the wind enunciate the theme ff. The more optimistic middle section (2:55), A major after A minor, makes for a smooth contrast with no variation in tempo. Even so, how plaintive is its second theme in the high register of the clarinet (3:21). At the return to the opening music the significance of the soft strings’ backing is again seamlessly revealed in the fugato development which follows (5:14). The middle section return now seems wearied by events, the coda (7:06) clinical yet quizzical, its later offbeat distortions an acceptance of and closure to events. Karajan is a touch slower in this movement, largely because of a slight relaxation in the middle section and its return which makes it balmier on both occasions. His richer string sound creates a more romantic aura and he treats the counter-melody more theatrically. There’s more expressiveness but also more artifice. This is equally marked in the lower strings’ backing at the return of the opening while their fugato development seems to tiptoe. Paray offers more natural flow and evolution.

Paray well conveys the dance-like nature of the scherzo (tr. 8) and his slightly greater pace than Karajan gives it a jocose, carefree quality, especially the woodwind contributions, aided by scrupulous attention to dynamic contrasts and accents. Karajan is more festive and virtuosic, but manically so and doesn’t have Paray’s momentum. Both conductors repeat the brief first section but not the longer second; however, both make the repeat of the triumphant second section of the Trio on both its appearances, Paray’s trumpets a magnificent presence. The Trio itself (1:27) is characterized by attractive leaning on the heads of its phrases through the observation of the crescendo and decrescendo markings. Paray’s calmer approach here is closer to Beethoven’s dolce marking than Karajan’s.

The glorious barnstorming finale (tr. 9) in Paray’s hands comes with great clarity of accent, crispness of articulation and swashbuckling strings which are also merry (0:42) and maintain the same atmosphere and lively accents for the second and very subsidiary theme (1:10). The accenting does, however, prepare you for the drums gathering at the end of the exposition (which is not repeated) from an innocuous beginning at 1:26 to thunderous fury at 1:36, all effectively observed. Paray’s energy and enthusiasm throughout this movement is consistently maintained in the coda (5:02) though the clear string bass ought to grow more prominent, as marked, from 5:37. Karajan achieves this particular effect better in a more sonorous account which is, on the other hand, more effortful too - exciting but for me rather wearingly hard-driven, the strings worked into a frenzy.

Paray’s refreshingly raw and direct approach makes this a significant as well as enjoyable reissue: interpretively one of the great Sevenths and a very good Pastoral.

Michael Greenhalgh
 


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