This appears, on the surface, to be a less than promising release. All its tracks were recorded, in sound quality typical of the period, more than 80 years ago. Four of the five works included were relatively insubstantial party-pieces of the sort favoured at the time for commercial release. Those four were, moreover, played by a Swiss orchestra of hardly the highest profile. And the reputation of the conductor, Felix Weingartner, though kept alive since his death by cognoscenti
, has been generally overshadowed by that of flashier contemporaries such as Mengelberg, Stokowski and Beecham. Even this CD’s rather drab cover – featuring a relatively dark image on a dark background – doesn’t give much positive encouragement to explore inside the jewel case.
Appearances can, however, be deceptive.
As it turns out, the quality of the sound, as re-mastered by expert producer Mark Obert-Thorn, is surprisingly good. Moreover, a couple of the supposedly insubstantial tracks are more interesting than they appear: one is an attractive composition by Weingartner himself and another is one of his imaginative orchestrations. All are handled respectfully and played with notable care and precision, for Weingartner, the Basle Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor from 1927 until 1933, was evidently already achieving high standards of execution by the time these recordings were made. Penny-plain he may have been by comparison with his more colourful rivals, but Felix Weingartner was clearly a musician of considerable substance.
I think it was a mistake, however, to open the disc with the overture to Der Freischütz
. For the first couple of minutes, until the tempo picks up, those deficiencies of 1920s recording techniques that remain impossible to address mean that the horns come through only fuzzily – sounding almost like an impression
of horns rather than the real thing – and the strings are a mere indistinct sonic background. Once we are through that phase, however, this is an impressive account of the music: focused and flowing yet also dramatic, vigorous and punchy. Weingartner’s impressive dynamic control effectively offers more of a light-and-shade account than other more monochromatic versions.
The Schubert entr’acte showcases some fine woodwind playing from the Swiss orchestra. Meanwhile, Weingartner’s forward tempo and the violins’ relatively restrained (for its era) portamento
playing keep any tendency towards sentimentality under control. The strings are in livelier mood in the conductor’s own scherzettino
, a piece recently re-recorded by the same orchestra under Marko Letonja (see here
). Even in this sonically compromised 1928 recording, however, the sparklingly attractive writing confirms the very positive impression of Weingartner’s orchestral music that we have been deriving from CPO’s revelatory 21st
When, earlier this year, I reviewed a Pristine Audio disc of Leopold Stokowski’s earliest acoustic recordings (see here
), I was especially struck by his version of Weingartner’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance
. And, as you can’t have too much of a good thing, I was delighted to find that whereas Stokowski had cut the music to less than five minutes in length, Weingartner gives us more than half as much again. This is a colourful, imaginative and inventive reworking of the original that puts the more frequently encountered Berlioz orchestration rather in the shade … which is pretty ironic as Weingartner was a great admirer of the French composer and had edited his complete works. Awash with deliberately exaggerated oom-pah-pah rhythms and indulgent portamento
string playing, this is a recording very much of its time but full of irresistible good humour and charm. I can easily see why it was the only one of these Basle tracks to have been commercially released at the time in the USA – and I could easily imagine someone taking it as a desert island disc to raise, even in the bleakest of circumstances, a smile on demand.
Weingartner’s account of Mendelssohn’s Scottish
symphony is relatively straight by comparison but, even so, displays his considerable virtues as a conductor. Once again this is a performance that exhibits a masterly control of orchestral dynamics, used felicitously so as to draw the listener’s attention to specific passages or to make pointed – and invariably musically justified - contrasts as appropriate. Plenty of power is kept in reserve to be used judiciously at just the right moments. The balance of the orchestra is also expertly controlled so as to keep plenty of the detail of Mendelssohn’s writing audible even in the most congested moments. And, quite noticeably, the music is kept moving along with a consistently maintained pulse - Weingartner was famous for his adage “There is only one tempo ... The right one.”
All those qualities are exhibited in a very satisfyingly constructed opening movement and are maintained thereafter. The succeeding vivace non troppo
offers plenty of opportunities for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to demonstrate its technical abilities, while the third movement, an adagio
, is characterised from the beginning by a rather stronger than usual sense of forward momentum: Weingartner’s powerful pulse is disinclined to allow the listener the chance to linger unnecessarily to sniff the Highland heather. The finale also exhibits the conductor’s characteristic sense of purpose and direction and culminates in a very grand final coda – slower than often heard, deliberate and powerful, though the fact that the brass seems sonically recessed deprives it of its last ounce of cathartic impact.
There is, then, much to enjoy in - and to learn from – this new release. My only reservation concerns its rather short measure. Otherwise, it will only add to the very positive picture that is slowly forming as more of the musical treasures of the late 1920s and early 1930s emerge into the light of day from the dim and dusty tombs in which they have been too often hidden for the past eighty years.