Beethoven - The Premiere Recordings
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) - abridged [22:55] ¹
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [29:05] ²
New Queen’s Hall Orchestra/Henry Wood ¹
Odeon Symphony Orchestra/Friedrich Kark ²
rec. 1910 (No.5) and 1922 (No.3)

For years the received wisdom was that the first complete recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was the one made by Isolde Menges. Actually Juan Manen had just beaten her to that honour. Similarly when one thought of the Fifth it was of Nikisch’s 1913 Berlin recording. Various other recordings came close. The Victor Concert Orchestra under Josef Pasternack, for example, left behind a 1916-17 traversal. Shortly after François Ruhlmann directed an orchestra on Pathé. Later acoustic entrants included Landon Ronald and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra in 1922 and Otto Urack and the Vox Symphonie in the following year, closely followed by Seider-Winkler and the Neues Symphonie. But they had all been upstaged by a pioneering effort in 1910 by Friedrich Kark, who directed the Odeon Symphony Orchestra.

Kark was born in Hamburg in 1869 and was a recording pioneer. He was the musical director for German Odeon during the years 1906-10 so was auspiciously placed to conduct this uncut first ever recording for his own company. One must accept the recording principles of the day. You can hear individual violin lines; the reduced combination sounds very small, chamber sized, possibly something like 6-2-2 and then brass augmentation or substitution for the string basses. Wind parts were equally scaled down. The percussion is audible however despite the boxiness of the acoustic and the severe compression of the forces. There are a few mishaps - there a pizzicato slip in the scherzo, but unanimity of attack was pretty much conditional in nerve wracking circumstances such as these. Kark emerges as a businesslike conductor, with the usual romanticised gestures at the start and a strong, bluff energy elsewhere. There was a transfer of this on the Japanese Wing label some years ago but I’ve not had access to it for comparative purposes.

The Kark is a stand-alone disc from Historic Recordings but for the purposes of this review the company has kindly augmented it for me with Henry Wood’s 1922 Eroica. This was something of a cause célèbre because despite admiration for the performance (a fact often forgotten) Wood and Columbia were heavily censured for the truncation. Nevertheless despite the mutilation one can say that this was the first ever recording, as with the companion Kark, just beating Oskar Fried and Frieder Weissmann - both with the Berlin State, but the former for Polydor and the latter for Parlophone.

It was interesting going back to look at a few contemporary comments about Wood in the light of this recording. By 1925 he was considered a ‘sad disappointment’ in the recording studio according to a critic of the day. Whether this was wholly interpretative or whether the repertoire - rather bitty - had something to do with it one can’t be sure. Still, in 1926 he re-recorded the Eroica and that performance far more than this one, shows his tough and confident approach in its best light. This earlier recording with its raft of bass reinforcements offers a fascinating glimpse at the editorial processes current with regard to abridged recordings - the majority, after all.

There are no notes, as is house style with this company. I don’t particularly regret that if it keeps costs down and allows specialists to get on with the business in hand - namely, accessing very decent sounding transfers of (in the Kark case) very rare historic material.

Jonathan Woolf