Listening to the first movement of Scherchenís Beethoven Symphony 2 I wondered what would be the reception were he recording it today in surround sound. The terms Ďcataclysmicí and Ďrevolutionaryí come to mind. Itís as if the Eroica has already started to arrive. From the opening two notes every fortissimo is given its full impact, as is every sforzando and there are plenty in the introduction. But the mood is predominantly fresh and light, partly owing to the dryness yet clarity of the recording, partly because a fairly small body of strings is used. So in 1954 hereís an approach weíd associate today with historically informed performances. The movement properís first theme has a deftly sketched tracery in its first violinsí cascades of semiquavers (tr. 1 2:41). Its second theme (3:27) is given by Scherchen a bullish kind of heroic quality. And his paring down of the first theme at the end of the first section of the development is thrown away almost casually: a vivid interpretation of Beethovenís moving from sforzando to piano (5:38) then pianissimo (5:41). So Scherchen succeeds in conveying Beethovenís range of mood, but what sticks in your mind is its magnificent sweep. You can hear this entire movement on the Pristine Audio website.
I compared the recording made by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan in 1953 (EMI 5158632). Karajan is throughout more expansive, especially the first movement which takes 1:21 longer. Karajanís is a more beautiful, reflective account, fascinatingly dwelling on what underlies the progression but to that progressionís detriment. With a fuller body of strings, however, his tuttis are weightier. This is to advantage in his climax of the coda which has more tension where Scherchen is simply athletic. Both conductors omit the exposition repeat.
After the white hot fluorescence of his first movement, Scherchenís slow movement (tr. 2) begins tenderly and in warm colour. The opening theme is sensitively phrased and the second (1:48) has a delicacy which nevertheless also contains a resilience which allows it to be assertive without being forceful. Scherchenís third theme (3:03) is genial, latterly with lovely nonchalant horn fanfares. Scherchen neatly charts the clouds appearing in the development (3:40) while the climax (5:22) is fresh this time rather than shattering.
Scherchenís scherzo (tr. 3) is rather stern though he does scrupulously observe its extreme dynamic contrasts with the violins usually babbling away pianissimo around occasional fortissimo tuttis. The trio, however, has a pleasing lilt and the stringsí mock bluster at the beginning of its second section (1:50) is treated with a touch of humour that would also have suited the scherzo. Humour at speed is the essence of the finale (tr. 4) and Scherchen fully observes its Allegro molto marking without missing the warmth of the subsidiary first theme (0:19) or geniality of the second (0:39).
Scherchenís account of Symphony 8 is famous for being the earliest recording fully to take on board Beethovenís fast metronome markings. This makes for a lively and forthright first movement (tr. 5). It has a cheery crispness: bite without venom. Yet its second theme (0:39) takes a step back, relaxes, softly humorous before its second section (0:56) injects more vivacity and its third section (1:14) maintains the momentum with vigour. This momentum propels the development (3:34) in which the valiant playing of the sinewy violins stands out. The bassoons, cellos and double basses are neatly audible as they introduce the recapitulation (5:04) at the same time as the rest of the orchestra reaches the developmentís climax. This is a good example of Scherchenís clarity of orchestral texture and fine balance throughout. But in addition the whole interpretation is infused with a vital energy so that the later stages of the coda, from 7:22, seem to have earned the right to be triumphant in character.
To compare Karajan again, here 1955 vintage: he takes 0:41 longer in this movement and revels in a bigger, broader beaming sonority. This makes for a stormier development and grander coda, but his second theme lacks Scherchenís lightness of touch and humour. You miss Scherchenís way of conveying the rising motif of its second section from lower to upper strings as a craftsmanís skilful tracery. Karajanís treatment is more mysterious, even wistful. In this first movement both conductors observe the exposition repeat.
Scherchenís second movement (tr. 6) is all beaming good humour. Thereís both playful delicacy and pace. Its ever-present semiquaver pulse gives it on the one hand a clockwork ballet quality, on the other a musing freedom which Scherchen realizes well. Listen to what happens when a motif cuts across the beat, notably that by the clarinets and bassoons from 1:41. Scherchen also brings a warm strength, largely kept in reserve but surfacing in the strings ff demisemiquavers, for example at 1:03, and towards the end of the coda.
Scherchenís Minuet manages to be both reflectively songlike and, in its offbeat sforzandos, firmly propulsive. Its second section can both relax into a mellow bassoon solo and make whoopee in its closing brass and drumsí fanfares. The cordial cello backing ensures its momentum and Scherchen by way of contrast allows the trio to be a touch dreamy, especially its hornsí duet.
In a finale (tr. 8) which, by now no surprise, is a true Allegro vivace Scherchen brings a fantasy element to the soft upper stringsí opening before the bombast of its rip-roaring tutti repeat. Throughout itís the playfulness and the extreme contrasts of dynamic that come across. It in effect makes this finale a second and more robust scherzo after the generally genial humour of the second movement. Its second theme (0:36) flows warmly enough. Youíd like more time to savour it, but Scherchen is right in not allowing this because Beethoven doesnít. However, despite and perhaps because of this, itís this theme that sticks in the memory. The components of the arguments of both developments (1:08, 3:19) are clearly displayed while the coda (5:31) is crisp and blooming.
Here, then, Scherchenís Beethoven has great clarity of texture and vitality of rhythm. These Pristine Audio transfers from Pye Nixa WLP 5362 display performances of considerable panache. They wear their years lightly and radiate surprising warmth.