Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [22:45]
Symphony No. 2 in A major, Op. 36 (1802) [31:28]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [35:56]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E major, Op. 98 (1885) [39:39]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Paul Paray
rec. February 1953, Masonic Temple Auditorium, Detroit (Op. 92);
March 1956, Orchestra Hall, Detroit (Brahms); January 1959, Ford
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR371/2 [54:16 + 75:38]
Gone are the days when record companies put their addresses
on the back of the LP cover. Now the only way to contact most
of them is by an anonymous email link on a website. Such is
progress. Judging from the forgotten records website – trendy
lower case, be it noted – the company is French and is dedicated
to bringing neglected historic issues back into circulation
in the best possible transfers. If the venture doesn’t work
it won’t be because the presentation was too costly, as there
isn’t any to speak of. There are no notes accompanying this
double CD issue, though the back of the box does carry useful
information about the recordings’ origins, as well some interesting
Richard Wagner is said to have described Beethoven’s Seventh
Symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”, but I’ve never quite
bought it myself. The symphony possesses an undeniable and irresistible
rhythmic life, but it doesn’t sound like dance music to me.
With that in mind, this reading, set down getting on for sixty
years ago by French conductor Paul Paray (1889-1979) comes as
close as any to convincing me. It is a remarkably fleet-footed
performance, with spring in the rhythm at all times. This applies
equally to the second movement, given here in a flowing tempo
which might just have seemed matter of fact were it not for
the masterly control of the terraced dynamics leading to the
first fortissimo. I’m impressed, too, by how agitated the music
becomes when the accompanying triplets turn into semiquavers.
All this is heard after a marvellous first movement, the slow
introduction suitably weighty but followed by an Allegro that
brilliantly maintains momentum, the difficult dotted rhythm
always perfectly articulated, and with a control of pulse, sometimes
edging forward, sometimes holding back, that seems perfectly
natural and uncontrived. The end of the movement – superb horns
– is as jubilant as one is likely to hear it. The scherzo demonstrates
similar virtues, and the passage leading to the main climax
of the finale has the Detroit musicians playing at white heat.
For my money, not even Carlos Kleiber’s account of the finale
is more incendiary than this.
This performance has already been available on CD. I haven’t
heard that transfer, and so can’t compare it to this one, but
nobody would expect state of the art sound from 1953, and it’s
easy to live with occasional harshness on high violin lines
and unduly thunderous timpani. The mono recording is perfectly
acceptable otherwise, and the performance is such that you quickly
forget the sound. Three almost imperceptible clicks in the scherzo
remind the listener that this has been taken from an LP; they
induced something like nostalgia in this unconditional CD fan.
I owned this performance on the Wing label as a teenager. I
had very fond memories of it and they have been confirmed in
this transfer. The rest of the collection doesn’t live up to
it, however. The First Symphony was recorded six years later
and is in stereo. The sound is fuller and richer, though no
less clear and analytical, but the source seems to have been
in less good condition, as there are momentary imperfections
and dropouts, especially in the first movement. The performance
of the Seventh was characterised by rhythmic life and flexibility,
whereas this First seems to pursue rhythmic rigour at the expense
of expressiveness. The performance as a whole is rather hard
driven, an impression underlined by the lack of quiet playing.
The slow movement, for example, contains many a piano
indication, and not a few at pianissimo, but Paray seems
unwilling to impose these on his players. The scherzo is rigid
and unsmiling, and Paray proposes no relaxation of tempo or
atmosphere for the trio section. The finale goes at a cracking
pace and the orchestral playing is superbly unanimous, as indeed
it is throughout. This is a fine performance technically, but
Beethoven’s essential humour and high spirits are in short supply.
The Second Symphony has similar virtues and similar faults.
The first movement is certainly an Allegro with plenty of brio,
and rather as he does in the Seventh, Paray whips the orchestra
into a near-frenzy at the end of the movement. The slow movement
is perfectly paced but sadly lacking in charm, whereas the scherzo
is very steady, with once again, no broadening of tempo for
the trio. The finale is brilliantly played, with all sections
of this magnificent orchestra shown of at their best. Once again
though, a certain reluctance to play softly, rather brutal phrasing
from time to time, as well as relentlessness in matters of pulse,
make for a Beethoven Second that is frankly not much fun. Listen
to the finale, for example, where Beethoven’s genius fashions
something brilliant out of a rather absurd theme.
Exposition repeats in the Beethoven symphonies are not observed.
There are no repeats in the Brahms, and the performance is disappointing.
The recorded sound, in mono again, is distant and ill defined,
with the woodwind, especially, very recessed. The reading is
dull, with playing that is technically very fine but musically
routine. The opening of the first movement lacks passion and
tenderness, and the end is not the rather horrifying homecoming
it should be. The slow movement and scherzo do not command attention,
and the finale opens with a first trombone so loud and brash
that one almost wants to abandon the performance there and then.