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CD: Forgotten Records

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 Auditorium
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR371/2 [54:16 + 75:38]

Experience Classicsonline

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 internet links.

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.

William Hedley








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