Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1875) [41:40]
Coriolan overture, Op. 62 [8:14]
Symphony no. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1893) [26:00]
Isaac Stern (violin)
Orchestre National de RTF/Josef Krips
rec. 18 September 1958 (Concerto and Coriolan), 28 August 1956 (Symphony); no venue given. ADD
CASCAVELLE VEL 3154 [75:54]
The Viennese conductor Josef Krips has been enjoying a renaissance of late, with his recordings of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn being released on Eloquence. The French recording company Cascavelle has also been mining the archives for Krips’ recordings with French orchestras. In this release Krips conducts the Orchestre National de la Radio-Télévision Française in Beethoven repertoire he would have known very well.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, op. 61 has long taken its place with the Brahms, Mendelssohn and Elgar concertos as one of the peaks of the violin repertoire. It has an eloquent simplicity that it shares with the “Archduke” piano trio, the slow movement of the “Appassionata” sonata, and other works from Beethoven’s middle period. This recording by the 38-year old Isaac Stern has a freshness that a great player can bring to a thoroughly familiar work. The opening timpani notes come across clearly, followed by some rather acid-toned woodwinds. Krips sets a spacious tempo for the first movement, which he does not deviate from to any great extent. Stern’s solo entry has warmth and sweetness of tone; he is very closely recorded, being unnaturally forward in the balance. Fortunately he is in great form, playing the long phrases of arpeggios and other passage-work eloquently and with very accurate intonation. He and Krips have a good understanding, and the performance flows very naturally. There are a few sonic speckles and rattles which I suspect are coughs from the audience. The chorale-like phrases which begin the second movement are carefully built up, and Stern’s exchanges with the woodwinds are sensitively done. His legato playing is very fine, especially in the high-lying passage with pizzicato accompaniment. There is a patch of watery sound towards the end of the movement. The resolute opening of the finale is enthusiastically attacked. Krips again sets a near ideal tempo, fast enough to be lively but not so fast as to feel rushed. Stern plays this movement with impressive agility and an infectious sense of enjoyment. This is really sparkling playing, and the applause at the end is generous.
Arthur Grumiaux recorded the Beethoven twice to my knowledge. The earlier of these was with the New Philharmonia conducted by Alceo Galliera, and dates from 1966. Grumiaux’s approach is more elegant than Stern’s, and the first movement is even more spacious at 24:07 (versus 23:15). The recording is superior, with a more natural balance. However there is a visceral excitement about the music-making in the Stern that makes one forgive its occasional rough edges.
Krips and the ORTF continue with an intense performance of Coriolan. The beginning has terrific impact and unanimity, and the sense of drama is strong. Unfortunately the tuttis, and the pizzicato chords at the end, are not quite together. Even with these reservations, the performance is certainly a lot more exciting than Stephen Gunzenhauser’s with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos.
Unfortunately the performance of the Beethoven First Symphony that concludes the disc is not up to the standard of the first two works. Krips’ tempos are again well chosen, allowing the music to breathe but the orchestra tends to lag the beat, giving a sogginess to the ensemble. As a result this is dogged rather than invigorating. Despite being recorded seven years later, the sound is raw and edgy. Kurt Masur’s 1990 recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig has far more refinement and vivacity: the first movement is almost a minute faster than Krips’, at 8:28 as against 9:23. The Gewandhaus may not be in the same league as the Berlin, Vienna or Concertgebouw orchestras, but the superiority of this performance provides a stark reminder of how standards of orchestral playing have improved since 1965.
This Beethoven disc with Josef Krips and Isaac Stern is a mixed bag, with an exciting Violin Concerto, a terrific Coriolan, and a rather dull Symphony no. 1.