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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony. No 7 in A, Op.92 [38.50]
Egmont: Overture and incidental music, Op.84 [abridged]* [33.54]
Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (soprano)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Smolarz Auditorium, Tel Aviv University, March 2012
HELICON 02-9660 [72.44]

This is a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that one might be very pleased to encounter in the concert hall, although probably not in what sounds on this recording like the cramped and rather acoustically dead Smolarz Auditorium. The notes are all there, in the right place and in the right balance, and Kurt Masur handles the score with accuracy and aplomb if without much sense of Dionysian revelry. In truth, though, one cannot really understand why it was thought that this performance was worth preserving on disc.
It is perhaps unfortunate for modern interpreters of Beethoven that there are so many great performances from the past still available on CD in sound that still sounds excellent. Forty or fifty years ago a new recording could be expected to justify its place in the catalogue because it probably sounded better than a recording made ten years before, even if the performance was not a match for Toscanini or Furtwängler or whoever. This can no longer be said, and a home listener nowadays can be well satisfied with Carlos Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, Simon Rattle, Otto Klemperer or another luminary of the past. Neither the performance nor the recording here will match that. Indeed the recording itself, with the winds and brass rather close to the microphones and some distant audience coughs during the Allegretto, does not match those earlier versions.
Maybe the coupling, a recording of Beethoven’s relatively unfamiliar incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont, will tip the balance? Well, no. In the first place, it is not quite complete. We have the Overture and all the other purely musical numbers which Beethoven wrote for the theatre, but the melodrama Süsse Schlaf is missing. Someone clearly forgot to tell Benjamin Perl, who wrote the booklet notes for Egmont in this issue, and he is allowed to say: “The climax of the music comes now. Against an orchestral background, like the accompaniment to a recitative, Egmont prays for sleep to ease his last hours before his execution…The music aptly depicts his vision, the essence of the entire play.” Unfortunately the listener is unable to judge the accuracy of these words, since the music in question has been omitted. Sharon Rostorf-Zamir is a boisterous but rather unsteady Clärchen, and the booklet does not give us the words of her two songs. Back in 1972 Georg Szell engaged a narrator to speak the role of Egmont for his Vienna recording, and although the ranting of Klausjürgen Wussow in his final scene brings uncomfortable overtones of Hitlerian speeches, it does give the effect that Goethe and Beethoven wanted. Here the closing Victory Symphony simple charges in immediately after Clärchen’s death, with an effect that it is both abrupt and unmotivated.
Even Masur fans will presumably already have his earlier recording of the Seventh Symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra made in the 1970s, which is just as well played as this and even better recorded (in early quadraphonic sound); it is currently available as a Pentatone reissue. Masur also recorded Egmont, with Sylvia McNair as Clärchen and Will Quadflieg as narrator, at a live New York Philharmonic concert in 1992 and that is available cheaply coupled with the Fifth Symphony on Warner Apex - although – given that company’s approach to presentation – presumably without any texts or booklet notes at all.
No, I am sorry to say this disc is a decidedly unnecessary addition to the catalogue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey