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Jonathan Woolf
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   Len Mullenger

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 Eroica (1803) [42:38]
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60 (1806) [31:10]
New Queen’s Hall Orchestra/Henry Wood (No. 3)
Hallé Orchestra/Hamilton Harty (No.4)
rec. November and December 1926, London (No.3) and November 1926, Free Trade Hall, Manchester (No.4)

English Columbia marked the centenary of Beethoven’s death with a first-ever electrically recorded symphonic cycle, adding some chamber works and concertos. This is the sequence of recordings now being released by Pristine Audio under the title ‘The Columbia Beethoven Centennial Symphony Series’, of which this is volume two. The first four symphonies, as noted by Mark Obert-Thorn, went to British or British-resident conductors - George Henschel (naturalised) who directed the First - once on Past Masters LP - Beecham, who had an erratic way with No.2 - and then the subjects of this release, Henry Wood and Hamilton Harty in the Eroica and No.4 respectively. The remainder went to that colossus of rectitudinous symphonic conducting, Felix Weingartner.
Wood and Columbia had received a bit of a critical drubbing for their earlier significantly cut acoustic recording of the Eroica. Made in 1922 on six 78 sides - the electric took 14 sides. This isn’t something that the notes go into in any depth, invariably, since they’re concerned with the recordings under discussion, though Obert-Thorn rightly refers to that earlier recording in passing. It was, in fact, the first substantial recording of the Eroica; following it we find Oskar Fried (on 12 sides) in 1924 on Polydor, Frieder Weissmann on Odeon in 1924-25. Individual movements came from a few diverse sources, notably one of Fritz Busch’s first studio recordings made when he was director of the Württemberg Opera House Orchestra.
Wood’s acoustic effort was disparaged not for what remained of the score, which was played with his characteristically robust, direct, musically intelligent flair, but for what was missing. At a time when Columbia was beginning to release substantially uncut chamber music, and when other companies were experimenting with the symphonic repertoire in large-scale recordings - notably Wood’s British contemporary Landon Ronald for HMV - the 1922 Eroica seemed retrogressive in principle and self-defeating musically in practice. No such problems attended to this late 1926 recording. In days of yore, when the corpus of Wood’s recordings had not been reissued or, if they had, people tended to listen with their eyes and not their ears, this recording would have elicited the critical epithet ‘bluff’. As in bluff, muscular, no-nonsense - with a hint that they really meant unsubtle. In point of fact, Wood was an eminently sane conductor whose raft of recordings shows a strongly directional musicality. This symphony recording is no exception. There are no expressive exaggerations, the slow movement maintaining a noble straightforwardness and rhythmic steadiness. The only curiosity - and it must be intentional - occurs in the use of a large quotient of slides in rapid succession at around 11:40 in the slow movement. It’s unusual in the context of the symphony as a whole, where Wood doesn’t encourage the strings of his New Queen’s Hall Orchestra to do the same. The orchestra is well drilled - doubtless the conductor had recourse to his famous tuning fork - and performs splendidly.
I once had a long correspondence with a man who assured me that he had seen test pressings of another of Wood’s Beethoven centennial recordings, that of the Violin Concerto with Albert Sammons but that set, along with another eyeball-popping collaboration of Wood and Ignaz Friedman in the Emperor concerto, was never issued. For what it’s worth the set was apparently last seen in Manchester in the 1960s. That city’s local orchestra, the Hallé, was recorded in the Fourth Symphony with their conductor Hamilton Harty. There was no pioneering to be done in this case. Hans Pfitzner had beaten English Columbia to it in Berlin in 1924, followed soon after by the semi-ubiquitous Weissmann (what about a Weissmann series?) and then the youthful George Szell and the Grosses Symphonie-Orchester in 1925.
I only know of one other CD transfer of the Harty - though doubtless there are already 300 Japanese transfers - and that’s an indifferent effort on Phonographe PH5015 coupled with Solomon’s recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. This Pristine transfer effortlessly and embarrassingly outclasses that one. It captures all the subtle nuances enshrined in Harty’s romanticised manipulation of tempi and string tone. The Hallé strings slide much more consistently and slowly than Wood’s NQHO and thus there’s more overt expressivity, corporately speaking, and perhaps more character, not least from the Hallé’s famous wind principals. There are some unusual tempi on display - the finale is especially motoric - but it’s all well sustained and ensemble is in no way imperilled.
The remainder of this series will be devoted to the Weingartner recordings, but let me send an enthusiastic plea for people to scour attics and basements, and studies and cobwebbed drawing rooms, to see if that elusive Violin Concerto can yet be found.
Jonathan Woolf  

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Symphony 3 ~~ Symphony 4