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)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 386 [73:45]
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.
This Pristine transfer effortlessly and embarrassingly outclasses the competition.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven Symphony
3 ~~ Symphony 4