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Recordings of the Month

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [38:56]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [40:40]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Šejna (6) George Georgescu (7)
rec. 1954 (6) and 1955 (7), Prague

I’ve never heard a poor recording from Karel Šejna. Maybe there is one, but if so I’ve not yet come across it. His recordings of the Czech repertoire are the ones that have garnered the most interest, and the most publicity, but he made a number of forays – better to say, he was allowed to make a number of forays – into the more central literature.
One such was his 1955 LP of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony recorded with the Czech Philharmonic. For some strange reason the opening figure of the whole symphony was abruptly lopped, so the opening drone on the strings is largely missing and the symphony awkwardly launched. This is an editing matter and was present on the initial release and - unless the master tape exists, and has the opening viola and cello figure intact – there’s nothing much to be done about it, unless you’re the kind of label that likes to clean up such things by inserting passages from other performances and re-equalizing. That’s a minority of labels and Forgotten Records has, very properly, simply presented what happened. It is, in any case, a matter of a second or so – it’s just unfortunate that it’s the opening second.
This symphony is meat and drink to this orchestra. The horns have a fresh and open sound and the famous wind choir is full of great personalities whose solos are eloquently rustic, and whose exchanges with the strings have the subtlety of great chamber playing. The warmly cushioned strings offer their own sense of colour. Šejna has few eccentricities as a Beethoven conductor, encouraging fine rhythmic drive and a controlled but strong contribution from the percussion, and the brass. Rubati are well judged and lyricism is relaxed but never flabby. He makes finely judged crescendi and fortunately the recording shows a good spatial distance and balance, despite its relative age. Rusticity and proportion mark out this excellent performance. You will also find this performance on Supraphon’s 2-CD ‘Great Czech Conductors’ series [SU40812] alongside major statements such as Schubert’s Unfinished and Mahler’s Fourth, though I’ve yet to hear that restoration.
When the Czech Philharmonic was later to set down a Beethoven symphonic cycle on LP it was with Paul Kletzki and not Šejna or any Czech conductor. Supraphon’s mid-1950s approach to the Nine was more cautious and piecemeal, apportioning the Seventh to the Romanian conductor and Enescu-protégé George Georgescu (1887-1964). This is not to be confused with the complete cycle he recorded in his native country in 1960-61 with the George Enescu Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, released on Dante-Lys. The Seventh was always one of the very best of Georgescu’s readings and its proportions are thoroughly convincing throughout. Don’t be misled by the track timings, which have gone awry – no, the Allegretto doesn’t last 14:48, it’s simply that a tracking point has been missed and it segues unannounced into the third movement Presto, which also, therefore doesn’t last 4:48. The performance has nobility, grandeur and no extraneous gestures. Those triumphantly whooping horns in the opening movement offer a distinctive auditory pleasure – the Czech horn section at the time was one of the world’s most distinctive, and best, and possessed a distinctively open-air hunting-horn quality. This performance was once available on Arlecchino as volume 2 in their Georgescu series, but FR’s is an excellent transfer and deserves to be heard.
This fine restoration pays tribute, then, to two excellent conductors and one great orchestra.
Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Symphony 6 ~~ Symphony 7