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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major (1806) [30:38]
Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93 (1812) [25:23]
Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Doráti
rec. Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis, 26 November 1955. Mono

Schumann famously called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants”. Recordings of it nowadays agree, presenting it as the most poetic, refined and civilized of Beethoven’s symphonies.

Sixty years ago, as Antal Doráti’s 1955 recording shows, things were a bit different. Doráti was happy to take a more volatile approach and in doing so bring out the dramatic cogency of Beethoven’s frequent extreme contrasts of dynamic. All this is within a classical framework which clarifies melody and structure. This is not a romantic interpretation.

To the first movement introduction Doráti brings freshness, expectancy, a sense of awakening and uneasy yet resolute progress. The main body Allegro vivace is precisely that but urgent too. The second theme, first part shared by bassoon and flute (tr. 1, 4:21) and second part shared by clarinet and bassoon (4:49), has a smooth, intimate freshness which is untouched by the strenuous responses of the strings. Though omitting the exposition repeat, in the development he secures a flowing transition to the first theme on flute and oboe (5:49) with a new counterpart in the first violins. The significant timpani solos from 6:48, albeit pianissimo, are so difficult to hear in this recording you have in effect to imagine them. To the recapitulation Doráti brings an irrepressible, cheerful momentum. I compared the recording by the Orchestra of the Gürzenich of Cologne/Günter Wand (Testament SBT 1286), also mono from 1955. Wand is even more volatile than Doráti, in effect a romantic interpretation, determined to bring the Nordic giants into the setting, so the strings’ responses to the second themes are overpowering. After a more dreamily ruminative start to the development everything becomes supercharged again. All began with a more mysterious introduction of keen exploration. The sforzandi sudden tremors bring both shock and excitement.

The slow movement is taken at Adagietto rather than Adagio but this points up both its emotive qualities and its dancing elements. This approach also brings out its cantabile: both the opening theme on first violins and second theme on clarinet (tr. 2, 2:15) are so marked. Doráti plays down the opening second violins’ accompanying motif, a motto which haunts the movement. Its centrality is evident anyway, albeit the soft timpani solos (5:35, 8:48) are, as in the first movement, pretty much inaudible. However, the pure, soulful return of the clarinet theme is affectingly memorable. Wand in this movement, timing at 10:27 to Doráti’s 8:58, offers a real Adagio but thereby seems rather deliberate in his care with articulation and emphatic tuttis, albeit he offers an appreciably fuller dynamic range.

Doráti’s scherzo is, as marked, an Allegro molto e vivace in which the bluster of the strings and the airiness of the woodwind are initially contrasted then joined in a vigorous tutti. The second section is the more delectable for the deftness of the matching of the strings’ and woodwind articulation. Contrast reigns again in the Trio. Doráti carefully observes the marking Un poco meno allegro even though this results in a rather abrupt gear-change which is more smoothly achieved in the Trio reprise. The Trio is dramatised effectively, creating a distinctive difference between elegant, smooth woodwind and clipped, impetuous first violins who become a touch more graceful in the reprise.

The finale is marked Allegro ma non troppo. Doráti doesn’t take too much notice of the latter element but he gets the movement just right. It’s energetic yet still cheerful, important for the second theme (tr. 4, 0:34), especially in the lightness of its violins’ continuation. The later sforzandi exchanged by wind and strings are firm but not stabbed and the first violins’ comment is airy, quizzical with touches of caprice and fantasy. Wand, timing at 7:17 against Doráti’s 6:47, is non troppo and thereby more earthbound, His sforzandi are more biting, to which the first violins’ comment becomes protesting.

Doráti’s approach to Symphony No. 8 also balances well its continuous contest between melody and verve. The opening has great gusto and progression yet the second theme (tr. 5, 0:45) has fitting nonchalance, its second section (1:04) a sense of mystery and its third, fortissimo section (1:25) weight without being overbearing. Come the codetta of the exposition (1:49) there’s already a feeling of the ultimate triumph of melody. Equally impressive is the resilient progression of the argument in the development. From 4:52 the cellos and basses lead with the opening theme while first violins match them in vehemence. Sforzandi are exciting without being too forced and the climax is well worked to peak at the recapitulation (5:45) where the cellos, basses and bassoons’ statement of the opening theme is crystal clear. For another mono comparison I chose the 1952 recording by the NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (available in the UK in the RCA 84 CD complete collection, 88697916312, online through Naxos Music Library or in a Complete Collections Beethoven box). Toscanini is even more intense in the development and manages to smile as well as blaze throughout, but his second theme is not as contrasted. There’s less to savour than with Doráti in its first two sections and the return of the opening theme at the recapitulation is not as pinpointed.

As in the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven’s ‘slow’ movement in the Eighth is marked Allegretto and therefore not slow at all. In the Eighth it’s also marked scherzando and so should have the humour of a scherzo. Doráti conveys all this swiftly, lightly and charmingly. Again he handles the sforzandi well: they provide contrast rather than bluster. The second theme (tr. 6, 0:52) is suitably forthright, the hemidemisemiquaver tails of its second section from 1:02 are stimulating rather than seismic. The third section (1:18) is smooth and gleaming, a feeling as in the first movement exposition codetta, that an ultimate happiness can be celebrated, the Ninth Symphony in miniature if you like. The coda here is just a bit of fun with contrasts in dynamic not overblown. Doráti has the scale of all this just right. Toscanini I find too weighty. His sforzandi are more exciting but he lacks Doráti’s dancing lightness.

The third movement, marked Tempo di Menuetto, is a recollection of a Minuet and Doráti enjoys its contrast of the melodic and grand, the formal and ingenuous. In its second section he uses the sforzandi to spur things along but at the heart is a celebration of melody and flow, challenge and response. Both the demure and those demanding attention have their place. His Trio, a little more relaxed, is nicely savoured, whether the free-flowing melodic line or busy string bass. Toscanini’s ‘Minuet’ prefers to spotlight a show of force. If you like all sforzandi punched, he does this better than anyone, while his equally flowing yet intensely melodic Trio is satisfyingly operatic.

Doráti’s finale begins with feathery softness but is soon lively in its fortissimo first tutti. Doráti’s second theme (tr. 8, 0:43) is gracious and optimistic. His first development (1:20) contrasts fluttering and firm manners. His first recapitulation (2:21) is fluttering again then energetic. The second development (3:51) and recapitulation (5:08) are similarly well graded, disciplined but not too rigid. Doráti brings a classical tempering to the hurtling progression. Toscanini offers more compelling listening through febrile animation and an element of abandon with a fresher, slightly more expansive second theme and a more mysterious second development. Overall, however, Doráti’s approach to both symphonies is well conceived and executed and well worth your attention in a recording which has fine clarity, a dry edge to the strings and bright woodwind, though the brass and timpani could to advantage have been balanced more to the fore.

Michael Greenhalgh



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