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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Coriolan overture, op. 62 (1807) [9:29]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (1807-8) [32:53]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 30 August 1990 (Symphony), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 February 1992 (Overture)
LPO LPO-0087 [42:22]

A live performance of Klaus Tennstedt’s Beethoven Symphony 5, from the 1990 Proms, is particularly welcome as he never recorded this work commercially. This recording was previously released on BBC Legends BBCL4158-2 (review), a CD which seems to be no longer available, but now comes at about half the price with a different, much shorter coupling. In recent years Beethoven performances, influenced by historically informed practice, have become increasingly lighter in articulation and tone whilst retaining rhythmic vitality. Tennstedt takes us back to something more grandiose. His approach is passionate, dramatic and heavyweight. He is aided, too, by outstanding horn playing throughout. The high G the first violins hold at the end of the first tutti is a piercing cry. The second theme (tr. 2, 0:47), despite its calmer initial flow when taken up by the violins, moves relentlessly forward and the strings’ running quavers soon seem eager to tumble over themselves. By the development the famous opening motto has become an unmistakably dire summons, the only relief from which is the brief Adagio oboe solo, an individual soul’s elaboration of the early violins’ high G. This sudden contrast of reflection is movingly presented with simple eloquence before the intensity reaches its thunderous climax in the coda. I compared a 1994 live performance by Günter Wand with the Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin (Hänssler Profil PH 14026). Wand’s emphasis is on structure more than drama. There is cumulative power but it’s achieved in a transparently orderly manner. Tennstedt pulls you onto the precipice.

Tennstedt’s Andante con moto, not really a slow movement, is taken rather too steadily at 10:48. Wand takes 10:25 but the 2014 recording by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck (Reference Recordings FR-718) takes 9:06. Tennstedt is also impeded in the opening theme and first variation by a too full body of strings which produces a rather treacly effect in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. That very acoustic also gives a luminous glow to the woodwind and it’s their passages which are the most idyllic, notably their expatiation in the third interlude (tr. 3, from 5:36), in a world of its own to be brought back to reality by the horns. The movement is a theme with 3 variations preceded by 3 interludes. The feature of the interludes is that they incorporate a triumphant fortissimo statement in C major, thus foreshadowing the close of the symphony. Tennstedt always makes these statements incandescent, but I began to feel that this results in overkill which weakens the impact of variation 4, in which the main theme appears fortissimo. Also, no less important are the searching, even mystical pianissimo passages in the interludes which precede and follow the ff statements. Tennstedt is less successful than Wand in getting these truly pp to magical effect. Wand’s triumphant elements are still firm and gleaming but don’t hijack the movement like Tennstedt’s. Wand’s atmosphere otherwise is gentler, encouraging the listener to be more receptive. Nevertheless, Tennstedt can also be delicate at times, as in the fine interplay in variation 2 (4:11) between the violas and cellos’ demisemiquavers and the high sustained notes on flute, oboe and bassoon. This can also be heard later between the first violins’ demisemiquavers and a 2 semiquaver motif continually passed between bassoon and clarinet. The cheery warmth of the oboe punctuation of the theme on flute, clarinet and bassoon in variation 3 (7:03) is also memorable.

The strings’ opening of the Scherzo should be creepy, temporarily calmed by the addition of clarinets and later flutes and poco ritardandi. Tennstedt is too flowing and impassive because the tone is too rich for pp and the poco ritardandi (tr. 4, 0:06, 0:16) too skimpy. Wand gets all these effects just right. Tennstedt becomes arresting when it comes to the horns’ entry with the return of the relentless rhythm of the first movement. Thereafter the progression is tense. Tennstedt is more emphatic and exciting here than Wand. The Trio (tr. 4, 1:53), that famous passage begun by cellos and double basses and eventually involving all the strings, is displayed by Tennstedt with gusto and at a great lick. Thereafter the progression becomes more impulsive and, when it ends championed by the flute, joyous. Wand’s Trio in comparison seems initially rather rickety, but his flute is also effective.

Tennstedt brings great clarity to the change of scoring at the return of the Scherzo: pizzicato strings, jocular bassoon commentary and there’s more sense of garish display than Wand’s playfulness here. The new spectral presence and insistence of the drum beat from Wand, always pp, is more authentic than the funereal boom of Tennstedt’s drum, again a problem of attaining pp probably owing to the RAH acoustic. Nevertheless, in sustaining a 6 second crescendo into the C major blaze of the finale Tennstedt is able to create as much tension as Klemperer did in his exemplary 1955 recording (EMI 4042752). Though only one second shorter, Wand thereby seems slightly precipitate.

For sheer weight, grandeur, edge and momentum, Tennstedt performs the finale as exultantly as anyone from its opening great blaze of affirmation. In comparison Wand is bright and festive but light. He does, however, offer two advantages over Tennstedt. Firstly, he repeats the exposition, so you are quickly recharged with the opening exhilaration. Secondly, he makes the return of the Scherzo a true pp, so you experience a shiver of fear. In all other respects Tennstedt outclasses Wand. Early on, from tr. 5, 1:10, the simultaneous falling tune in the first violins and rising motif in the cellos, followed by the loud kicking of a rising flourish in the lower strings is very clear, though the fp effects where cellos, clarinet and bassoons are echoed by second violins, could be more marked. Antal Doráti does these particularly well in his 1953 recording with the Minneapolis Symphony (Doráti Edition ADE004). Tennstedt brings you thrilling multi-layered sound, such as from tr. 5, 3:17 when from the first violins are screaming in tremolo, the second violins, violas and cellos scampering in running quavers, the wind boldly delivering their rising motif and the drum adding great thwacks. It’s a pity that from 7:33 the sequence of exuberant piccolo ascents capping the orchestral chords is rather submerged in the overall acoustic, something an engineer could easily adjust under studio conditions. However, the coda (8:15) taken at a true Presto, has the total engagement and last charge of adrenalin of a sprinter spotting the finishing line.

Like Symphony 5, the Coriolan Overture is marked Allegro con brio and begins in C minor but, unlike it, also ends in C minor as the first theme’s discipline breaks in pieces. The cause of this is the second theme (tr. 1, 1:30), the potential melting influence of Coriolan’s mother, wife and children, which returns as a contrast of warmth in C major at 5:06 and in soft entreaty in the coda (6:53). Tennstedt maintains the first theme’s unflinching character so well that you are surprised and moved at Coriolan’s sudden compassion which Beethoven shows reduces him to nothing. Wand’s faster approach, timing at 8:23 in comparison with Tennstedt’s 9:29, makes the loud flourishes of the first theme more heroic but its softer restlessness less tortured and the final disintegration less graphic. Both the Tennstedt live performances on this CD are characterized by discipline, passion and intensity.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 




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