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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 'Eroica' [53:54]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [32:25]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [36:48]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 [24:13]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Schubert)/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv May 1958 (Schubert), Sofiensaal, Vienna September 1958 (5), October 1958 (7) and May 1959 (3)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4806596 [78:11 + 69:25]

Erich Kleiber was one of Georg Solti’s idols and it was a Kleiber performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that was, by his own admission, the catalyst in his decision to become a conductor. Solti was one of the Decca label’s star conductors and he recorded two complete Beethoven symphony cycles with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in analogue (1974) and digital (1986–90) formats. These earlier recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic are from 1958–9. It seems fashionable these days to decry the work of some conductors such as Solti from earlier eras and I find this quite ridiculous. I’m no big Solti fan to be frank but he deserves more gratitude and respect for the archive of recordings he left behind, many of them pioneering in their day. These Beethoven gems from Solti’s early career have two major things going for them. Firstly the magnificent playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and secondly the production values of the legendary John Culshaw.

Those who resist Solti’s highly polished, hard driven Chicago performances will be pleasantly surprised by the conductor’s earlier Beethoven recordings. There is still a characteristic dynamic drive in the interpretations with an emphasis on rhythmic energy but Solti is somehow more relaxed and humane in Vienna. The Eroica sets off with a propulsive opening movement and a funeral march that is dignified, hushed and free flowing. The scherzo is fast and excitingly light footed with an unusually relaxed tempo for the central trio that suits the horns perfectly. The finale is certainly heroic and the Vienna horns sing out gloriously. This is a fine Eroica and is musically more satisfying than the conductor’s later versions. The DGG CD coupling of Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven 5th and 7th symphonies is the bargain of all bargains but Solti is still worth hearing and his 5th has always been highly regarded. The opening Allegro con brio is dramatic, tense and bordering on being hard driven. Horns and low strings are fruity and full toned but the backward balance of the timps is disappointing. This lack of presence also diminishes the magic of the dramatic bridge passage between the last two movements. My main criticisms are an Allegro con brio that drags and isn’t at all con brio and the omission of the repeat in the finale. It’s still a very hefty reading though, full of nervous energy and finely executed. The 7th shows the orchestra and conductor in equally good form. In the outer movements Solti creates a marvellous sense of energy and forward momentum. This is closer to the Solti we would become accustomed to in his later career. The last movement was described by Beecham as “sounding like a lot of yaks jumping about” (not the Presto as the CD booklet claims) and I see his point. The playing here is superlative with the Vienna strings creating quite a storm in their incessant rhythmic motif. The articulation in this movement and the preceding Presto is top class.

The Schubert 5th symphony comes from one of only two recording sessions with the Israel Philharmonic in May 1958. Orchestral playing is good but somewhat outclassed by the Viennese in the Beethoven couplings. The Mann auditorium isn’t a very flattering acoustic compared to the Sofiensaal either. As a performance it is gentle and Mozartian. You wouldn’t particularly recognise it as being the work of Solti.

The recording, especially from Vienna, is classic Decca sound. It’s bright, beefy and sparkling with terrific bite and a tangible sense of presence. The stereo soundstage is realistic with well-balanced woodwind, soaring horns and a string sound that puts many a modern digital recording to shame. For those younger readers who might suspiciously look at the 1950s recording dates, I would urge them not to be put off. This is highly recommended.

John Whitmore



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