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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus Overture, Op. 43 [5:19]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, Eroica [50:02]
Die Weihe des Hauses Overture, Op. 124 [10:59]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Opp. 43 & 124), Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio (SWDR) (Op. 55)/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Vienna, 1953 (Opp. 43 & 124); Loffenau, 1957 (Op. 55)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC505 [66:20]

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [31:37]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral [42:09]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Brahms Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 1956 (Op. 67)
Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 1958 (Op. 68)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC508 [73:46]

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral [66:02]
Wilma Lipp (soprano)
Elizabeth Hoengen (alto)
Julius Patzak (tenor)
Otto Wiener (bass)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
Pro Musica Symphony Orchestra, Vienna/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1956
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC293 [66:02]

All the performances here were recorded by Vox in the nineteen-fifties in sound which, with one exception, fell well short of the best which was achieved during the period. Pristine’s best attentions have not been able to completely overcome this handicap. The justification for reissuing these recordings lies in their generally high-quality musical content.

The performances of the two overtures set the pattern for the ones that are to follow: they’re vital and direct, with steady tempos and no expressive gestures, yet not without majesty. Prometheus lacks its first two chords and it appears that these were missing from the re-issue LP Pristine used for this restoration. Pristine’s Andrew Rose has reportedly speculated that either Vox lost the chords or Horenstein did not have them played. This is one of the more reverberant recordings in this batch; some will find it oppressive. The rarely played Die Weihe des Hauses (‘Consecration of the House’) performance has some grandeur but, given its substance, can take even more, as shown by Otto Klemperer in his two EMI recordings.

The Eroica Symphony performance seems to be the only one recorded in stereo. Over the years, it has provoked sharply different responses from reviewers, as has Horenstein’s earlier, 1954 mono recording of the work, also recorded by Vox. For example, part of Deryck Cooke’s review of Vox’s LP issue of the stereo edition, quoted in Pristine’s liner notes, states:

“Horenstein is well backed by an orchestra whose only weakness is a shrill first oboe… (The 1954 performance) was so super-titanic as to be unbelievable, but this (1957 performance) is a beautifully classical interpretation, spacious and deeply felt, but strictly life-size. There are all the qualities here that one looks for in the Eroica – not only a splendid line, but a tense rhythmic impulse; not only a savage strength, but a sense of mystery…In the first movement, Horenstein…preserves unswervingly a single tempo which lies nicely between the extremes of hustle and drag. In the absence of all those familiar changes of speed, this Allegro con brio emerges as what it really is – the most perfectly unified large-scale first movement Beethoven ever composed.” (Gramophone, April 1960.)

Four decades later, an opposite view was provided by Gerald S Fox who, when reviewing Vox’s CD issue of the stereo performance, wrote:

“Horenstein’s monaural Vox recording of Beethoven’s Symphony 3 is vibrant and muscular. Expansive like Furtwängler, granitic like Klemperer, it is a towering performance punctuated with terrific tympani, and with a horn trio (in III) that is among the best…(The) later stereo recording…is far inferior. It is underpowered and dull to a fault, with scarcely an accent anywhere. It is far too smooth, with sharp edges buffed off and metronomic rhythms. Drama is lacking…Tympani are weak and muffled, when they can be heard at all…Sonics are below par – hazy and unfocussed…Record companies should not automatically assume that their stereo remakes of works previously issued in monaural sound are superior.” (American Record Guide, November/December, 2001.)

Those readers who, like me, have not heard the mono performance and are attempting to reconcile these conflicting opinions, may welcome Pristine’s stated intention to issue that recording. Concerning the stereo issue, there are a couple of matters on which most listeners could, I think, agree with both reviewers. Cooke is right to praise the playing of the SWDR orchestra, apart from the oboe (which isn’t a major distraction). It was clearly in the front rank of Austro-German groups at the time. Fox, for his part, is right to complain about the tympani. They are difficult to hear and their weakness sadly undermines the coda of the last movement where they have a vital part to play.

Clearly, the two reviewers had very different conceptions of what the Eroica is, how it should be played. For Cooke, it’s clearly a classical symphony and should be played relatively ‘straight’. In contrast, Fox’s reference to Wilhelm Furtwängler and Klemperer indicates that he prefers performances which take account of the Romantic revolution in music that the Eroica notionally started. Horenstein’s performance may avoid or minimise tempo fluctuations, but it is not a ‘rattling through’, light weight traversal of the score: at just over fifty minutes, it is a substantial statement. Furtwängler’s imposing wartime performance takes less than three minutes longer.

Horenstein’s view of the Funeral March is not superficial, but in terms of gravitas and emotional communication is not in the same league as performances by Furtwängler, Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini. The sound, as restored by Pristine, has the focus Fox found missing in the Vox issue, as well as warmth. This is a fine performance but not, I would suggest, a great one. It will be intriguing to compare it with Pristine’s promised restoration of Horenstein’s mono performance.

The twice-stated opening motif of the Fifth Symphony (played commandingly, but in tempo, rightly without exaggeration) immediately signals a technical problem: the sound is unquestionably too reverberant. The result is that the beginning of the softer passage which follows is obscured. Horenstein omits the first movement exposition repeat. In doing this, he has Bruno Walter on his side, but Klemperer and many others against him. Not all repeats in classical and romantic symphonies are mandatory, or even desirable, but for structural reasons I’d suggest that this one is essential. Despite that, Horenstein’s concentration and unswerving, moderately fast tempo create a strong sense of momentum which brings success even without the repeat.

The slow movement brings respite from the drama with a degree of lyrical warmth, delivered without exaggeration. The tempos and rhythms sound right in the third movement and the basses and horns are very fine. Horenstein shows himself to be one of the best at leading us through the mysteries of the ‘ghostly’ transition from the scherzo to the finale. During the climax which launches this last movement (and at several other moments throughout the work) the string tone could have been a touch weightier, but this might just be Vox’s sound. The movement strides forward triumphantly and Horenstein neither slights nor inflates the coda beyond what is demanded by the score. But the piccolo, which can and should dominate the orchestra, is seriously under-recorded – a momentary but significant disappointment. The playing of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra throughout is of a very high order. This seems to be a great performance struggling to break free from the mediocre sound of the original recording.

Alas, the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony brought me no ‘awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving’ in this countryside. This account is brisk (but so is Toscanini’s with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – a performance not without lyricism which I enjoyed more). Horenstein’s trademark unswerving, relatively swift Beethoven tempos which served him well in the Fifth symphony are unsuitable for the Pastoral and render the first two movements as charmless, inflexible and cold. Exceptionally, however, the conductor’s beat does not prevent the winds from phrasing the bird calls superbly at the end of the second. There’s outstanding artistry here from the flute, oboe and (two) clarinet players.

The rest of the symphony is satisfyingly handled, with superb horns and woodwinds in the Peasants’ Merrymaking, an electrifying Storm with a well-recorded piccolo, and a fine Thanksgiving hymn (although the horns could have cut through the textures more in the latter). But the brusque rendering of the first two movements overshadows the rest of the performance. While Pristine may have tamed Vox’s sound to a degree, the medium-to-loud passages remain relatively harsh – unsuitable for this of all symphonies. A comparison with Karl Böhm’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, on DG ‘Originals’ and also Australian Eloquence, clinches the issue as far as this listener is concerned. In the first two movements, Böhm’s appropriately expansive pacing adds around five minutes to Horenstein’s timing. His warm, subtly phrased interpretation makes Beethoven’s celebrated love of nature sound real. Horenstein’s approach, I’d suggest, does not. DG’s sound – admittedly with the advantage of stereo – has far more refinement and warmth than Vox’s.

This Horenstein performance of the Choral Symphony was the first I ever heard, on or off records. It was purchased without knowledge of the performers and solely because it was complete on one LP. Most Ninths spread to three, and occasionally four, LP sides. It proved a happy choice: the Vox LP taught me and possibly many others to love the work. It eventually left my collection only because it was a ‘swinger’- a disc with an off-centre spindle hole which caused the slow music to ‘wow’ alarmingly.

Pristine’s CD documentation calls the orchestra the ‘Vienna Pro Musica’, as stated on Vox’s original LP release. However, it seems clear that this body was the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under another name. Happily, the sound is warm and relatively refined and the balances are close to ideal – the finest sound of all the discs under review here.

As others have pointed out, the very beginning of this symphony, where the sextolets (groups of six notes, played in the time of four) are rendered sotto voce by the strings, was handled very differently by Furtwängler and Toscanini. The German conductor didn’t articulate them clearly, starting with an almost inaudible muttering leading eventually to the first climax arising, as it were, out of a void. The Italian had the notes articulated with the maximum clarity and precision possible, assisted by the dry, bright sound balance he usually received in his recordings. Given his general approach to Beethoven performance, one would expect to find Horenstein in the Toscanini camp, but on this recording the relatively reverberant sound makes it hard to tell. No matter, he builds to a fine first climax and then propels the movement at a steady, relatively swift speed which allows for satisfying intensity and does justice to both the majesty and mystery of the score. The final climax of the movement is not as tremendous as in more romantic interpretations, but it is powerful enough and strictly proportionate to the classical conception favoured by the conductor.

In the Scherzo, the independent role Beethoven provides for the tympani is superbly played and expertly caught by the recording. The rhythm throughout is vital and the momentum is not disrupted by any undue relaxation in the Trio. The slow movement follows the Scherzo after too short a pause, but soon brings perfect repose, again without loss of momentum. The horn melody which commences around 7:20 is beautifully played.

The prime virtue of this performance is that the Finale stands as a compelling climax to the work, something that not all Horenstein’s illustrious colleagues were able to achieve. The movement starts with a fine display of dissonance and the cello and bass recitatives (neither under- nor over-recorded) are played with vigour and refinement. From the first appearance of the Joy theme, Horenstein maintains intensity, keeping everything moving forward, neither rushing nor tarrying. The contribution of soloists and choir alike strike me as outstanding. The engineers’ balancing of them with each other and with the orchestra is as close to perfect as we have any right to expect in this difficult-to-record movement. Perhaps a little more could have been heard from the choir at one or two points, but to complain about that would be pedantic. The military band episode, with its ‘Turkish’ instruments, has the appropriate swing. The coda brings no extreme rush to the finish line, but is despatched at a pace which allows for excitement and clarity of articulation (the piccolo is rightly prominent). This brings the performance to a most convincing conclusion.

As this is a 1950s mono recording, it must inevitably be classed as ‘historical’ and thus not a ‘library’ choice. It is nevertheless warmly recommended as an outstanding companion to any more recent Ninths you may possess.

Rob W McKenzie

 

 




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