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(Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - Beethoven symphonies 3 & 8)
NAXOS 8.110910 [69'40"]
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(Boston Symphony Orchestra - Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky orch. Ravel). Concerto for Orchestra (Bartok)
NAXOS 8.110105 [59'29"]

I doubt if we can really claim Pfitzner (1869-1949) as a great conductor. He might well have been - he held a number of conducting appointments - but made few recordings. Whether he should be termed a composer-conductor or conductor-composer is not really important now - with so few records of his interpretations, we will think him a composer first (probably only, and rather a conservative one); in his day he may well have been known as a conductor who composed. I wonder what sort of impression his 1929 Eroica will make? It is a fascinating performance, one dominated by increases and decreases of pace (sometimes sudden) which no conductor today could replicate without being considered not only extremely mannered but with having little regard for a structural through-line. As Rob Cowan points out in his notes, for lyrical music Pfitzner gets slower; if it's something more dramatic he speeds up. This formula does become predictable and is hit-and-miss in terms of illuminating the music. Yet, Pfitzner doesn't force these tempi on the music - one feels that what he's doing is natural (the Berlin Phil is very assured) if not always inexorable. The high-point of this Eroica is the funeral march, conducted with real sensitivity by Pfitzner. When he quickens the pace, so the emotional voltage increases. In general Pfitzner's Beethoven has an attractive warmth of tone, a directness of expression (albeit sectionalised), a sense of theatre (Pfitzner composed and conducted opera - his Palestrina remains in the repertoires of German houses) - but he overdoes the tempo changes. Beethoven 8 from 1933 is notable for the moderate speed Pfitzner chooses for the Finale - articulate if nothing else - but further slowing stretches tolerance. Pfitzner's Beethoven is not a first choice (or a one hundred-and-first) but it is individual and interesting - Pfitzner more concerned with the music's spirit than its letter. The smooth-surfaced recordings report plenty of detail. There's an abundance of spirit - and temperament - in Koussevitzky's conducting. He led the Boston Symphony for over twenty years (1924-48) and it plays not only brilliantly for him but also with a distinctive sound. Unlike Pfitzner's commercial recordings, these from Koussevitzky are broadcast performances. He commissioned both Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (heard here in a Symphony Hall performance from 30 December 1944, just a few weeks after the world premiere) and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's (piano) Pictures at an Exhibition. This is from October 1943, and has several pictures missing: these were the days when music was tailored to available radio-time. No matter, abridged it may be, but Koussevitzky leads a scorching rendition, one vividly characterised and tingling with colour. The sound crumbles a bit but it's surprisingly vivid and certainly relays a palpable intensity and passion. (Koussevitzky commercially recorded Pictures complete in 1930.) The Bartok is also full of incident. Like Pfitzner, Koussevitzky wasn't above manipulating tempi or introducing phrasal hesitations or emphasis - bringing extra expressiveness or an ungainly 'bump' depending on your point of view. I can't say I care for everything Koussevitzky does during Bartok's Concerto - but he was its first interpreter, and this is music-making of great charisma. The Boston Symphony had a wonderfully rich string section (one capable of fiery attack), characterful woodwinds and sonorous brass - the recording is a pretty faithful reproducer of these hallmarks. Interpretative distinction is heard in the fleet account of 'Game of the Couples', the fluid, burning traversal of the central Elegia, and the dynamic account of the Finale. Koussevitzky plays Bartok's original ending (obviously!), a rather cursory pay-off to what we're used to with Bartok's revision. (Gatti, Ozawa and Slatkin have also recorded Bartok's first thoughts.) Naxos have got their timings in a twist for the last three movements of the Bartok; and I did wonder if we needed so much mid-movement tuning and coughing (31 seconds between ii and iii, and 22 before the Finale) when no applause is retained. Whatever, this is a fantastic slice of history. For less than a fiver, and with well-made transfers and helpful notes, even the most hesitant collector should have a go at these issues.

Colin Anderson

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