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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C Op. 21 (1800)
Symphony No 6 in F Op. 68 Pastoral (1808)
Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra [No 6]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra [No 1]
Hans Pfitzner
Recorded 1928-30
NAXOS 8.110927 [63.50]


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To mark the centenary of Beethoven’s death English Columbia released a raft of prestigious recordings, amongst them the complete symphonies with a number conducted by the august Felix Weingartner. In Germany Grammophon released its own competing series – parcelled out to Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Oscar Fried and Erich Kleiber – but unlike Columbia’s, Grammophon’s series (often to be found on its Polydor export series) wasn’t to be completed until a tardy 1933. Pfitzner undertook the recording of the lion’s share, with five symphonies to his credit. It’s often overlooked that he had a distinct career as a conductor – in Strasbourg amongst other places – and in certain respects at least seems to have been considered as accomplished a Beethoven conductor as the more internationally successful and known Weingartner. Pfitzner’s virtues were very much those of the subjective German school: tempo fluctuations, moulded string sonorities, affectionate wind choirs, a flexible tempo rubato, considerable weight of "bass up" string tone and in relation specifically to his recording career a pervasive use of the rallentando to mark side breaks. This was a constant feature of many artists’ recordings in the 78 era and has always seemed to me at least as significant a distortion of performance practice as the much more commonly explored area of tempo – and the rushing adopted (or not) to accommodate a piece of music onto a 78 side. One can hear the rallentando on several occasions here – and it was a musical solution to an unmusical problem, if for us now perhaps something of a difficulty to reconcile within the context of a given tempo or variance from it.

These 1928-30 Polydor recordings (Polydor was the German Grammophon Company’s export label) are difficult precisely to date but have been well transferred by David Lennick, albeit the originals are definitely inferior to the slightly earlier Columbia series made in London. Equally they show Pfitzner in both spirited and spiritual engagement – and also on occasion as a slightly less successful practitioner. The First Symphony receives much the less compelling reading and not merely because of the relative standing of the two works. There’s a curious sense of detachment throughout much of the symphony – not indifference exactly, but rather more as if Pfitzner had less need or desire to devote weight of impress upon it. Rob Cowan, sleeve-note writer, calls it "stylistically unexceptional" and it’s true that whilst there is, from time to time, a certain affectionate profile the work as a whole is rather disappointingly underplayed.

Contrast the Pastoral, which clearly engaged Pfitzner to a very considerable degree. There is some cavernous lower string moulding in the first movement, with quite splendid cellos and a sense of continuum and flux. The elasticity is generated at quite a slow tempo and those rallentandos are particularly noticeable here; note as well the very heavily and italicised shaping of the wind choir’s responses to the strings. The second movement is again romantically and indeed pictorially beautiful, with Pfitzner never holding back from encouragement of his wind principals whilst allowing them sufficiently flexible tempi to allow them to phrase with sometimes idiosyncratic freedom. The scherzo is quite slow but the fourth movement is powerful and taut whilst the finale, though once more slow, has a flexible, subjective and incremental power that I find enormously persuasive.

The Pastoral was one of the best, if not the best, of Pfitzner’s Beethoven cycle; full of insight, affection and detail it repays study, both in terms of what he saw in the symphony and in terms of conducting practice generally.

Jonathan Woolf


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