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Wood's Eroica
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat Op. 55 “Eroica” [43:01]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Gavotte in E minor from Partita No. 3 BWV1006 (arr. Wood and/or Forsyth) [3:49]; “Air on the G string” from Suite No. 3 BWV1068 (arr Wilhelmj) [4:09]; Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat BWV1051 [12:28]; Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565 (arr. “Paul Klenovsky” = Sir Henry Wood) [8:17]
New Queen’s Hall Orchestra (1); British Symphony Orchestra (2 & 3); Symphony Orchestra (4); Queens Hall Orchestra (5); Sir Henry Wood (conductor)
rec. Columbia Large Studio, Petty France, London, November-December 1926 (Eroica); the Central Methodist Hall, London, June 1930 (Brandenburg 6), October 1932 (Gavotte and Air); Decca Queen Street Studio, London, May 1935 (Toccata)
BEULAH 2PD3 [71:54] 

Experience Classicsonline

Sir Henry Wood has a secure place in British musical history as the father of the Promenade Concerts. This has tended to obscure consideration of his characteristics and abilities as a conductor. Apart from the splendid and often reissued recording with the original singers of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, discs come into and out of the catalogue without making much impression. The recent issue on Somm of part of a 1943 Promenade concert was a welcome exception. This is partly due to the paucity of his recordings, but also to the poor technical quality of many of them. The main item here – the “Eroica” – was recorded in the early days of electrical recording using the “Westrex” system. This was despite the view of Isaac Schoenberg, the general manager of Columbia, for whom it was made, that the system was unsatisfactory. Even with all the very considerable skill and patience of the engineers responsible for the present transfer my initial impression each time I listened to it was of a poor recording partly hidden behind considerable hiss. However after a few minutes I found that I could ignore this and concentrate on a performance which is very well worth hearing.

The Symphony’s first movement is dispatched for the most part at a fast speed, the direction allegro con brio being taken very much to heart. Whilst there is some welcome flexibility over the main speed there is nothing metronomic about it and overall there is an apparent spontaneity and responsiveness to the changing character of the music. I do however find it hard to accept the very pronounced slowing down for the second subject at bar 83 which seems to go beyond the bounds of what reasonable flexibility might allow. Even then it is not difficult to forgive it for the vitality of music-making which pervades this movement and indeed the rest of the disc. This did in fact come as a surprise. I remember playing under one of his pupils from some of his working sets of parts, now held by the Royal Academy of Music. All are carefully marked up in thick blue pencil with careful supplementary instructions to the players. This was clearly essential in view of the very limited rehearsal times available to him for the long seasons of the Proms. Even so, I had not expected that this would leave any room for the kind of apparently spontaneous music-making that we have here. At the same time there is a clear sense of direction in all of these performances as well as what appears to be great care over balance and phrasing. The few moments where the balance goes astray may well be a result of the recording apparatus available at that time. Given the then cost of records the absence of the important first movement exposition repeat is understandable. 

The rest of the symphony has similar virtues to the first movement although Wood does not make any more exaggerated unmarked changes of speed. The scherzo is very fast but the trio is just about managed by the horns - no mean feat given 1920s recording technology. The orchestra’s sound is also of its time, with more portamento than would be usual today but not to such a degree in the Symphony as to be a problem to even modern listeners allergic to the practice. There is much more in the “Air on the G string” but frankly this is an item best ignored, as is the Gavotte, about whose arranger there appears to be some doubt.

The Brandenburg Concerto is another matter. The very interesting notes by Peter Avis indicate that the Sixth Concerto was a favourite of the conductor; so much so that he paid for an extra rehearsal in preparation for this recording, and provided tea and cakes for the players. It may surprise listeners used to performances on instruments closer to what the composer expected, but this is as vigorous and lively a performance as I have come across anywhere. Despite the doubling of instrumental lines and, presumably the substitution of violas or cellos for the specified viols, both of reduce clarity, the sheer rhythmic drive of the performance manages to avoid any hint of the dourness that can sometimes be found in this work, even, or perhaps especially, in the celebrated performance directed by Adolf Busch. The slow movement is a particular pleasure, with the second part of the direction Adagio ma non tanto noted and acted upon for once. 

The Toccata and Fugue was included on the Lyrita collection of orchestrations by Sir Henry played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite (SRCD 216). I enjoyed that, but enjoyed this even more. It is delightfully over the top, with every opportunity for bizarre orchestral effects seized upon. The recording here and in the Bach items is markedly superior to that for the Beethoven. 

I have played this disc with increasing enjoyment and respect for Wood as a musician. Arthur Jacobs’ biography makes it clear that many of the amusing and amazing stories in Wood’s autobiography “My Life of Music” were the product of his imagination. It is good to be reminded that this imagination extended also to his performances. I hope that further discs will fill out the picture that this very desirable disc gives.

John Sheppard

Other Wood recordings:
Schubert 8 on Pristine
Salute to Henry Wood on Symposium




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