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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ [56:08]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 [35:24]
Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ [47:04]
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92 [38:41]
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Horst Stein
rec. live, NHK Hall, Tokyo, 6 November 1985 (No.3), 3 February 1989 (No.7); Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 26 April 1992 (Nos. 5,6)
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC 2053-5 [3 CDs: 56:24 + 62:03 + 61:21]

I have enjoyed several of the two-disc sets put out by King International. They feature live performances by the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Each has showcased conductors and soloists, who have performed in Japan, realizing the passionate devotion and appreciation the Japanese have for western classical music. In this case we have a three-disc set of four Beethoven symphonies, conducted by the German conductor Horst Stein. The performances date from the mid-eighties to the early nineties.
 
Horst Stein was born in 1928 in Elberfeld in the Rhineland, which was coincidentally the birthplace of fellow conductors Hans Knappertsbusch and Günter Wand. He studied the piano, oboe and singing at the Cologne Conservatory and also conducting with Wand. In due course, he rose up the ranks from répétiteur to music director of the Hamburg State Opera and later the Berlin State Opera. He performed 138 Wagner performances at the Bayreuth Festival, and whilst some claim that he was not the most charismatic and inspiring of conductors, he was highly regarded for his dependability. In the latter part of his career, he moved from the pit to the podium, becoming chief conductor of the Suisse Romande (1980-85) and of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (1985-96). He frequently made guest appearances with other orchestras, including the NHK Symphony. He died in 2008 at the age of eighty. My only other encounter with him is in the highly regarded set of Beethoven piano concertos which he recorded with the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda.
 
For anyone who is a devotee of Otto Klemperer’s readings of the Beethoven Symphonies, they will not be disappointed with much of what is on offer here. In the main, these are weighty and highly-charged performances, with a certain grandeur. Like Klemperer, Stein has an understanding of the structure and architecture of the music and this, with his propensity for long lines, influences and shapes his interpretations. His ‘old-fashioned’ approach may not be to everyone’s taste; today there is a fashion for slim, pared-down period performances with brisk tempi. Horst gives us monumental, full-blooded and noble readings of these symphonies. I found most of his tempi similar to those in the EMI Klemperer set.
 
There are one or two caveats which need to be mentioned when doing an overall assessment. The Marcia funebre of the ‘Eroica’, though marked Adagio assai, is heavy and excessively ponderous. I find it pedestrian and it tends to lose direction. With a track timing of 18:12, its lumbering tempo registers it slower than Klemperer’s EMI recording which comes in at !6:54 Jochum’s LSO recording for EMI is 15:55; Karajan’s 1963 DG recording is 17:05. Barenboim takes this movement at a similar tempo on Warner Classics at 18:05.
 
Some may find the Fifth Symphony is a little too comfortable and laid-back. For me, it is the least successful of the symphonies here. I would have preferred a little more fire and passion, especially in the first and fourth movements. The Sixth Symphony, which was recorded at the same concert is much more evocative and inspired. Here you sense that the conductor and players are fully involved, and Stein manages to achieve a superior burnished orchestral sound.
 
The highlight of the set for me, however, is the Seventh Symphony. This is a white-hot performance, sublime in its realization. I have not enjoyed a live performance of this work on disc as much, since listening to that by Carlos Kleiber on Orfeo (C700051B). I mean this in terms of freshness, passion, energy, inspirational music-making and sheer visceral excitement. The enthusiastic and rapturous applause at the end says it all.
 
The Symphonies here are in remarkably good, clear sound, and audience noise is in no way intrusive. There is a lot of debate these days about applause on concert hall recordings. Here, it is retained, which puts some people off, but I personally like it after a live performance. It adds to the atmosphere. It is disappointing that the Sixth Symphony is split over two discs. I find this irritating, especially when symphonies five and seven could have been comfortably accommodated on one disc.
 
Notes are in Japanese only.
 
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies