Carl Schuricht: The Complete EMI Recordings
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.1 in C op.21 (1799-1800) [23:47], Symphony no.2 in D op.36
(1801-2) [32:27], Symphony no.3 in E flat op.55 “Eroica” (1803 [46:41],
Symphony no.4 in B flat op.60 (1806) [33:41], Symphony no.5 in C minor
op.67 (1807-8) [31:03], Symphony no.6 in F op.68 “Pastoral” (1808) [39:09],
Symphony no.7 in A op.93 (1811-12) [33:43], Symphony no.8 in F op.93
(1812) [26:02], Symphony no.9 in D minor op.125* (1822-24) [65:55]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.3 in D minor (1890 version, Schalk-Rättig) [55:17], Symphony
no.8 in C minor (1890 ed. Nowak [according to booklet, other sources
say Haas with variants]) [71:16], Symphony no.9 in D minor (1894 ed.
Wilma Lipp (soprano)*, Marga Höffgen (contralto)*, Murray Dickie (tenor)*,
Gottlob Frick (baritone)*, Elisabeth Brasseur Choirs*, Paris Conservatoire
Orchestra (Beethoven), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Bruckner)/Carl
rec. 25-27, 29 April 1957 (Beethoven 5), 30 April, 2, 6 May 1957 (Beethoven
6), 7, 10 May 1957 (Beethoven 8), 11, 12 June 1957 (Beethoven 7), 18,
20, 23 December 1957 (Beethoven 3), 27-29, 31 May 1958 (Beethoven 9),
23, 25, 26 September 1958 (Beethoven 4), 26, 27 September 1958 (Beethoven
2), 27, 29 September 1958 (Beethoven 1), 20-22 November 1961 (Bruckner
8), 9-12 December 1963 (Bruckner 9), 2-4 December 1965 (Bruckner 3),
Salle Wagram, Paris (Beethoven), Grosser Saal des Musikvereins, Vienna
(Bruckner). Mono (Beethoven 1-8), Stereo (Beethoven 9, Bruckner)
Booklet essay in English, German, French
EMI ICON 6233792 [8 CDs: 70:34 + 66:17 + 64:51 + 65:19 + 65:55
+ 55:17 + 71:16 + 56:24]
The playing of the Conservatoire Orchestra is decidedly ragged. For pages on end one part of the orchestra will be just slightly out of time with the rest, and though everyone seems to put a great deal of energy into it all, the prevailing absence of precision nullifies the effect. It is rather like an orchestra practising on its own without a conductor. But even apart from discipline, these are rather unstylish performances, with little care taken about phrasing or even appropriate tempi. Review of first issue of the present recordings of Beethoven Symphonies 2 and 8 by Edward Greenfield, Gramophone December 1960.
[Schuricht] also recorded for EMI the nine Beethoven symphonies with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, but these performances were not hailed in Britain as being especially distinctive, mostly due to the sound of the French horns, which is disturbing to British ears. John L. Holmes: Conductors, A Record Collector’s Guide, Gollancz 1988.
Adding to that was the unique timbre of the instruments: the French-style woodwind and brass, still handcrafted at that time, produced an individual and, above all, multi-coloured sound…. Especially in Beethoven with the French instruments, Schuricht was able to achieve a degree of colour, transparency and balanced sound that … was hardly available to him elsewhere. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, booklet essay for the present reissue, 2012.
Schuricht’s Beethoven cycle was recorded in Paris in mono only – except for no.9 – at a time when EMI was beginning to record in stereo as a matter of course in London, Berlin and Vienna. It was issued, in the UK at any rate, on HMV’s bargain Concert Classics label – XLP numbers. As can be seen above, it got a pretty dusty reception in high quarters and, as John Holmes points out, for many British listeners French orchestras just didn’t sound like Beethoven orchestras. The “bleating” or “braying” horns were the prime culprits, but the vibrato favoured by French woodwind and brass players in general tended to be seen as a case of continental bad manners. I recall that the 9th was available on Classics for Pleasure in my younger days, but critical opinion remained hostile. It disappeared when CFP put out the complete Berlin PO/Cluytens cycle. This, too, had made little impact when it was new – a famous “Pastoral” apart – but achieved cult status in the 1970s.
More recently, punters have been suggesting Schuricht deserves another look. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, quoted above, actually claims virtue for the typically French sound. As the writer of the booklet essay he may be suspected of playing the devil’s advocate. He nevertheless presents a well-argued piece of writing and I personally believe he means what he says. Elsewhere it has been remarked that this cycle is the only one to preserve the sound of the leading French orchestra in a complete Beethoven cycle back in the days when French orchestras had a tangy sound that was all their own. Who was the first French conductor to record a Beethoven cycle with a French orchestra, anyway? Could it have been Krivine in the late 1990s?
So, clearing my mind and ears of preconceptions – in so far as anyone can – what did I find here?
My immediate impression was that I had never heard Beethoven conducted in quite this way. That is not the same as saying I had never heard Beethoven played this way. By certain string quartets, for example. I was reminded of Serkin playing the piano sonatas, even more, perhaps, of late Backhaus. The first symphony immediately created an impression of gut conviction and great vitality. As with late Backhaus, technical perfection is not an essential, phrasing can be a bit rough and breathless, but you get a sense of contact with the music that you more often get from hands-on performers than from conductors whose vision has to be realised by others: namely the orchestra. This generally translates into brisk, spinning tempi that are not driven, or goaded onward, by a conductor with a whip, but have a vitality that seems to arise from the music. In the second movement of this same symphony there is a warm songfulness rather than an attempt to wrest a prayer for humanity from every phrase. It is here, too, that the French woodwind are at their most piquant.
I must record a curious sensation over this. While it is true that the Historically Informed brigade would run a mile from such vibrato, modern performances on period-style instruments have rediscovered a factor which was still available in Paris in the 1950s. Each instrument has its own personality, makes its own contribution to the argument, instead of being blended so that the wind band might as well be a harmonium. With the wind forwardly balanced into the bargain, these performances contain elements that were scarcely heard again until the HIP movement got going two decades later.
This sense of vital contact with the music crescendos through the first three symphonies. The “Eroica” slow movement is an interesting case. Schuricht starts out at a fairly flowing, but expressive tempo. Most conductors start slower, but have to move forward later. Schuricht holds his tempo, but not in the sense of dogmatically ploughing on regardless. He simply doesn’t seem to find it necessary to make any adjustment, for his tempo fits every part of the movement beautifully. The proof of this is heard as the initial march theme returns after the climax and sails in without the conductor having to put on the brakes. The final disintegration has rarely been so moving – it emerges so inevitably from what came before. In spite of a not very slow initial tempo this is one of the longer versions on record: at 15:40 it is exceeded by Toscanini’s 16:06 in 1939 but is expansive compared with Klemperer’s 14:43 in 1956 – and no, I haven’t got these the wrong way round.
I’d better say, though, that if you can’t take vibrato on French horns, the trio of the “Eroica” scherzo is going to be one of the problem moments of the set for you. You’ll have to admit, though, that after their own lights they’re super players. Schuricht doesn’t slacken pace an iota and they get through with flying colours and terrific rhythm.
After this, maybe the fourth is just a good, lively performance, with a characterful slow movement, but the fifth is another highlight. Great vitality and conviction again, and a particularly successful slow movement. This latter can seem marmoreal in some hands, here it sings warmly throughout, and again Schuricht finds a tempo that flows beautifully all through.
The opening of the finale is something else again. This time it’s not just the horns but the trumpets, too, are in full cry vibrato-wise. It’s worth making the effort not to hear the band of the Gendarmerie (or the Salvation Army) in this, for the performance as such is all ablaze.
Schuricht finds quite gentle tempi for the first two movements of the “Pastoral”. The peasants dance at a very lively tempo, the storm is dramatic – the mono recording is at a disadvantage here though – and the Hymn of Thanksgiving is kept on the move. The seventh, like the fourth, is a good lively performance, particularly commendable for its slow movement. In the outer movements of the eighth we find Schuricht allowing each theme its own tempo, as he did in Bruckner – see below. By this means he differentiates more than most conductors between the post-Mozartian nos. 1 and 2 and the 8th which, though “little”, emerges as a more proto-romantic statement. Some listeners will find the tempo fluctuations disconcerting, especially since this has not been a feature of Schuricht’s Beethoven up to that point. The “metronome” movement is rather relaxed, while the Minuet is quite fierce. However, when Schuricht reaches the trio he broadens out into a gentle Landler tempo in which the horns can display their vibrato in all its blowzy glory. Say what you will, they are very fine players, and for better or worse I doubt if you’ll find another performance of this trio that sounds remotely like this one. Not, for example, that by the same orchestra about ten years earlier under Charles Munch. The vibrato is there, but the conductor’s fleeter conception minimizes it.
You might expect a conductor famous for his Bruckner to have the opening of the 9th emerge from the Wagnerian mists. Instead, Schuricht’s clear textures and forward wind band – horns not tremolo strings dominate at the beginning – look backwards. This is more like Haydn, or the Mozart of “Don Giovanni”, gone mad than like Bruckner.
The scherzo goes at a zippy dance pace, with terrific rhythm – no lazy relapses into duple time. The trio is almighty fast, but beautifully sprung. The slow movement avoids any “religioso” sense. Rather, it sings warmly and contentedly at a fairly broad pace that accommodates the later variations without any sense of haste.
After a brisk opening gambit, Schuricht doesn’t indulge the instrumental recitatives at the beginning of the finale, taking them pretty well up to tempo. Rarely has this retrospective glance at the earlier movements sounded more concise. As for the finale proper, it’s mostly fastish and very exciting, but not again not “driven” along, the joy seems to come from within. The solo team is a typical Austro-German one of the day and if Wilma Lipp is less remembered today than the other three, all four of them sing splendidly.
The drawbacks of this cycle cannot be ignored. Symphonies 1-8 are in vivid but slightly rough mono – not as euphonious as EMI themselves had produced in London for Karajan a few years earlier, only a slight advance on their Vienna Recordings with Furtwängler at the beginning of the decade. The “Eroica”, which has a different producer from the others, has some microphone overloading. The orchestra is a fine one but well-scrubbed precision is not on Schuricht’s agenda and some ragged corners are left in that a Karajan would have remade. The special qualities of the wind and brass instruments will be a hurdle for some. Personally I find they fit in perfectly with Schuricht’s overall approach.
To continue with the drawbacks, the texts have the traditional Weingartner tamperings. The coda of the “Eroica” first movement has rewritten brass parts, horns not bassoons usher in the return of the second theme in the first movement of the 5th, the “missing” brass notes in the initial onslaught of the finale of the 9th have been filled in. Back in those days only Erich Kleiber showed much interest in cleaning all this up, and he didn’t record a complete cycle.
Repeat-wise, too, the set is of its time. The outer movements of 1 and 4 get their repeats – quite unusual back then – though the second movement of no.1 doesn’t. The first movements of 2 & 3 are without repeats. No.5 gets the repeat in the first movement but not the finale. The first movement of the “Pastoral” has no repeat, while the first movement of no.8 gets it. Repeats are at a minimum in no.7. Longer scherzos – 7 and 9 – are short on repeats. Curiously, the Minuet (so-called) of no.1 gets its first repeat even on its return after the trio. But did any cycle from those days have fuller texts? Just about the same time as Schuricht was setting all this down, Franz Konwitschny in Leipzig was starting out on what was to be the first Beethoven cycle with all repeats.
Thus the drawbacks. Against this is a clarity, a vitality and an absence of traditional dogma which Schuricht could hardly have obtained except with an orchestra supposedly extraneous to the Beethoven tradition. Cohrs draws a parallel with the Leibowitz cycle recorded in London a few years later. But Leibowitz was an arch-modernist who might have been expected to break with tradition, and his cycle was practically unknown for its first couple of decades, limited to Readers’ Digest subscribers. In short, Schuricht’s Beethoven disconcerted contemporary ears, who found in the drawbacks I’ve listed above a convenient handle to dismiss it as a strange aberration.
The time has now come to take it seriously. Heaven forbid that any critic should recommend a “best version” of such multifarious works, or even a “best version” of each single symphony. We can try to distinguish between the ones that count and those that don’t. This cycle counts. It explores avenues of Beethoven interpretation, areas of Beethovenian truth, not touched upon elsewhere.
Those who decide to investigate will also get three famous Bruckner recordings.
In truth, these are no less controversial than the Beethoven. I’ll start with the 8th, which is perhaps the most extreme case. Timings don’t tell us everything, but they at least show that something extraordinary is afoot. Conventional wisdom has it that this symphony lasts about 80 minutes. A trawl through John Berky’s magnificent Bruckner site shows that a majority of performances do indeed come in around that mark. Giulini extended this to 87:32 in 1984, Wand to 89 in 2000, Jeffrey Tate to 92 in 2007, Celibidache to 104 in 1993. In other words, in the time it takes you to listen to Celibidache, you could listen to the whole of Schuricht’s, encore the first two movements and have the time left to make yourself a lightly-boiled egg. Karajan was taking 87 minutes in 1957, but his performances actually got a little faster over the years.
At the other end of the scale, and discounting the disgracefully foreshortened texts of Bostonians Koussevitzky (50:40 in 1947) and Steinberg (61:30 in 1962), only Fedoseyev in 1997, at 71:30 actually comes close to Schuricht’s 71:16. Interestingly, Schuricht himself took 70:45 in a live performance a few days before the studio recording. Not far off are Klemperer in 1957 (71:53) and Barbirolli (74 minutes in 1970). Lastly, it seems that Schuricht’s fast timings were not a constant throughout his life. A number of live performances have emerged from the 1950s of which that of 1955 with the NDR SO appears typical: 79:11 with a slow movement timed at 27:06 compared with the present recording’s 21:47. Most of the longer versions, by the way, use some kind of Nowak text. Schuricht’s is described here as Nowak, but most other sources say he plays an edited version of the Haas. I’m not in a position to follow all this up, but if true it means he actually plays a little more music than is contained in a strict Nowak text.
Granted that this may be the fastest Bruckner 8 ever recorded, what are the actual results?
Right from the start, you may note that the wind interjections to the rugged main theme in the cellos and basses are phrased according to their expressive meaning, rather than held strictly in tempo. This is the key to what follows. Each section, paragraph, theme and single phrase is given its specific value, colour and expressive form, without relating them to a single tempo. It’s not so much a question of changing tempo from section to section as of not having a tempo at all. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, in Schuricht’s hands it works. The music’s own tensions and inherent structure hold it together. In addition to this, Schuricht pits the sections of the orchestra against one another – there is some shattering brass playing – with the result that the first movement has a devastating, unsettling impact. More than romantic it sounds expressionist, curiously modern, even post-Mahlerian.
Schuricht had a very special way with Bruckner’s scherzos. Here he establishes a powerful surge at a not excessively fast tempo. The trio offers perhaps the one moment of real repose in the whole symphony, luxuriantly lingering and again very flexible tempo-wise.
The great adagio does not sound hurried, whatever the timings tell you. Schuricht’s combination of long phrasing with undulating tempi allow the music to waft rather than be driven. Like the first movement, it is unsettling and disconcertingly modern.
I’m not sure the recipe works quite so well for the finale, terrific though much of it is. Parts of it do sound a bit hasty. More recent, and more “patient”, Bruckner interpreters have perhaps understood better that, as Tovey put it years ago, “you must not expect Bruckner to make a finale ‘go’.” Schuricht almost succeeds, in his urgency, in making this one “go”, yet ultimately Bruckner himself doesn’t want to play the game. On the other hand, could Schuricht’s violently expressionist first three movements have been reasonably followed by a patiently unfolded finale? I’d say not. At which point the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down and the first three movements have to be wrong. But so engrossingly, enthralling and thrillingly wrong that Brucknerians must not miss them.
Bruckner 9 was the one performance here that I already knew. Its Classics for Pleasure incarnation was a treasured companion of my youthful days. Every time I come back to it I realize how deeply embedded all its sounds and gestures have remained in me. I notice now that Schuricht has just the same wide-ranging attitude to tempi as in no.8, yet it still sounds absolutely right to me. In vain have I listened elsewhere for the bluesy clarinet glissandos popping out of the texture in the trio of the second movement. The academic half of me admits that perhaps they shouldn’t be there, but I just love them.
Trying to be a little more objective, firstly this performance is less controversial over tempi. I mean by this that John Berky’s site lists versions of each movement that are both faster and slower, though a majority of conductors stretch the last movement out rather more. What is of interest is that the timings here don’t seem to be typical of Schuricht himself when conducting other orchestras, even at about the same time as this recording.
Whereas in the 8th symphony Schuricht pits the orchestral sections violently against each other, here he blends them. This combines with an undulating pulse that makes the symphony float in great heaving waves. If the 8th is more dramatic than usual, the 9th becomes less craggy, more lusciously romantic. The scherzo is unmissable – once you’ve heard it, everyone else seems either to briskly driven or too lugubriously dragging.
I was less happy with the 3rd. Part of the problem is Bruckner’s own. This relatively early symphony is a ramshackle affair and Schuricht’s undulating tempi become a liability. Those conductors do better who shore up the creaking edifice by bulldozing through at a constant tempo. Nor does it help that the orchestra, and especially the first horn, are on shaky form in the first movement. Nevertheless, the scherzo is gloriously paced, slower than usual but with a rustic spring in its step. And in the finale, the way the first forte passage swoons into a deliriously swaying polka is a treasurable moment indeed. So Brucknerians must have this performance to hand, and what better way to acquire it than in this neatly priced package?
One last comment. None of these performances would have been possible with a different orchestra to that used. Whereas some other conductors try – at times successfully – to get the same performance from whatever orchestra they have in front of them, it seems that Schuricht found a creative meeting point between his own vision of the score and the special sound of each orchestra.