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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Overture: Egmont, Op. 84 (1783) [8:54]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’ (1783) [46:37]
Overture: Leonore No. 3, Op. 72 (1784) [14:59]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 24-25 March 1981 (Leonore), 9-10 February 1982 (Symphony No. 6), 10 February 1983 (Egmont)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 7722 [70:52]

These recordings have appeared in at least two guises, with the original postage stamp cover as 410 003-2, and as one of Decca’s budget ‘Eclipse’ titles in the 1990s. Ashkenazy’s Beethoven symphonies are very good performances, though with the Philharmonia Orchestra any recording is always going to be put against those of Otto Klemperer, and with all their idiosyncrasies it is the sheer power and character of Klemperer’s work which has best stood the test of time.
These early digital recordings are actually quite fine, with a slightly glassy upper sheen to the sound but still sounding nicely detailed and transparent. Ashenazy’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony is thoughtfully prepared and with a generous lyrical touch, but at a good 7 minutes longer than, say, Claudio Abbado, you know straight away you’re in for a broader view of the work. This works well enough in its own terms, and Ashkenazy has a good enough grip of his excellent orchestra to prevent the music becoming stodgy. Abbado does somehow however conjure a more tranquil Szene am Bach even with his faster tempo, with more layers and depth to the music. My impression is of the more urgent speed as the running water, with the country folk going about their business with a sense of innocence, rather than with Ashkenazy’s rather more old-fashioned sense of grandeur not really moving much further than some Fragonard-like ideal. If you are used to Abbado’s keenly dramatic Gewitter, Sturm, then Ashkenazy’s version won’t scare you in quite the same way - it’s more ‘mild peril on a bouncy castle’ than anything truly penetrating. The final song of gratitude ticks all the boxes, though is not the most exuberant you’ll hear.
The two overtures make for substantial fillers, and ‘Egmont’ is performed with glowing affection though without some of the gripping darkness in other versions. Klemperer’s elderly mono Philharmonia recording comes in at 9:35 compared to Ashkenazy’s 8:55, but builds and releases tension to teeth clenching heights. Leonore No. 3 is well-nigh identical in timing to Klemperer and is well shaped, Beethoven’s extended introduction atmospheric as it should be, and launching into a suitably sprightly sequence of rich melodic invention and theatrical drama both on and off stage.
Despite my mild criticisms, there is a sense of pleasant nostalgia about this early 1980s programme, and Ashkenazy’s performances deserve to maintain their place in the catalogue. There are numerous recordings which I would favour above them, though perhaps not so very many in this price range. Vladimir Ashkenazy can sound a bit old-hat when put against the crisper tempi and articulation we often hear these days, but there is no denying the warmth. If you seek an alternative to ubiquitous names such as Karajan and indeed Klemperer or Abbado, and prefer your Beethoven more luminous, lyrical and loving than grim, gruff and gritty, then you’ll find a great deal to enjoy here.
Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Symphony 6