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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Columbia Beethoven Centennial Series - Vol. 3
Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 [27:14]
Symphony No. 6 in F major Op. 68 Pastoral [33:38]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner
rec. Scala Theatre, London, January 1927

In 1927 Columbia was to mark the centenary of the death of Beethoven by the issue of recordings of all his Symphonies. The last five were entrusted to Weingartner, once a pupil of Liszt. He had already recorded the Fifth Symphony and his reputation as a Beethoven conductor was such that he later recorded that work again.
Writers about Weingartner’s performances often refer to their fidelity and honesty which may suggest that they are in some way pedantic or dull. That is certainly not true of those I have heard. Some conductors are praised for what is called the inevitability of their performances but with Weingartner the impression given is the exact opposite; One listens out of a real sense of wanting to know what comes next. However well one knows the work in question there is a sense of improvisation and of the performers reacting to the feelings of the moment. This is, I suspect, largely illusory but the impression that is given is what matters, and that is one of spontaneity borne out of a deep knowledge of the scores and experience of performing them. I was gripped throughout both of these performances which convey both the overall architecture of the works and the excitement of the moment.
I have not heard earlier transfers so that I cannot comment on how these compare with them. The final result lacks brilliance and immediacy but does not have the kind of continuous flaw which draws attention to itself. In fact I found my ear adjusted to it very quickly, and there is for the most part a surprising clarity to the inner parts of the texture, due largely to the conductor’s obvious care over internal balance. Speeds tend towards the brisk. The most surprising is the slow movement of No. 5. Mark Obert-Thorn who prepared the transfers explains that this may be due to Columbia’s strict limit of four minutes for record sides – it lasts 7:36 in all. If that is the case it shows remarkable understanding and willingness to experiment on the conductor’s part as the result is surprisingly effective, although I note that for his later recording he went back to a much slower tempo. The lack of first movement repeats may well be for similar reasons. These oddities and some technical limitations aside, these are fascinating and convincing performances which add materially to our understanding of the possibilities of the performance of these (over?) familiar works.
John Sheppard

Masterwork Index: Symphony 5 ~~ Symphony 6

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