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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) The Columbia Beethoven Centennial Series -Volume Four Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1811-12) [32:46] Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) [21:44] Coriolan, Op. 62: Overture (1807) [7:30] Egmont, Op. 84: Overture (1810) [7:29]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93: II. Andante molto moto (1812) [4:00]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Felix Weingartner (sys 7 & 8)
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Willem Mengelberg (overtures, sy 8-II)
rec. 1926 (Mengelberg), 1936 (Weingartner) PRISTINE AUDIO PASC414 [73:30]
Even as fine an engineer as Mark Obert-Thorn can’t make a recording sound better than it actually is to begin with. So we should be glad that he was able to draw as much as he did from the early-electric Weingartner recordings. The basic sound comes up vividly, despite consistently opaque textures that, in tutti, can turn aggressive at the top. In the F major Symphony, background hiss is more conspicuous, and competes with the quiet openings of the second and fourth movements.
The performances, exemplifying the principles the conductor laid out in his essay, ‘On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies’ (included in Weingartner on Music and Conducting, Dover Publications, New York, 1969), are worth hearing for their virtues. The slow introduction of the A major symphony is forthright and clearly shaped, with no straining at grandiosity. The Vivace goes with a relaxed 6/8 lift, never devolving into a flatfooted quasi-2/4 as sometimes happens. The Allegretto is just that, marching at a steady tread, though the textures ooze as they fill out; the Scherzo is quick and hearty, with the right "upbeat" feeling. The Finale is full of the requested brio; in this context, the slight relaxation going into the flute’s statement of the theme is almost startling.
The F major symphony is similarly direct, despite suffering passing control problems, including slight confusion after the big fermata at 6:09 of the first movement. Otherwise, the movement goes at a good pace, with incisive rhythms, though the woodwind principals keep wanting to relax. (On the other hand, in the development at 3:03, where the low strings can fall behind, here they stay smartly in time.) At the recap., Weingartner brings off a small miracle by balancing the sound towards the theme in the basses. The second movement, a rather quick ‘metronome’, is firmly grounded; the third, solid and not heavy (compare Karajan, especially), gets no ritard at the final cadence. In this finale, too, Weingartner seems to allow a slight relaxation for the second theme.
The symphonies alone – shorn of major repeats, as was Weingartner’s wont – would have made for a short program. Pristine Audio’s choice of makeweights is doubly surprising: first, because Willem Mengelberg – once described by George Szell as “the great distorter” – would seem to inhabit the interpretive pole diametrically opposite the no-nonsense Weingartner; second, because the Dutch conductor was on his best behaviour at these sessions. As Obert-Thorn suggests, these earlier recordings are comparatively faded in sound, though that depends on how you listen, however: mp3 transfer took some of the zip out of the Weingartner items, while pushing the Mengelberg items forward!
The two overtures are taut and unfussy, rather in the Weingartner style. Indeed, the bold attack and robust, bassy sonority of Coriolan suit the broad arc of the performance. Egmont is equally intense, though at the cost of skittish woodwinds, who tend to jump the entries on their little motifs. The ‘tick-tock’ metronome movement of the Eighth Symphony is clearer, and lighter in texture, than in Weingartner’s rendering, though there’s still enough bass support.
All told, it’s a fascinating look at bygone performance styles.
Stephen Francis Vasta Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)