Andante – VPO Beethoven Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Hilde Güden (soprano)
Rosette Anday (contralto)
Julius Patzak (tenor)
Alfred Poell (bass)
Wiener Singakademie

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Wilhelm Furtwängler (Nos.1 & 9)
Clemens Krauss (No.6)
Eugene Ormandy (No.5)
Carl Schuricht (No.7)

Concert performances recorded between 1952-57 in the Musikverein, Vienna

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 4988 (3 CDs)

A seemingly mixed bag of five Beethoven symphonies – with 1 and 9 as bookends (bet that’s the first time the ’Choral’ has been so diminished!) with the dark-to-light, country and dance symphonies in the middle. The link is the 1950s’ Vienna Philharmonic playing for regular conductors – with the exception of Eugene Ormandy; yet his Fifth is perhaps the highlight of the set.

Ormandy’s conducting here may come as a surprise – lithe, marked and lean; the swiftness, the sense of brooding and ultimate triumph are rather different to the performances we associate with him in Philadelphia. Lyrical and rhythmically adroit, the fire, stresses and pushing forward prove gripping. The slow movement is richly moulded, as melody not timbral saturation, and if the whole is a curious mix of urbanity and stealth – with ensemble less than secure – there’s a blazing spontaneity that keeps the listener hooked through the neat and tidy passages, the steep crescendos and things more apocalyptic.

Clemens Krauss opens the ’Pastoral’ with a hint more staccato than normal, the first half of the exposition unsettled. This a lyrical and sprightly visit to the country – in modern parlance, the coach is going a tad fast, and the rep is speaking a little discursively of some of the sights! Memorable aural features include powerful double basses. Maybe the brook of the next movement is flowing too much to imagine a contented soul on the bank (this movement over a minute shorter than the printed timing), yet there is much attention to detail, and I respond warmly to Krauss’s unaffected phrasing and his sometimes unexpected underlining and dynamic changes; the ’Peasants Merrymaking’ scherzo is especially captivating in these respects. The ’Storm’ is suitably tempestuous, and the ’Thanksgiving’ has a simple radiance. A very likeable rendition that I shall enjoy returning to.

Schuricht’s direct approach suits the Seventh; it isn’t rushed yet has a sense of purpose, a lyrical/rhythmic symbiosis that is perky and sustained – to good effect. Sometimes penny-plain, Schuricht ensures that articulacy prevails and inner parts are clear. It’s a considered reading, not headstrong or over-emotive, and satisfyingly clear-sighted.

In step Wilhelm Furtwängler! Fans should note this Andante release is stamped as first releases – so this is another Choral for you! (29/11/52 for Op.21, 03/03/52 for the ’Choral’.) Perhaps my objectivity is noticeable? Well, I’m not a convinced Furtwänglerian. As he, to my ears, staggers his way through the slow introduction and (non-repeated) exposition of Symphony No.1, accents halting the flow, I do wonder about the concept. No doubt of the immense personality, but there’s something resistible about this rather conscious way of bringing the music to life – only really achieved in the development. Undoubtedly ’something’ is happening though. Similarly, I note that the inside and personal way he has with construction and transition, a composer’s instincts, and the ’Scherzo’ is terrific in its unhurried and emphatic stride; so too the ’Finale’.

The Ninth lumbers initially; others will hear it as blossoming to life, to volcanic eruption. Again, I appreciate the seismic jolts, the humanity, the vision, the rapier accents, the unfurling of something monumental – and believe me, this is a massive performance – if not the (musically) unsettling deviations of pace. Yet, being alive is hardly straightforward, so one can relate much of Furtwängler’s ’shocking’ view of the music to a contemplation of something far greater than ’enjoying’ a piece of music. The fire and beauty of the VPO’s response is compelling, as is its undisguised loftiness of utterance. No doubting either the Olympian expanse of the slow movement or the unity of the Schiller-setting ’Finale’, in which authenticists might be surprised at Furtwängler’s driven string recitatives. Poell’s call for ’peace’ is very affecting; Patzak (given his reputation) is surprisingly rough and approximate. If the choir sounds a few numbers short, it certainly shouts the message – whether joy or (for us maybe) Bernstein’s ’freedom’ – from the rooftops, while causing a problem for the sound engineers of the day!

Nothing came easily to Furtwängler, and he ensures that Beethoven’s epic conception is both challenging and uplifting. If I fail to understand his seemingly-habitual mad-dash through the final bars – a blur of sound (except the cymbals, which are all too clear!) – one can think beyond the notes to appreciate what he’s getting at.

The sound is excellent throughout, being full and well balanced. Andante’s carefully thought about transfer technique is to be applauded for not draining timbres of colour or distorting tonal values. All in all, a stimulating set.

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