Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Egmont, Op.84 Overture
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony No.1 recorded in the Royal Festival Hall on 14 December 1989; Oberon and Beethoven 5 recorded in the Royal Albert Hall (BBC Proms) on 30 August 1990; Egmont recorded in the RFH on 26 September 1991
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: February 2005
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 80 minutes
One of the pitfalls of live recordings – especially those not originally intended to be released commercially – is that those who have fond memories of a particular performance may have their recollections dashed.
However, the reverse can also be true – and that’s how this Tennstedt BBC Legends release turned out for me. I was reminded how disingenuous I had been on a night in 1991 when Tennstedt opened with “The Bartered Bride” overture, continued with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and finished with Janáček’s Sinfonietta. I had complained – before the concert – that Tennstedt should have stuck to his repertoire of Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner and Brahms. That BBC Legends Czech-music release confirmed how wonderful Tennstedt was outside of his core repertoire.
Now we have another Beethoven/Tennstedt BBC Legends CD, the first one being of Symphony No.9. This Proms performance of the Fifth Symphony is coupled with the concert’s Weber overture; the Egmont overture is taken from a concert just 13 months later, and the First Symphony is from ten months before the Prom.
That performance of Beethoven’s First is particularly wonderful to hear again. “Again” may be misleading . . . as I know I could hardly keep awake during the actual performance, which preceded the only Tennstedt performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony that I ever caught. The reason I was overcome by sleep was that on the previous two evenings I had been at the Barbican Hall for the last two performances Bernstein ever conducted in this country (not that we knew that then) – of his own Candide, the cast falling to what he called “Royal flu”, which was a contributory factor to his demise nine months later (about the time of the Beethoven Five here recorded). The first opportunity I had had to sit down and relax was during Beethoven’s First Symphony. Now, thankfully, I can catch up on what I missed.
Surprisingly, and compared to the other Beethoven on this CD, the First Symphony is characterised by a supremely lithe approach. It’s still a big-boned performance but the London Philharmonic players are faultlessly responsive to Tennstedt’s rather playful – but eminently apt – direction.
Continuing to go backwards on the disc (Symphony No.1 ends it), Egmont is given dramatically – the only one of these works that can be compared to an extant commercial recording (EMI, 1984) – slower than that recording. This was from a concert that continued with Thomas Hampson singing Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” and an Eroica, which Tennstedt also commercially released by EMI (curiously coupled with Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain). Colleagues have suggested that this Legends transfer of Egmont is below pitch (it is – Ed.) but I wonder if it’s more to do with the change of acoustic.
The Fifth Symphony is larger-than-big-boned, full-bodied and as effective as it was in the Royal Albert Hall that August evening. Tennstedt was a conductor to take the music by the scruff of its neck and play it for all it is worth, and yet he managed to make his mark for the music’s sake, not for his own. Organic and convincing on its own terms, it seems a world-away from the recording of the First Symphony also here. Partly that is to do with the occasion and the hall, and it only goes to show how re-creative music is.
That concert opened with the opening work on this CD (the concerto was Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Alfred Brendel). Oberon is a fitting opener, its mercurial nature from whispering strings to rasping, jubilant horns, a testament to a conductor who, for me, epitomised the enigma that makes a great conductor. A tall, gangling, somewhat uncoordinated man, who could galvanise his players into white-hot music-making, not always beautiful (music should be more than ‘just’ beautiful), but always meaningful.