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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Weingartner) (1935, 1938)
By Gary Lemco
Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 Overtures
Although remembered primarily as a conductor, as with many of his contemporary musicians, Felix Weingartners other musical skills were comprehensively all-embracing and extended to being an excellent pianist, arranger, writer and composer. Born in 1862 in Yugoslavia to a German mother and an Austrian father, the death of his father early in his childhood precipitated a family move to Graz, where he formally studied piano and composition and came to the attention of Brahms, upon whose recommendation he was granted state support to study philosophy at Leipzig University. Here he consolidated an educational training and social background steeped in culture and ethics that were to stand him in invaluable stead throughout his long career. Once established in Leipzig, he pursued his specifically musical interests at the Conservatory, where he was quickly talent-scouted and actively promoted by Liszt, who encouraged him to develop his career as a conductor. The ever-supportive composer was similarly zealous in the promotion of his young protégés compositions, producing Weingartners first opera Sakuntala in Weimar as early as 1884.
Weingartners extensive work list includes no less than nine operas, many on exotic classical or biblical subjects, among them a trilogy based on Aeschylus Orestes and Kain und Abel, seven symphonies and other orchestral works, some with vocal soloists and chorus, five string quartets, together with a wealth of chamber works, piano solos and songs. The operas, notably Genesius, achieved considerable success in the two decades prior to the First World War, but his essentially undramatic, conservative idiom never approached the theatrical sensationalism of Richard Strauss or the searing verismo of Puccini. He remained an essentially backward-looking musician who worshipped at the altar of classical truth and had little time for the radical developments being taken up around him by Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Debussy. The dust was quick to settle on many of his works after just the first series of performances.
An orchestral arrangement of Webers Invitation to the Dance did achieve a foothold on the repertoire, and Weingartner himself recorded it no less than three times in 1914, 1928 and 1938. He also made an orchestration of Beethovens Hammerklavier Sonata and a completion of Schuberts early, unfinished Symphony In E major, D729. Although the Weber transcription never achieved the same popularity as the well-established Berlioz version, together with Beecham, Weingartner was one of the leading lights sustaining interest in the French composer, most notably with the editorship of a projected complete edition on which he collaborated with the musicologist Charles Malherbe. The pioneering recording he made of the Symphonie fantastique in October-November 1925 with the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the first electrical recordings made in England and did much to uphold the reputation of the composer when at a very low ebb.
But it was for his conducting, most notably of the classical repertoire and Beethoven in particular, where Weingartners reputation was made and continues to endure. Writing in 1939, not long before Weingartners death in 1942, Neville Cardus tartly observed: he retains the old-fashioned belief that an instrumentalist understands how to play his notes correctly and does not need illumination in the form of arts which scarcely belong to that of a conductor the arts of Terpsichore and of declamation. (His) gestures are quiet: he is always dignified. He is seldom disturbed from a calm physical balance; his laundry-bill probably disappoints those who attend to the weekly linen of most other conductors. He belongs to the cultured epoch of music, the epoch of good manners and taste and sound scholarship. This has a similar ring to the conducting style of Richard Strauss, who always maintained it was the players who should sweat, not the conductor.
Weingartner was in fact the first conductor to record all the Beethoven symphonies. Never intended as a cycle in the way such recording projects were later to proliferate, he started in the acoustic era in London in 1923 with a sequence that included the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies to finally complete all nine with a performance of the Second Symphony in 1938. Always a Columbia contracted recording artist, there were several duplications of the symphonies along the way, but the other 1930s Vienna Philharmonic recordings, especially the Eroica and the Ninth, remain landmark touchstones of Beethovenian truth.
What distinguishes his style, especially for the period, is its engaging as opposed to dull sobriety, inspired rather than plain elegance and the total lack of self-regard. With the publication of his treatise On Conducting in 1895, Weingartner had already led a reaction against the perniciously flamboyant romanticism and wilful exaggeration of the Wagnerian Von Bülow school of interpretation. Initially, even Weingartner was not beyond altering Beethovens scoring at certain notorious points of difficult balance, but ultimately he abandoned these practises in favour of exploring the veracity of the scores themselves. His beat characteristically delivers consistent rhythmic impulse, architectural lines of lyrical phrasing, and dynamic contrast within a framework of clearheaded coherent artistic integrity. Throughout a long and distinguished career, he practised what he preached and took the audience away from the conductor back to the composer himself.
This self-effacing manner has never been a popular audience winner, but Weingartners 1906 monograph on the performance of Beethoven Symphonies has carried an influential undertow with it, even to the extent of being a progenitor of new Beethoven editorship and the interpretative quests of period instrument performance in the latter part of the twentieth century. In subsequent generations, a line of distinguished Beethoven interpreters including Boult, Kempe, and Kubelik through to Bernard Haitink and David Zinman has perpetuated Weingartners lean, honest approach to the composer, the essence of which can be found when he writes the conductor must have absorbed into himself, so to speak, the peculiarity of each master and each masterpiece, and his rendering must be subordinate to this peculiarity even in the smallest details. As regards the time, the phrasing, the treatment of sounds of the orchestra and even the technical manipulation, the conductor must assume a different personality accordingly as he is conducting the Eroica, or the Pastoral, Tristan or Die Meistersinger
a conductor of genius unites in himself just as many personalities as he reproduces masterpieces.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially-released restorations.
This disc is the first in a series devoted to Felix Weingartners recorded legacy, beginning with his accounts of the Beethoven symphonies, overtures, incidental music, concertos, and the conductors own orchestration of the Hammerklavier Sonata. The present transfers were taken almost entirely from pristine late-1930s US Columbia Full-Range label pressings. No artificial reverberation has been added to these transfers, and the Vienna recordings reflect the rather reverberant characteristic of the original venue.
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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Weingartner) (...