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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 / Sonata No. 29 (orch. Weingartner) (1930, 1933)
Great Conductors • Felix Weingartner
Hammerklavier Sonata (orch. Weingartner) • Prometheus
Overture • Symphony No. 5
Beethoven worked on his largest scale Piano Sonata in B flat
major, Op. 106, primarily between late 1817 and late 1818. Both the preceding
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101 and the next Sonata in E major, Op. 109, the
first of the final group of three sonatas composed between 1820 and 1822, were
designated für das Hammerklavier. The subtitle has always adhered more
particularly to Op. 106 and it is not difficult to appreciate why. In much the
same way as the Eroica Symphony is a revolutionary work that opens several
doors to the composer’s full maturity, so the Hammerklavier Sonata stands as a
stylistic pinnacle of the composer’s development of sonata form and as a
transitional marker for all the major final works that followed, especially the
string quartets. It also represents the compositional emancipation of the
action of hammers striking a keyboard string or strings rather than plucking
them, a radical technical development paradoxically custom-built to engage the
creative sensibilities of a deaf and probing composer looking beyond to all
manner of new vistas and possibilities.
Herein, however, lies an essential problem. It would be
difficult to identify another work of its time, or indeed any other, less
suited to orchestral realisation. Yet in another respect, Felix Weingartner’s
admiration and understanding of Beethoven, more than any other composer, were
so profound, comprehensive and sympathetic as to verge on the reverential.
There was probably no-one better equipped for the task than this conductor, who
had written the landmark treatise On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies
in 1906 and was the first to record a complete cycle with some symphonies
duplicated, triplicated and in the case of the Fifth, a clutch of no less than
four different recordings, all with British orchestras and for the same
recording company, between 1924 and 1933. It is also significant that, like
Furtwängler and Klemperer, he was also a composer in his own right and
certainly more respected and prolific as such in his own lifetime than either.
Weingartner’s orchestration, completed in 1925 and published
the following year, employs essentially the same orchestral forces as
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The choice of specific instruments or groups to
highlight leading voices and achieve textural transparency is both
clear-sighted and well focused. He is also interpretatively adroit in his
handling of the complexities of Beethoven’s rhythmic developments and tempo
relationships, even though the trills in the last movement bring insurmountable
problems. The third movement works best of all. Weingartner artfully enhances
the composer’s Adagio sostenuto marking to a degree where the profile for both
lyrical melody and harmonic underpinning could not be matched by sustaining the
pedals of a piano. But for all the assurance of a characteristic Beethovenian
template, what is the listener to make of such lavish deployment of portamento
string playing, not just here but in the other movements as well? Impossible to
achieve on the keyboard, this expressive device sounds stylistically alien and
out of place. Too much love and admiration compromises the sense of struggle,
the very mellifluousness of the orchestral sound rendering the battle too
The celebrated pianist and scholar Charles Rosen has
remarked that the opening of the Hammerklavier is an ideal example of piano
sound, which explains why, for him, the Weingartner orchestration sounds plain
silly. In the face of the many merits of the enterprise, this is too general a
dismissal. Whatever the arcane substance and seemingly insuperable practical
challenges posed to a solo performer, ultimately Weingartner’s transcription
redirects us back to precisely these fundamentals of Beethoven’s original
conception, perhaps even intentionally so.
It is easy to forget in our contemporary times, when legions
of pianists programme the work almost as a repertoire staple, albeit still an
Everest to be climbed in full view of the audience, that such regular
opportunity was not the case in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Just as Liszt popularised so many other nineteenth-century composers’
orchestral works with his own brilliant and radically embellished keyboard
transcriptions, so Weingartner’s rôle reversal with the Hammerklavier in an age
when symphony concerts were far more accessible can perhaps be seen as an
evangelical compliment from one composer to another revered special favourite.
Little wonder that he pushed so hard for Columbia to record the sonata so that
it could be brought to an even broader market.
Nor did he seem to have much difficulty persuading them to
record the Fifth Symphony four times. The 1933 London Philharmonic Orchestra
performance was the last of his commercial recordings of the work and, while
not possessing as incisive or urgently driven a demeanour as the previous
version with the British Symphony Orchestra, many of whose members were
veterans from the First World War, it is a more corporately secure and central
reading that has Weingartner’s customary authority stamped all over it.
As always, the essence of Weingartner’s style remains his
meticulous attention to the minutiae of tempo and dynamic differentiation
within a framework of structural and tonal clarity that still sounds
spontaneous rather than merely academic. His Beethoven performances remain
remarkably consistent demonstrations of this aspect of his art. Even with the
arid Abbey Road acoustic, there is never any doubt whether the music is forte
or fortissimo, while the emphasis of Beethoven’s characteristic sforzando marks
that pepper this score is an object lesson in rhythmic propulsion within the
context of overall line and shape of phrasing. They never intrude as ugly or
gratuitously disruptive for their own sake. The symphony breathes interpretative
oxygen keeping its lifeblood circulating to suit every appropriate expressive
nuance at the same time as palpably sustaining the body of the work as a whole.
It is fascinating to compare the London Philharmonic
Orchestra’s Prometheus Overture with the recording made only three years later
with the lustrous Vienna Philharmonic. No question about which is the finer
orchestra, yet Weingartner’s handling of the work is in essence the same, much
in the same way that Mengelberg’s more flamboyant and wayward interpretations
remained constant. Art concealing art in the manner that remains the preserve
of only the greatest conductors.
The Hammerklavier transcription was transferred mainly from
U.S. Columbia “Viva-Tonal” pressings with the exception of two sides that came
from first edition laminated English Columbias (including the second movement,
which has a pronounced swish on all American pressings). The original recording
is problematic in many respects. There is pitch instability throughout every
side that I have attempted to correct, an endeavour made more difficult by the
only-approximate tuning of the old RPO. In addition, instances of distortion
and surface blemishes appear to be inherent in the masters.
As “fillers,” I have presented alternative versions of works
featured earlier in Naxos’s Weingartner series. The Prometheus Overture,
transferred here from a U.S. Columbia “Royal Blue” shellac edition, is the
earlier of the conductor’s two recordings; his remake with the Vienna
Philharmonic is featured on 8.110856. The rather dead-sounding Abbey Road
Studio No. 1 stands in stark contrast with the ample reverberation found in the
Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal in the overture’s later recording (not to mention
that of Central Hall in the Hammerklavier).
The Fifth Symphony, transferred from U.S. Columbia
“Full-Range” label pressings, is the last of Weingartner’s four traversals of
the work on disc. Earlier in this series, his third version from the previous
year with the British Symphony Orchestra was presented (8.110861). Although
that 1932 recording is now commonly considered the conductor’s best, the
present version, which contains the first movement repeat not included there,
has been part of the “official canon” in all previous LP and CD reissues.
Together with the Naxos CDs containing the nine symphonies and various
overtures and the disc with the Third Piano Concerto and the Triple Concerto,
this release completes Weingartner’s recorded repertoire of the composer with
whom he remains most closely identified.
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