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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (Weingartner) (1933, 1936)
Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 3 and 4
With a recording career spanning 1910-1940, Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) has the distinction of being the first conductor to record all the Beethoven symphonies. Apart from a few early Viennese recordings, most of his work was under exclusive contract to Columbia, first in America, where he recorded some of his own songs with his wife, but more significantly from 1923 in England, where he was much admired. Columbias merger with HMV in 1931 produced a considerable broadening of scope to mainland Europe, with Paris and Vienna added to London as recording venues, allowing a substantial volume of representative repertoire to be preserved.
Although never intended as a cycle in the way such recording projects were later to proliferate, Weingartners first Beethoven recordings began in 1923 and 1924 with a sequence that included the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (the Pastoral was incomplete and never issued). A Ninth with the LSO was set down in 1926 before another series featuring Symphonies 5 to 8 with the Royal Philharmonic was recorded in 1927. A considerable gap ensued before yet another Fifth in March 1932, this time with the intriguingly named British Symphony Orchestra, a thoroughly distinguished ensemble formed of First World War veterans and an especially fiery performance also featuring in the Naxos Weingartner Beethoven series. Abbey Road sessions for the present and only Fourth together with another remake of the Fifth with the London Philharmonic Orchestra followed swiftly in 1933. Thereafter, a move to Vienna in 1935 produced an especially celebrated performance of the Ninth, with the First, Eroica, Seventh and Eighth in following years before returning full circle to London in 1938 for his only recording of the Second Symphony with the LSO.
In early years Weingartner was active as a composer, conductor and writer, but he quickly came to realise that the podium offered the most practical vocational path, while still allowing active pursuit of both his other musical interests. His first appointments in Königsberg (1884), Danzig (1885), Hamburg (1887) and Mannheim (1889) were primarily focused on opera, but already in Mannheim he had given performances of Beethoven symphonies. Acceptance of a post with the Berlin Royal Opera in 1891, one of the most prestigious German houses, at the early age of 27, offered fertile opportunity for his special talents to sweep away a crumbling artistic administration and establish himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. Even after resigning from his contract in 1898 owing to internal politics, he continued to conduct the symphony concerts of the Berlin Opera Orchestra until 1907, transforming their technique and interpretative prowess to establish one of the finest orchestras in Europe.
Internationally Weingartners reputation quickly burgeoned to rival Karl Muck and Artur Nikisch in the classical repertoire, with complete symphony cycles in Mainz, Paris and London consolidating his special affinity with the works of Beethoven at a vital stage of his career. Similarly the publication in 1906 of his treatise On the Performance of Beethovens Symphonies was a landmark study whose resonance and relevance endure to the present day.
Weingartners readings of the Eroica and the Ninth especially came to be regarded as touchstones of his art. For all the considerable accomplishment of the British orchestras that he worked with, the Vienna Philharmonic brings added distinction and authoritative tradition to the performances captured in the sympathetic home acoustic of the Musikvereinsaal. If the initial impression of the Eroica does not convey the ground-breaking iconoclasm of the work later emphasised by the trenchantly dramatic Furtwängler or the assertively single-minded Toscanini, Weingartner unerringly communicates the most cogent symphonic argument and overall structural line from first bar to last. Orchestral textures remain lithe, clean and acutely balanced. The string tone is never saturated, with the wind solos or groupings always allowed room to emerge naturally without reinforced dynamics.
The pacing of the first movement offers an object lesson in control and flexibility. After introductory chords that are a call to attention rather than a slap across the ears, the first subject is sung with perhaps surprisingly open-hearted lyricism but with sufficient urgency and underlying tension to launch the argument with credibility, with a particularly effective relaxation into the second subject material. This level of subtle rubato geared to reflect pinpoint expression of the moment is characteristic of the performance as a whole. Its extensive infiltration into the fabric of the work betokens committed, detailed rehearsal offering spontaneous rather than studied performance values and gives the lie to any charges of rigidity sometimes levelled at the conductor. Weingartners sovereign realisation of Beethovens characteristic use of accents and sforzandos matched to varying dynamic levels is also much in evidence throughout, nowhere more effectively than in the underlying stealth and cumulative tension of the walking bass line beneath plangent woodwind that leads to the first movements coda. Listen too to the repeated delicate question and answer dialogue between wind and strings that precedes the coda to the finale, where both weight and nuance are most deftly articulated. The Marcia Funebre is distinctive for the nobility of its grief, all the more genuinely moving for its declamatory restraint. The restatement of the opening march both prior to and following the development of a grimly implacable central crisis speaks fearfully of a spiritual unrest resolutely unnerving in its empty desolation. Consolation arrives however with the fleetest of dancing scherzos. Despite the omission of the repeat of the first section, rhythmic verve and sustained crescendo prevail over mere speed, with the individual wide bore timbre of the Viennese horns lending an ebullient bounce to the proceedings. For once, the finales variations do not fragment into defined sections, but are developed with unity and unusually natural dependence and organic growth, allowing the final victory flourish to register without histrionic overstatement.
The Fourth Symphony is often regarded as the Cinderella of the series. Weingartner dispels the mists of its mysterious introduction to cook the first movement to maximum heat come the coda. His sleight of hand with the Adagios seductively ticking regularity sounds as though Beethoven had specifically written a two-bar silence for the conductor to beat before anyone plays a note, so natural and confident is the marriage of phrasing and rhythm. Thereafter scherzo and finale capitalise on rhythmically sprung thematic intrigue and perky humour that never sacrifice character to velocity. As in the supremely successful Eroica, the essence of his style intuitively and objectively fashions a symphonic scenario adroitly balanced between intellectual and emotional equilibrium.
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.
The Eroica was transferred from US Columbia Full-Range pressings, while the Fourth Symphony came primarily from Royal Blue shellac discs. While the former is one of Weingartners best sounding recordings, the latter was marred by a boxy acoustic and mastering flaws which include dull, muted sound at the start of Side Two of the first movement. I have tried to match the sides here as best as I could, and I have added a small amount of digital reverberation to offset the close miking of the originals.
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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (Weingartner) (...