About this Recording
8.110913 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 / Sonata No. 29 (orch. Weingartner) (1930, 1933)
English 

Great Conductors • Felix Weingartner

Great Conductors • Felix Weingartner

Beethoven (1770-1827):

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 easily won.

 

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.

 

Ian Julier

 

 

Producer’s Note

 

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.

 

Mark Obert-Thorn


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