About this Recording
8.110861 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (Weingartner) (1927, 1932)

Beethoven: symphonies Nos

Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 • Eleven Viennese Dances

Felix Weingartner

Weingartner recorded Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for Columbia no less than four times in ten years starting in 1924 with the London Symphony Orchestra and then again with the Royal Philharmonic in 1927 at the same time and venue as the Pastoral on the present disc. He moved around London to the London Philharmonic Orchestra for his final recording of the work in 1933, and thereafter, perhaps with four performances already tucked under his belt, his recording company may have resisted another when they recorded yet more Beethoven with him, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, a year after his celebrated Vienna recording of the Ninth. In the event this did not prevent triplication of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, but the opportunity was also taken to fill gaps with the First and the Eroica, thereby enabling a complete Weingartner cycle to be represented, the first by a single conductor in the history of the gramophone.

Apart from his own works (he was also a prolific composer), Weingartner rarely ventured into contemporary repertoire in the recording era. Wagner, Verdi and Tchaikovsky were the limit of his attention and it was for his Brahms and Beethoven performances that he was especially celebrated. His discography is also striking for the lack of Schubert’s Unfinished and Great C major Symphonies as well as no less than four recordings of Mozart’s Symphony No.39, but nothing else by the composer other than the celebrated serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Beethoven remained the source of special study and inspiration throughout his career and his reputation has always rested on a quest for symphonic truth, much supported by his conducting peer group.

Renowned for sobriety, elegance and architectural line, Weingartner’s performances are notable for their absence of self-regard and flamboyance. Unlike the more demonstrative Toscanini, Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Stokowski, he drew strength from objectivity, but without being compromised by anonymity or lack of character. His ability to communicate an unassailable logic and accurately pinpoint the stresses and strains of the topography of Beethoven’s symphonies is nowhere more apparent than in this distinctively fiery performance of the Fifth with the British Symphony Orchestra. Although constituted of war veterans, many of its members were almost certainly regulars with one or other of the major British orchestras of the time. The tight ensemble and spontaneity of the playing mark it out as something special caught very much on the wing. Weingartner expounds the drama of the music both within individual movements and over the span of the entire work. The first movement is impulsive without being over-emphatic. The ensuing Andante is very much con moto with an engaging full-hearted and sunny disposition, the perfect foil to the more serious matters propounded by the interlinked third movement and finale, whose cross-referenced transition to triumph is articulated with the same spruce assurance and resolution that characterized the first movement. The trick is to make it seem so natural, a gift few conductors even to this day can match without resorting to empty barnstorming.

Weingartner had previously started a recording of the Pastoral at the same sessions as his first recording of the Fifth with the London Symphony Orchestra in November 1924, but this remained incomplete, leaving the present 1927 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performance as his sole representation of the work. One of the problems of hindsight is that, given the wealth of programme music it inspired, the innovative aspects of the symphony can seem less groundbreaking and almost taken for granted. Weingartner cuts through the accretions of subsequent musical history to reveal a perfect marriage of scenic and symphonic argument. His attention to the tensions and resolutions of the long-drawn pedal points and crescendos that are prime features of the symphony lends resilience and structural fibre to a work that in the wrong hands can diffuse into a series of tone paintings. Rhythms are sprung and sharply accented where the composer instructs. This is most evident in the second movement Scene by the Brook, where Weingartner is adroitly attentive to the mobility of the music and clarity of balance between the main thematic material and its accompaniment. Every instrumental entry is an event but within the context of a purposeful, forward-moving tempo. Some conductors observe the landscape rooted to the spot. With a leap of imagination Weingartner takes us on a journey, acting almost as a boatman communicating shared delights in new and ever-changing vistas.

Sensitive dynamic contrast and nuance are also significant components of Weingartner’s arsenal. The peasants’ merrymaking has rarely sounded so genuinely bucolic and rustic, with the perky solo oboe achieving a tantalising diminuendo before the hurdy-gurdy dance is launched with an earthy stamp. The storm is sudden, fierce and terrifying on its own graphic terms of sonic extremities, but also an appropriately cathartic moment within the symphonic development so that the fulfilment of the thanksgiving registers with heartfelt contentment and renewed optimism. The unusually direct urgency of the closing bars signs off with signal finality and no hint of nostalgic languor. Weingartner’s Pastoral unerringly suggests the unity of time passing, a real day in symphonic countryside.

Not everything in Weingartner’s musical armoury fired from the high ground of symphonic seriousness, however. He pertinently sought out some of the more lightweight works of his revered master composers. One of his own more enduring creations was an arrangement of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, which he recorded three times, but he enjoyed Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony, also recorded with the British Symphony Orchestra in 1931, the Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde, and selections of Johann Strauss polkas and waltzes. It therefore comes as a particular delight to be able to relish the elegance and witty diversion that he brings to Beethoven’s bonbouche Viennese dance suite, where the music is really made to smile.

Ian Julier

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s 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.

Producer’s Note

Weingartner’s 1932 version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the third of four recordings he made of the work, has an interesting history. As noted by Christopher Dyment in his 1976 volume, Felix Weingartner — Recollections and Recordings (Triad Press), the discographic details of the recording sessions are vague; neither the venue nor even the ensemble can be identified with certainty. Despite its pickup orchestra-sounding name, the British Symphony Orchestra was an established group made up of World War I veterans, and had earlier recorded under both Weingartner and Bruno Walter.

EMI considered the sound of the original matrices too faint for issue, and the records were not released in the UK. American Columbia, however, brought out the set, crediting the ensemble simply as ‘Symphony Orchestra.’ It was replaced in their catalogue when Weingartner’s remake with the London Philharmonic was made a year later, thus making the present version something of a rarity. Modern transfer techniques easily solve the ‘faintness’ problem, revealing a propulsive performance that has been called Weingartner’s finest Fifth on record.

By contrast, the 1927 Pastoral represents Weingartner’s only recorded version of the work. Like many other early electrical English Columbias, it suffers from severe pitch instability throughout every side, and great care has been taken to vary the playback speeds for this transfer. The sources for all of the recordings were American Columbia pressings: ‘Viva-Tonals’ for the Pastoral, ‘Royal Blue’ shellac discs for the Fifth, and ‘Microphone’ label pressings for the Viennese Dances.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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