About this Recording
8.110862 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Weingartner) (1936)

Beethoven: symphonies Nos

Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 • Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont

Felix Weingartner

The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are two of Beethoven’s most closely linked works. Sketched consecutively, the Seventh was started at the end of 1811 and completed in May 1812, with the Eighth following in October of the same year. Contemporary audiences soon had the opportunity to appreciate the complimentary aspects of the two symphonies when the Eighth was first performed in the same concert as a performance of the Seventh on 27th February 1814. Given recent events, the parallels with victory over Napoleon and the inauguration of a period of long-awaited European peace were inescapable.

Both works share a festive tone. The Dionysian strength of the Seventh Symphony and its rhythmic insistence culminate in a transcendental paean to victory, while the Eighth Symphony celebrates the heroic achievements of its predecessor more as sunburst than afterglow. Neither work has a place for the sombre or tragic gravitas of the composer’s customary symphonic slow movements. These focus instead on joyous expressions of contentment and good-humoured well-being, relocating the composer once again to a more Haydn-influenced trajectory. The Eighth Symphony overtly stems from the same creative impulse to provide an Apollonian counterbalance to the hyperactivity of the Seventh and was in fact deemed the more satisfactory work by Beethoven himself.

The pairing was always a Weingartner speciality. He recorded them both three times — in 1923 with the London Symphony Orchestra and in 1927 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra before moving to Vienna for these famous 1936 sessions for Columbia. With characteristic shrewdness and an ear for architectural span, the performance of the Seventh Symphony is notable for its finely judged pacing and dynamic control. Tempi remain mostly steady. No more so than in the engagingly voiced introduction to the first movement, where great play is made of the dialogue between woodwind and strings. The phrasing is long-drawn, but supple enough to immediately establish line and expectancy without any rigidity. As the dialogue becomes ever more insistent in the question and answer exchange of repeated Es before the main Allegro, Weingartner and his players tease expectations and generate palpable tension. When launched, the dotted rhythm that forms the main substance of the movement is sprung as the secure bedrock upon which the composer’s melodic superstructure can be articulated with both flexible power and clear-sighted logic.

Internal balance is attended to so that textures never overload or become saturated. Luminosity and transparency prevail allowing the music to speak clearly. Weingartner is also careful to point the contrasts between movements in music that can readily overwhelm too quickly if pushed to extremes. Rhythm never becomes an obsessive end in itself. Time is taken to shape and savour melodic lines as being a pertinent ingredient in the dynamic mix. The lyrical expression of the third movement trio pitted against the deftly athletic scherzo is a special case in point.

Even in the finale, the Wagner-dubbed ‘apotheosis of the dance’, Weingartner resists the temptation for mere speed to hijack the symphonic argument and the cumulative power of all that has gone before. With an ear on Beethoven’s extended series of pedal points, reserves of energy accumulate with irresistible momentum held masterfully in check until the coda at last unleashes an unstoppable torrent with horns announcing an emphatically triumphant arrival.

The miracle of Weingartner’s Eighth is its combination of tenacious control and ebullient, liberated spirit. This is music-making of open-air enjoyment with no constraints or inhibitions that resounds as the temperamental goal and fulfilment of its predecessor. The lithe urgency and sly humour of the symphony’s particular eccentricities are communicated with zest and winsome appeal. To hear both symphonies in the hands of the pre-Second World War Vienna Philharmonic, manifestly viewing their guardianship of the direct Beethovenian tradition as unassailable, lends Weingartner’s readings special authority and force.

Victory had already been much in the air when Beethoven composed incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont between 1809 and 1810 shortly before working on the Seventh Symphony. At the same time, he also contributed to two other theatrical projects, The Ruins of Athens and King Stephen, neither of which struck a significant emotive chord with him. The scenario of Egmont however, which tells of a Flemish aristocrat condemned to death by the Spanish, came custom-built for his sympathies. Clärchen, the daughter of a local governor, poisons herself after failing in an attempt to rescue Egmont, who is then executed foretelling the overthrow of the Spanish and freedom for his country. Noble self-sacrifice promoting national liberation chimed perfectly with Beethoven’s ideals and was also apposite to the French occupation of Vienna at the time.

The telescoped concision of the drama that informs the overture is one of the composer’s most concentrated transitions from darkness to light and quickly established itself as a separate concert item. Weingartner takes a very mobile and trenchantly accented view of the music’s unsettled energy leading to a noble rather than intoxicated conclusion. Performances and recordings of the complete incidental music have been comparatively rare, but with characteristic enterprise, Weingartner selected two of the more memorable numbers to lend the overture added context and fashions an affecting, grief-stricken vignette from Clärchen’s Tod.

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

The present transfers were made using a combination of late-1930s American Columbia "Full-Range" and "Microphone" label pressings. The originally issued Take 5 of the first side of the Beethoven Seventh has been used, rather than the sonically inferior dubbing which later replaced it.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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