About this Recording
8.110910 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 8 (Pfitzner) (1929-1933)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphonies Nos. 3 and 8

The story of the Eroica Symphony, of its initial dedication to “Bonaparte” and the composer’s fury when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor (Beethoven actually tore off the title-page and threw it to the floor) takes on a special significance in the Germany of 1930. Copious ideals, some corrupt, others rather more noble, were in the air, and great music commonly took on an evangelical rôle that would later be deemed hopelessly romantic. Rarely in the history of music has a symphonic work expressed the aspirations of the times, on both sides, as fully as the Eroica did during the years leading up to the Second World War. It was the period of the great composer-conductors (or, in some cases, conductor-composers), not least Wilhem Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Sergey Rachmaninov, Alexander Zemlinsky, Felix Weingartner , Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner.

Pfitzner’s father, a violinist who became Music Director at the Frankfurt State Theatre, was also his first music teacher. Hans went on to study piano with James Kwart and composition with Ivan Knorr, and his mature creative output included music dramas, chamber and orchestral works. Some twelve years before making this fine but little-known recording of the Eroica Symphony, Pfitzner expressed his own spiritual condition in what turned out to be his operatic masterpiece. Palestrina represents the recognition of one composer for the work of a great predecessor: Pfitzner made Palestrina’s inspiration (in the composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli) a workable and telling symbol.

So, with the experience behind him of composing about composing, he was bound, as an already seasoned conductor, to prove an especially informed interpreter of the great masters. Other Pfitzner-led recordings include more Beethoven, Schumann and various of his own works.

These were halcyon days for the Berlin Philharmonic. Wilhem Furtwängler had been at the helm since 1922 and the orchestra had already prepared at least two epoch-making recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth - under Artur Nikisch in 1913, and under Furtwängler himself in 1926 (he was to make another version in 1937). During the period when this particular recording of the Eroica was made, Furtwängler conducted music by Beethoven and Pfitzner in concert.

Both conductors favoured a notably free approach to matters of phrasing, dynamics and tempo. They

conformed to what might be roughly termed the ‘Wagner’ school of conducting, which was in marked contrast to the more classical ‘Mendelssohn’ school as represented by (to give one notable example) Arturo Toscanini.

Pfitzner’s view of the Eroica subscribes less to the ‘structural layers’ theory propounded by the great

Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker (whose writings greatly influenced Furtwängler) than to a general principle of ‘slow tempos for the lyrical passages, faster ones for the drama’. After a generously paced opening, Pfitzner takes a mere 25 seconds to up the pulse, driving full-throttle towards the first big orchestral statement of the principal theme, only to slow down again for the woodwind exchanges at 0:56. That is more or less the formula throughout the movement: malleable tempo changes dictated principally by harmony and mood, though the Berlin Philharmonic follows the general drift of the conductor’s exegesis. They never sound uncomfortable and for the most part play extremely well.

Pfitzner broadens predictably for the lyrical second subject (1:42) then summons the development (at 3:16) with the darkening spectre of a Wagnerian drama. There is no ‘exposition’ repeat (among the ‘pre-LP’ conductors only Willem Mengelberg played the repeat on disc - that was in New York for the Victor company), but with this degree of musical point-making, it is hardly needed. This is the composer assuming inside knowledge, arching the cello line at 3:48 so that the violins’ response seems that much more expressive. Note how the lower strings take the textural lead towards the great central climax, though when those titanic sforzando chords finally fall (at 5: 17) Pfitzner drives through them without ceremony, eschewing the torturous - and wonderfully effective - broadening favoured by Furtwängler (and, many years later, Frans Brüggen). The minor-key lament that follows (6:02) is slowed considerably but the tension again starts to mount as Pfitzner points the staccato cellos and basses that strut towards the movement’s recapitulation (from 7:16). Once again, flexibility reigns, with filigree violin decorations at 12:09 and incisive cellos and basses from 13:00.

The Marcia funebre opens to sotto voce violins and claims some Brahmsian string-band textures a little later on. Where the oboe sings over violin triplets (at 4:52), Pfitzner slows the transition and holds the dynamic level to an expressive piano. The great quasi-fugal episode from 7:33 is more urgent than grand, and when the full strings lunge fortissimo at 9:22 the brass set up an impressive alarm. The movement’s coda is handled with considerable subtlety.

After the rigours of the second movement, Pfitzner’s Scherzo - one of Beethoven’s lightest - is an elfin romp, with superb string-playing and a relaxed central section or ‘trio’ (atrophied from the outer sections) where the Berlin horns ring resplendent. The finale’s theme and variations are more integrated, tempo-wise, then the first movement. The opening is fairly relaxed and the first (string) variation, beautifully phrased, whereas for the second variation, with its ornate staccato string semiquavers, Pfitzner holds fast to the tempo. Here, the principle of calculated tempo variation works wonders, and when we finally approach the home straight (8:52), horns declaim with justifiable pride.

The Eighth Symphony is a peaceable, rumbustious affair, a sort of Breughel in sound. Initial sketches date from the summer of 1812, the period during which Beethoven met Goethe for the first time. The work was completed a few months later and has always proved immensely popular. Pfitzner’s ‘malleability’ registers after just 0:13 into the first movement, where he slams on the brakes before turning into the second half of the first theme. Again, there is no exposition (less excusable with such a short symphony) and when Beethoven thrusts his opening theme back at us (3:47) Pfitzner underlines the point with some marked rubato. From around 6:19, he underlines rising string figurations that lead us towards the movement’s coda, heightening the excitement in the process.

The second movement’s staccato woodwind chords are famously said to be an imitation of the Mälzel metronome, and Pfitzner makes the most of Beethoven’s hesitations, scrubbing interjections (played on full strings) and belly-laughing repetitions (especially among the lower strings). The Menuetto wears a ruddy countenance, though note how beautifully the strings enter at 2:02, bringing a touch of serenity to this otherwise rustic music. Pfitzner chooses a relatively sedate tempo for the finale (this was of course many years before Hermann Scherchen and others attempted to realise Beethoven’s extraordinarily fast metronome marks) but in doing so, he allows for unusually clear articulation among accompanying string lines. The sum effect of his performance is both human and humorous, which is surely what Beethoven intended.

Rob Cowan

Producer’s note

The hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s death coincided with the dramatic improvement in sound recording brought about by the electrical process. A large-scale edition of Beethoven's works was launched by English Columbia, including a complete set of the Symphonies. At the same time, the German Grammophon label (exported as Polydor) commenced its own series of the Beethoven Symphonies. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra shared the recordings, conducted by Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Oscar Fried and Erich Kleiber. This series, however, was not completed in time for the centennial and, in fact, was not completed until 1933, with the Symphony No. 8 on this disc. Naxos is reissuing the complete set.

Documentation concerning Grammophon/Polydor recordings is very sketchy. Exact recording dates are uncertain, matrix numbers are not always an accurate indicator, and Grammophon was known to reissue certain recordings in dubbed versions, with new matrix numbers. A ‘mechanical copyright’ date appears on the original 78s, but this represents the year of issue, and even this had been known to change when matrices were re-numbered. Thus, the year of issue is given here rather than the year of recording. At least one side of the Eroica (middle of the fourth movement) was recorded at a different set of sessions to the remainder of the symphony, with a change in balance (and a notable change in pitch as well, corrected here). Pfitzner’s Eroica was issued in North America on Brunswick and sold very well, whereas the Symphony No. 8 was only available as an import. Both were also pressed by English Decca.

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