About this Recording
8.110919 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (Kleiber / Pfitzner) (1928-1929)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827}: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4

Although Beethoven’s Third Symphony is commonly known as the Eroica, it was his Second that grew out of the more heroic predisposition. 1802 saw the birth of the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven faced the tragic prospect of encroaching deafness. Courage had triumphed over mental strain and the strictures of classical form were already being confronted by more radical inspirations. Haydn and Mozart are still audible forebears but, at the final reckoning, gaiety wins out over sorrow and the Symphony emerges as immensely affirmative.

Erich Kleiber’s Berlin State Opera Orchestra set of the Second Symphony was one of the first to enjoy the benefits of electrical recording techniques and, during the LP era, was even passed off as the work of Wilhelm Furtwängler - not surprisingly, perhaps, given the weight and flexibility of Kleiber’s reading. As Music Director of the Berlin Staatsoper, Viennese-born Kleiber had conducted the first performance of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1924 (though not before 137 rehearsals) and was to make his début with the New York Philharmonic in 1930, a year after this recording was first issued. 1929 saw the Wall Street crash, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf, Coward’s Bitter Sweet, Bax’s Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Capriccio. Any aspiring Beethovenian was operating within a context of cultural and political change.

Beethoven’s Second opens to an imposing Adagio molto introduction. At 0:35, horns that should rightly crescendo (but that do not in this recording) lead to a pensive alternation between strings and woodwinds. Kleiber broadens the pace ever so slightly, speeding again when the alternations become more florid (note how clearly the engineers capture the double-basses, for example at 1: 15 and beyond). After a forceful gesture from the full orchestra (1:40), accelerating staccato violins embellish a secondary theme on lower strings. There are further alternations and a downward scale on first violins delivers us to a lusty Allegro con brio (2:24) which is here played rather more slowly than Beethoven’s metronome marking suggests. One of the most striking passages occurs at 2:57, where mighty sforzandos (forced accents) goad the violin desks into excited staccatos (3:03). The cocky second subject breezes in at 3:20 and the development section, at 4:53 (there is no exposition repeat). Kleiber intensifies the mood where upper and lower strings angrily answer each other (5:03) and his animated recapitulation (6:37) heads the movement towards a well judged coda (8:35).

The Larghetto second movement opens like a gentle hymn, then brightens for a songful second idea (1:55) on violins. Classical elegance combines with intimations of a new music, especially when the mood darkens (at 4:00 - the 78 ‘turnover’ led to a small cut in the musical line), and flute and bassoon indulge somber exchanges (4:44) while the strings keep up the pulse. Tension starts to build again at 5:41, leading to a mighty arch that resolves into elegant decorations and leads us back to a re-statement of the opening theme. Kleiber is particularly sensitive in his handling of the coda, with its rising flute line (10:36).

The Scherzo is again taken fairly slowly and has a sense of the hunt about it. A group of three crotchets is thrown playfully between strings, woodwinds and full orchestra. Kleiber halves the tempo for the ruddy-faced Trio (1:47) - a common practice at the time - then cunningly picks up speed so that when he returns to the first half, you hardly notice ‘the join’ .The finale opens to a jagged theme topped by a trill. Perhaps this was the passage that led a contemporary Leipzig critic to describe the symphony as “an expiring snake, twisting and bleeding wildly, striking out furiously in all directions but refusing to die”. A gentle second idea sets in at 0:24, and by 0:49 the second subject has woodwinds cavorting with tumbledown violins. At 5:14, there is a key change, a pause for thought and the music chugs off again until a series of false stops and starts (typical Beethoven humour) brings the Symphony to a close.

One of the more unusual features of Kleiber’s Beethoven Second concerns the string playing, which is comparatively ‘slide-free’ for the late 1920s. By contrast, the German composer-conductor Hans Pfitzner employs portamento (‘carrying’) as a more-or-less standard practice, though with Beethoven’s predominantly lyrical Fourth Symphony, the gesture seems rather appropriate. Robert Schumann used to call the Fourth (which was a product of 1806) Beethoven’s “Greek Symphony”. He praised its “tranquillity and classical purity of form”, not unreasonably, though some conductors - notably Furtwängler - make a special feature of the first movement’s many contrasts in mood and colour.

Pfitzner prepared this recording at around the time when he was putting the finishing touches to his cantata Das dunkle Reich and although far from immaculate, technically speaking, it is full of intuitive insights. Freer in style than Kleiber’s Second, it is also rather more respectful of Beethoven’s fast metronome markings.

The Symphony opens to a quiet pizzicato chord, which in turn leads to a solemn adagio theme and a hymn-like motif (at 2:11, where Pfitzner’s strings introduce one or two of those ‘portamento’ slides). So much for the darkness. Light dawns suddenly, first on crescendoing violins, then on two affirmative orchestral chords (2:27) and an Allegro vivace where Pfitzner immediately starts to push the tempo (2:40). A cheeky bassoon flavours the mix (2:59), the tempo dips for a second idea (again led by the bassoon, at 3:36), then speeds again as marching crotchets 3:49 deliver us to the second subject (4:07 - clarinet in duet with the bassoon). The development section (4:47) is eerily quiet. At 5:59 gentle violin crotchets reflect on that initial, excited ‘darkness to light’ transition to allegro vivace, alternating with equally quiet timpani (though they are not terribly quiet here) before leaping back at full force for the recapitulation (from 6:48). This particular performance is interesting in that while many conductors at the time slow the development to virtual immobility, Pfitzner keeps things on the move.

The Adagio second movement opens to quiet second-violin semiquavers in 3/4 time that switch to clipped staccato triplets as soon as the first violins take up the first theme cantabile (or ‘sweetly’). In this recording, however, Pfitzner ‘back-dates’ the staccato effect to the opening bars so that when first fiddles come in with their theme, the accompaniment is consistent. The idea, one presumes, is to mark a maximum contrast between a singing top line and its crisp, even breathless ‘backing’. After a hammering climax, woodwinds take over the theme and lower strings provide a pizzicato accompaniment. Next comes a noble, arching motif on the strings (at 1:40) followed by a delicately accompanied clarinet solo. A little later, at 4:00, violins take the lead with a variation on the principal theme before string choirs intertwine (5:09). The movement's closing moments have the horn, clarinet and flute enter into a ‘speaking’ exchange that anticipates the close of the Pastoral Symphony’s ‘Scene by the Brook’.

Pfitzner’sMenuetto” is lively but casual, and openly appreciative of those weird, curling figurations shared between woodwinds and strings (from 00:03) that seem to anticipate the twilit world of late Brahms. The folksong-like trio is slowed significantly and the rush back to the opening idea (2:52) is something of a mess. Beethoven’s Allegro ma non troppo heading for the finale contradicts a very fast metronome marking, but Pfitzner sensibly keeps the pace both moderate and flexible so that you can hear, say, the rocking clarinet accompaniment (at 0:35) and crucial sforzando string figurations later on. The central section (from 1:38) is full of tiny pauses and speed alterations, but the return statement of the second idea at 3:23 is beautifully drawn. And when, towards the end of the piece, Beethoven lulls us into a false sense of restfulness, Pfitzner keeps the secret and the vigorous finale bars are shockingly conclusive.

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 Symphony No. 8. 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.

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