About this Recording
8.110926 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (R. Strauss) (1926-1928)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7

The various commercial recordings that Richard Strauss left us of his own music - there are quite a few in circulation - are, for the most part, unrepresentative. It seemed almost as if this most flamboyant of late-Romantic composers was at pains to moderate the textural and dramatic excesses that he had created. By all account Strauss’s conducting style had altered with the years, and it is something of a pity that we will never know for certain what his earlier performances were like. True, contemporary reviews give us some indication, but there is no substitute for ‘hearing’ first hand.

Still, not all has been lost. Latterly, we have had the chance to study a whole host of newly-discovered ‘Strauss conducts Strauss’ broadcast recordings (most dating from just before or during the last world war), many of which tell a far more vital and compelling story. Strauss could indeed be an extremely interesting conductor; but if you want to hear the most interesting of his commercially recorded 78s, then you have to turn to his Mozart, Wagner and Beethoven.

First impressions of Strauss’s 1920s Beethoven is of someone eager to get the job done, who does not worry too much about orchestral finesse, and who was perhaps just a little cavalier in his overall approach to detail. As a composer, Strauss was entering his late prime: in 1926 (when Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was recorded) he presented his self-satirising musical pastiche Krämerspiegel, while in 1928 (the year of the sessions for the Fifth) Die Ägyptische Helena was first produced in Dresden. (As a matter of general interest, Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, Ravel’s Boléro, Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Lehár’s Friederike and Gershwin’s An American in Paris were all premièred in that same year).

So, we might ask ourselves: does Strauss belong to that hallowed sphere of composer-conductors who bring unique re-creative insights to the classics (think of Weingartner, Walter, Pfitzner, Furtwängler, Kubelík, Martinon, etc)? I am tempted to say that, on the evidence of records alone, conductors who compose make for better interpreters than composers who conduct. But that is to generalise.

In the event, Strauss takes a headlong, decidedly ‘un-Teutonic’ scamper through the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, varying the pace though never distorting the musical line. He stamps his personality as early as the first two bars, forcing a heavy accent over the fermata (pause) that crowns the clinching fourth note of the famous ‘fate’ opening.

The initial tempo is not especially frenetic but within the first twenty bars Strauss accelerates to something resembling Beethoven’s hectic metronome, marking. The tempo dips again beyond the fortissimo horns (00:49), building for the close of the exposition. There is no exposition repeat, but it is fascinating to hear how Strauss eases the pace for the initial portion of the development section (1:35). He then goes on to hold fast to his tempo for the diminuendo at 2:25, a point where other conductors of the period might have taken the cue to relax a little.

The Andante con moto incorporates the odd roughed accent, but most dynamics are scrupulously observed. At 0:53, where staccato triplet violas mark their entrance, the tempo suddenly increases; but when the volume lifts to fortissimo at 1:06, it slows down again (neither gesture is marked in the score). The strings’ dolce semiquavers (from 1:50) are a mite foursquare (as is the winds’ response), and although second violins and violas at 2:55 are rather sloppy, you at least hear them (which you do not on many later recordings). And note how much character the Berlin cellos bring to their quiet six-note interjections at 3:15, hurrying the shorter notes at the start of the phrase. Beethoven’s Più mosso (more movement) at 7:19 is nicely judged and for once violins answering winds at 7:55 really are dolce. Why, though, didn’t Strauss make more of the crescendo that should rightly build among lower strings from 8:25?

The Scherzo is proud, bullish, sometimes messy and almost exactly at Beethoven’s prescribed tempo. The transition into the finale - where timpani crotchets tap insistently above a soft choir of strings - is well controlled, the finale itself marginally slower than the metronome. Strauss pulls up the tempo for the big horn tune at 0:35. The movement’s recapitulation follows a similar pattern to its exposition, and in the coda Strauss instinctively knows precisely when and when not to push the pressure.

The recording of the Seventh Symphony, originally prepared by Deutsche Grammophon in anticipation of Beethoven’ s death centenary in 1927, is hampered by broom-cupboard sound, though again. there are many points of interpretative interest. The opening is truly poco sostenuto, and although the chords that strike between the rising swarms of pianissimo semiquavers are rather flabby, there is plenty of bite later on in the introduction. It is fascinating to hear how, at 3:09, not long after the strings have suddenly dipped an octave, the wind phrases that answer them are perceptively broadened. Strauss holds the tension while Beethoven prepares to skip into vivace mode (3:42), quietly at first, then fortissimo. His chosen tempo approximates to a healthy canter.

The main body of the first movement is lean and impatient. Tempo relations are typically flexible while, sonically speaking, the lower strings comes off rather better than violins. Listen out for the tripping pianissimo triplets near the start of the development (5:52), the way the bassoon marks an impish skip in preparation for the intertwining string and wind lines that follow.

Strauss drives through the central climax in tempo. He shows a game sense of humour just before the coda (from around 9:36) where, metaphorically speaking, Beethoven leaps upstairs two steps at a time, pauses, then bids us chase him for an excited apotheosis. Here Strauss broadens the tempo significantly, accentuating the growling bass line (9:58) before rushing his forces for the homeward sprint.

Grunting violas, cellos and basses set the Allegretto on a deadpan course although Strauss drops the tempo for the lyrical middle section. He also employs a fair amount of rubato. The Scherzo is taken at a moderate tempo though, again, the trio is broadened significantly. There are some nicely drawn instrumental lines (especially from the violins) and a good deal of impulsive playing between the principal appearances of the trio (ie the cutting descent of the strings at 7:30). But what is perhaps most remarkable - even exasperating - about this performance is the finale, even with its alarming 275-bar cut (e.g. from bars 244 to 419, presumably necessitated by fitting the whole movement onto one 78 rpm side). The opening seems unremarkable enough but then, at 0:31, rallying brass and woodwinds incite the orchestra to virtually double its speed before slowing again at 1:03 in preparation for the dancing second subject. We speed up at 1:38 for the swirling swings, then ease the pulse for the development, and so on until the furiously fast ending. Not quite what you would expect to hear nowadays, but then not an inappropriate way to end the symphony that Wagner once described as “the apotheosis to the dance”. On this occasion, Strauss was more Dionysus than Apollo.

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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