About this Recording
8.110927 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 (Pfitzner) (1928-1930)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6

The widely held theory about Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies being more dramatic than their ‘temperate’ even-numbered counterparts comes to grief when we consider the First and Second Symphonies. The composition of the Second Symphony coincides more or less with Beethoven's oncoming deafness and the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament. Although couched in unmistakable Classical terms, it is both tougher and more expansive than its elegant predecessor.

The First Symphony was first performed in April 1800 and has been called, on more than one occasion, “the swan song of the eighteenth century”. The first and fourth movements open with slow introductions, but it is the finale that tells the most novel tale, with a humorously hesitant Adagio that gives way, by stages, to a jubilant Allegro molto. The centre-placed Andante cantabile con moto and Scherzo offer further points of contrast, and the Scherzo in particular has a bright, bracing quality that is prophetic of Schubert.

The Pastoral Symphony received its first performance eight years later and, in extending the standard four-movement formula to five, Beethoven laid down the structural ground plan for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The movement titles are Beethoven’s own, and the general idea, according to the composer, is that “the work should be understood even without description: it shows feelings and is not a picture”.

Both symphonies have enjoyed a rich recorded history and although the two performances featured on the present CD are of historical interest, the most famous pre-war 78rpm sets of the First and Sixth Symphonies were made in London in the 1930s by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. In terms of style, the two conductors were worlds apart. The German composer-conductor Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) visits both works with abundant affection (almost to excess in the case of the Pastoral), whereas Toscanini favoured relative objectivity, truthfulness to the letter and far less in the way of expressive tempo shifts.

Indeed, it was in 1928 -the year when Pfitzner’s recording of the First Symphony was originally released - that the New York Symphony Society merged with the Philharmonic Society of New York to form the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (later simply Philharmonic), with Toscanini at the helm. This was a period when Toscanini’s Apollonian view of Beethoven was commonly pitted against the explicit flexibility of his great German contemporary Wilhelm Furtwängler. It also saw the birth of Pfitzner’s cantata Das dunkle Reich whereas in 1931, the year after the Pastoral recording was released, his opera Das Herz was first produced simultaneously in Berlin and Munich.

As a composer, Pfitzner sought to conserve the great German Romantic tradition and his most enduring creation was his part-autobiographical opera Palestrina (1917), a beautiful work that is rated by some as a seminal masterpiece. Viewed as a conductor, Pfitzner was both erratic and inspirational. His overall approach can be best gleaned from the present version of the Pastoral Symphony, where tiny shifts in pace and emphasis suggest an acutely creative mind attempting to delve behind the notes.

Neither symphony is played with its various written repeats intact, save for a fairly important one in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 1. Pfitzner’s view of the First Symphony is musically appreciative but stylistically unexceptional. The opening movement’s breezy first subject (1:23) is despatched with considerable delicacy, while the second subject (2: 13) benefits from the subtlest relaxation of tempo. As the movement progresses, Pfitzner increases the tension, then relaxes it again for the lilting opening bars of the Andante cantabile con moto second movement. Trumpets ring out at height of the Scherzo’s spiralling first subject (i.e. at bar 8: 0:05), though the oboe crotchet that opens the Trio (at 1:31) sounds as if it is missing. Pfitzner dips the tempo for the central ‘trio’ section, a common practice of the period.

The Pastoral Symphony is heavier, more lovingly indulged than most performances of the period, certainly in comparison with Felix Weingartner’s rather more famous -and notably swifter - London recording with the Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra. With Pfitzner, a meaty bass line registers virtually from the start. The oboe-led first subject chugs along contentedly (0:41); expressive cello lines register from 1:30. Violins take over before the flutes join in to brighten the texture, all with a fair degree of emphasis. At 2:09, the winds broaden the pace when they respond to the strings then, as the development section edges in (2:57), Beethoven anticipates modem-day Minimalism with a dancing sequence of triplets (3:18) that grow stronger by the second.

Tempo relations are characteristically flexible and Pfitzner’s ear for inner detail grants many passages an - extra shaft of illumination, not least at 5: 15 where violas harmonise with cellos, or a few seconds later where the two violin desks follow suit. The “Scene by the Brook” second movement is again both broadly paced and heavily textured, especially in terms of muted cellos on the first page. Pfitzner favours expressive pizzicatos, while his lead clarinet (at, say, 7:36) has a cocky, bird-like character that anticipates the great Czech clarinettists of a generation or so hence. The rise and fall of Pfitzner’s phrase shaping (i.e. from around 8:47) and the warmth of the ‘ritornello’ (‘little return’) figure (first heard at 1:18) spell obvious affection while the woodwind birdsong that draws the movement to its close (at 13:06) is interspersed with ecstatic sighs from the strings.

The “Peasants Merrymaking” scherzo sounds rather ‘short on ale’: the pace is relatively sedate, and even the In tempo d’Allegro middle section is kept on a tight leash. Beethoven’s Storm approaches more loudly than marked in the score (it should be pianissimo) and Pfitzner is unusually free in his handling of the agitated semiquavers at 0:47 (then again at 1 :54 - both times accentuating a sense of wildness). Listen out for the shimmer of second violins and violas at 2:32, where Beethoven offers a cue for Wagner and the “Fire Music” for his music drama Die Walküre. The transition to the “Shepherd’s Hymn after the Stonn” is unusually slow and the violins’ take-up of the principal theme filled with a sense of serenity. By contrast, Pfitzner draws an audible glow from the brass at 8:43 then builds a Brucknerian crescendo at 9:00, just prior to the symphony’s close. As with the first movement, one can happily savour countless affectionate details, such as the loving ‘ritornello’ idea at 2:10 which, like much else in this performance, is phrased as if fresh off the press.

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. The Pastoral Symphony originally appeared as Polydor 66467/72 and Brunswick 90 189/94, and was later reissued as Polydor 95378/83. French pressings of this issue were from original stampers and bore the same matrix numbers and mechanical copyright date (1930). German pressings were dubbings, mechanical copyright 1938, and given new matrix numbers: 582/5 GO, 905/6 GS 8D, 586/90 GO

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