Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica”; Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major – New Queen’s Hall Orch./ Sir Henry Wood/ Halle Orch./ Sir Hamilton Harty – Pristine Audio

The British complement of Beethoven interpreters for the 1927 Centennial Series concludes with grandly wrought performances of the Eroica and B-flat Symphonies.

Published on June 15, 2013

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica”; Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major – New Queen’s  Hall Orch./ Sir Henry Wood/ Halle Orch./ Sir Hamilton Harty – Pristine Audio

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”; Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60 – New Queen’s  Hall Orch./ Sir Henry Wood/ Halle Orch./ Sir Hamilton Harty (Op. 60) – Pristine Audio PASC 386 (CD-R), 73:45 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn continues his projected five-volume English Columbia Beethoven cycle with the Volume II: 1926 Eroica under Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) and the 1926 B-flat Symphony under Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1941). Henry Wood had originally seen himself as a teacher of singing and choral leader, but his enormous talent demanded a larger venue for its expression. When British Columbia conceived their Beethoven centennial complete-symphonies project, Wood’s role was meant to embrace a larger portion, his having recorded the Emperor Concerto and Violin Concerto in 1927, whose inscriptions have not survived.

The (late November – early December) 1926 Eroica forges ahead with linear propulsion – sans first movement repeat – with surprisingly few “Romantic, old-world mannerisms” – with little by way of slides and rhetorical luftpausen. The acoustic of the Allegro con brio could have been improved – was the recording made at the Columbia studio in Petty, France? -  since we miss the clarity of woodwinds which evolve the main theme as it eventually synchronizes with the meter to proclaim its victory over former structural weakness.  The recapitulation, however, under Wood maintains a fierce tension and dramatic dignity, a leisurely confidence as the horns announce the adjusted metrics of the (Prometheus) theme’s true identity as an assertion of unconquerable will.  The C Minor Marcia funebre demonstrates the same dignity of purpose, with clearly articulated contrapuntal lines from the strings, winds, and horns, underwritten by a defined pulse in the tympani. The mighty horn call sounds distant and compressed, but the ensuing tension in the syncopations with the march theme generate a grand pathos. In the latter pages, however, Wood does indulge in some portamentos that may detract from the “authenticity” of his performance.

With the Scherzo, Wood surges ahead full throttle, and the sound, too, enjoys a sense of refreshed urgency. Taken at a truly heroic tempo, the music makes a blur of the outer sections, with a real “hunting” motif established in the Trio section. Headlong, Wood bounds into the colossal theme and strophic variations that literally herald the freedom of symphonic form. The vocal elements – as well as the dance elements – of the score Wood retains enshrines with monumental poise. The energy quite grips our imaginative attention, and the woodwind articulation, supported by the string basses, proves clear in its harmonic as well as linear declamation. When the woodwinds and horns, alone, announce the Prometheus theme, we have reach a dramatic mid-point in Wood’s architecture, and he proceeds to build a long majestic arch to embrace the pageant in Beethoven’s expansive vision.

Hamilton Harty still looms large in the annals of great Irish musicians, and his energetic (26-27 November) 1926 Beethoven Fourth must stand, unfortunately, as his only excursion into the Beethoven symphonic legacy. The symphony’s opening Adagio, rife with dire portent, suddenly erupts into an Homeric or Rabelaisian humor and mighty verve in the Allegro vivace.  Harty’s lines  prove elastic and streamlined, though a mite more inclined to “romantic” mannerisms in orchestral glissandi and portamenti. These Old-World signs become rather overt in the marvelous Adagio movement. The acoustics of Manchester’s Free Trade Hall enjoy a singularly ripe sound, especially in Harty’s pert woodwinds.  Berlioz called the arching melody of the second movement – a beautifully conceived rondo in E-flat Major – “angelic” and “irresistibly tender.” The music does move into darker, more dramatic regions that Harty’s forces realize with grand sweep. Some of Harty’s slides assume a whiny character and “date” the performance stylistically, yet we feel that Harty exerts total control over every effect. The clarity of line in the woodwind part of the last page suggests what Harty might have bequeathed us in his Pastoral Symphony.

The virtuosic Allegro vivace third movement hustles forward, impetuously combining both scherzo and minuet features. Schumann must have felt its repeat of the trio section to create a five-part form suited his notion of symphonic structure exactly. Given Harty’s natural fluency in matters of rhythm, the movement gains by canny application of pulse and dynamics without sacrificing its basic tempo. The intensity becomes quite potent, even after the storm of sound relents. The blustery last movement, already a semi-moto-perpetuo, finds in Harty a virtuoso showman as well as dramatic interpreter whose fleet ensemble follows him in every dynamic adjustment. The occasional slide detracts not an iota from the uncanny momentum Harty establishes, though the woodwind parts sing without a smear in the line. As Obert-Thorn points out for the second half of the last movement, “the Columbia engineers must have told Harty he was running perilously close to the four-minute maximum,” so after the bassoon riff the tempo dons its afterburners for a wild rush to judgment, “exhilarating” and “precise,” to quote master Obert-Thorn once more.

With Hamilton Harty’s contribution to the Beethoven Centennial Series, the British contingent had had their say in Beethoven, since Felix Weingartner would be designated by Columbia to complete the cycle; obviously, Weingartner provides the next points for Obert-Thorn’s conscientious ministrations.

—Gary Lemco




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