Classical Reissue Reviews

The Columbia BEETHOVEN Centennial Series, Vol. III = Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral” – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Felix Weingartner – Pristine Audio

Fast but penetrating performances of Beethoven’s middle symphonies performed by the esteemed Felix Weingartner.

Published on December 11, 2013

The Columbia BEETHOVEN Centennial Series, Vol. III = Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral” – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Felix Weingartner – Pristine Audio

The Columbia BEETHOVEN Centennial Series, Vol. III = Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67; Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Felix Weingartner – Pristine Audio PASC 399, 60:52 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) enjoys the repute as the first to record commercially the complete Beethoven nine symphonies.  A pupil of Franz Liszt in Weimar, Weingartner honed a classical style – much in the literalist manner of Toscanini – that emphasized the composer and his score rather than the robust personality of the performer. An advocate of the recording process, Weingartner felt that records insured a “teaching method” by which future conductors could perfect their art. Weingartner was to have recorded Liszt’s Tasso in 1942 but illness and his death intervened.

Engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn extends his survey of the complete Beethoven cycle commissioned by British Columbia to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s death in 1827. Only with the third volume of the projected cycle did Weingartner assume the helm, having been preceded by Henschel, Wood, Beecham, and Harty.  Here, too, Weingartner had not been a first choice for the Fifth Symphony, the British producers’ having chosen Bruno Walter for electrical recording sessions in 1926. The Walter version never materialized, and Weingartner recorded the C Minor Symphony on 28-29 January 1927.

The most obvious aspect of the Fifth rendition remains its speed, even beyond the omission of the first movement repeat. The limits of the electrical recording process – restricted to four minutes per shellac side – accounts for much of the haste in this streamlined performance. Despite the manic drive of the Allegro con brio, one feels the athletic drama manages to remain intact.  The Andante con moto (theme and variations) moves entirely too fast especially in upward scale passages -  though the individual variants retain their shape and no small sense of color. The precision of orchestral intonation becomes even more remarkable to us, knowing that Obert-Thorn and colleague Andrew Rose work diligently to eliminate speed fluctuations and pitch instabilities to achieve the cleanliness of articulation the recording now projects. The Allegro (Scherzo) proceeds with dignity and ominous drama, followed by a robust playfulness that never loses the presence of the solid tympani before moving to the frenetic fugal section. The pizzicati that precede the fateful transition to the finale and the tympanic beats themselves under the pedal strings, quite articulate, herald a moving and headlong rush to the C Major triumph of work’s grand peroration. Listen to those RPO trumpets! Given the veritable whirlwind of Weingartner’s tempos, the playing must be granted full credit for its virtuoso execution.

Weingartner recorded the Pastoral Symphony 18-19 January 1927. With the fast tempos and the omission of all repeats, Weingartner manages to condense the performance into a 33-minute phenomenon, a feat rivaled later by Hermann Scherchen. The breathless first movement maintains a sense of frolic and brightly colored energy, but the breadth and panorama exist only as hints and allusions. Weingartner does insist that the drone bass lines, intrinsic to rusticity, command our attention. The strings and the woodwinds palpably project a degree of warmth despite the linearity of design. The 12/8 Andante molto mosso – the “Scene by the Brook” – betrays a slight tendency to portamento we do not detect in the Fifth Symphony.  Perhaps Weingartner felt the designation of the music as a deliberate “expression of a feeling” warranted the sentimental effects.  The leisurely, almost waltz-like, gait certainly proves tonic after so much rushed phrasing prior.

The humor and elastic energy of the third movement Allegro include wonderful interplay from flute, bassoon, and French horn, Breughel personified.  The pity, the lack of repeats, intensified as we flee before the potent thunderstorm Berlioz once described as “the end of the world.” Almost dizzying, despite its age and frail sonics, the performance conveys numinous fear and awe. The easy transition to the hymn of praise announces a song Weingartner articulates with splendorous affection. The brass passages of the last movement become pre-eminent in a unique panoply of sound. The Pristine production process brings out the RPO’s bass fiddles and stunning homogeneity of sound with convincing power, a real tribute to the mighty effort the English Columbia personnel expended to produce a recorded testament for the ages.

—Gary Lemco




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