Classical Reissue Reviews
The Columbia BEETHOVEN Centennial Symphony Series, Vol. 1 = Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major – Sir Thomas Beecham & Sir Henry J. Wood, cond. – Pristine Audio
Published on December 7, 2012
The Columbia BEETHOVEN Centennial Symphony Series, Vol. 1 = Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major, Op. 72b – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Sir George Henschel/ London Sym. Orch./ Sir Thomas Beecham (Op. 36)/ New Queen’s Hall Orch./ Sir Henry J. Wood (Op. 72b) – Pristine Audio PASC 366, 66:56 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Columbia Records issued the complete Beethoven symphony cycle in 1927 to celebrate the centennial of Beethoven’s death [and following the switch to electrical recording…Ed.], allocating the works to eminent musicians: Henschel, Beecham, Wood, Harty, and Weingartner. Sir George Henschel (1850-1934) had made a reputation as a fine baritone before he established himself as a conductor. The Beethoven First Symphony (14, 21 December 1926 and 4 February 1927) survives as his only document as a conductor. The performance had been issued on LP some years ago on the Past Masters label (PM 17). The performance strikes us singularly unmannered, given the Romantic tradition – Henschel and Brahms had a long standing relationship under which he had developed. Virile and robustly aggressive, the C Major Symphony exhibits none of today’s concerns with an “authentic” sound, and the full-blooded approach has its four-square rhythmic limits in the outer movements. But the capacity for nuance and vitality remain singularly intact, and the RPO woodwinds enunciate with a clear brio. Restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has applied once more his expertise to capture resonant, fluent sound from what must have been noisy American Columbia 78 rpm shellacs.
Sir Thomas Beecham would inscribe the Beethoven D Major Symphony three times in his long career. The version Obert-Thorn restores here (9-10 November 1926) in collaboration with Andrew Rose urges Beethoven’s tempos rather hastily, so the performance exists as less an example of Beethoven’s late “first period” than as a testament to manic virtuosity on the part of the performers. The string work alone from LSO would have to qualify as Beethoven conceived in the manner of a Paganini caprice arranged for large ensemble! While the rhythm maintains a supercharged energy, the melodic lines simply smear under such blazing assaults. The breathless first movement coda quite loses any self-control and leaves us panting and not a little baffled.
Whereas Henschel kept his rhythmic licenses relatively restrained, Beecham overtly indulges in portamenti and luftpausen typical of Nineteenth Century music-practice, more to be expected from Mengelberg’s side of the Beethoven equation. The Larghetto enjoys – or suffers, according to one’s taste – any number of “plastic” stretches and compressions of the musical line, although the innately vocal character of the music manages to come through. The generous bass line comprised of low strings and winds displays the LPO’s supreme status as the London musical organization par excellence, though the penchant for string slides becomes an irritant by today’s standards. The Scherzo at first seems rather peasant-like and rugged; then, both before and after the Trio, Beecham inserts pregnant pauses that seem arbitrary, but he has excellent response from his woodwinds, especially the bassoon. The final Allegro molto wants to become another runaway train, but Beecham keeps the reins in check enough to sing a few of the melodies without the dervishes’ spinning into interstellar space. The last minute of the D Major, as per expectation, dance and twirl with athletic and acrobatic power, if not grace.
Sir Henry J. Wood (1869-1944) first came to my attention via his fine recordings of the Franck Symphonic Variations and Liszt E-flat Concerto inscribed with pianist Walter Gieseking. His potently direct style in the Beethoven Leonore Overture (rec. 28 February 1927) demonstrates Wood’s own obligations to a Romantic aesthetic, but the singularly driven internal line remains unbroken, almost in the manner of Toscanini though likely more akin to Nikisch. The famous horn-call, wonderfully resonant, communicates a lithe heroism all its own. Flute and bassoon follow suit, a marvelous duet over throbbing strings. The tympani part receives no less attention, and the cumulative stretti leading to the coda whirl us into Beethoven’s epic drama with a colossal sense of conviction. Even as period “filler,” this performance – not intended as part of the 1927 Beethoven Centennial – insists on our taking note, particularly as the Eroica will be Wood’s very own.