BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 3 – Berlin Philharmonic/ Arthur Nikisch/ Berlin State Opera Orch./ Oskar Fried – Pristine

by | Nov 30, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica” – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Arthur Nikisch/ Berlin State Opera Orchestra/ Oskar Fried – Pristine Audio PASC 310, 76:21  [avail. in various forms from www.pristine] ****:
When we listen to the complete Beethoven Fifth Symphony (10 November 1913) with the Berlin Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch, here restored in more than adequate sound by Andrew Rose, we hear an amazing document, a piece of modern conducting history. It was Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) who established much of what we assume defines the modern approach to conducting. Musical personalities as different as Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Boult, Stokowski, and Reiner each admired Nikisch for the economical authority he brought before an orchestra, fixing a tempo or a cue by means of his eyes rather than by a wave of the arms. And despite the eccentricities of the period, such as the intrusive portamento in the bar lines, the musical impetus and rhythmic resilience from Nikisch remains linear, direct, and eminently dramatic. I still must qualify the term “linear,” since Nikisch engages in poetic license with the recap of the first movement.
I find the Andante con moto even more miraculous than the opening hard-driven Allegro con brio movement. Despite the often “dead” sound and limited frequency range in acoustical horn reproduction, the nuance and engagement of the plastic lines of the theme and variations enjoys a wonderful sense of contour. The dynamic shifts, too, resonate as calculated and eminently balanced. Nikisch carefully opens the introduction to the Scherzo, marking a deliberate tempo and holding the long-note values. The bristling effect of the dialogue among winds, strings, and tympani proves effective; and then the basses begin the contrapuntal sequence that forcefully layers itself with considerable impact, except for the thinness of the upper acoustic of the period before electrical recording. Still, the advancing pizzicati move us inexorably to the transition to the tympanic beats before the colossal burst of energy that marks the final Allegro. What jubilation can be drawn out from these antique records Nikisch exacts with determined abandon, the devil with the slides and shifting agogics. The high winds make their presence known, and the mounting frenzy culminates in a fearsome climax, only to build itself anew. The extended coda sings and edifies simultaneously; even as a mere shadow of what Nikisch’s powers were like, it exerts a mystical power over us “advanced” listeners.
No less a force in the conducting world stands Oskar Fried (1871-1941), friend and admirer of Gustav Mahler and the first to record a complete Mahler symphony on records. Fried’s titanic Eroica (1924), despite the limitations of the acoustic process, engages us with its combination of directed vehemence and tender lyricism, Fried’s power to lift the melodic line en masse while preserving individual color lines. Often the very “rough edges” of the sound process add to the visceral energy Fried elicits from the BSOO, especially in the opening movement before the “theme of moral compromise” sings its siren’s song. The sheer nervous energy of the Allegro con brio suffices to answer for the entire score, especially the transition to the recapitulation; but we still have three movements to go. More overtly virtuosic in execution than the Nikisch reading, the Fried remains the more difficult to classify except on its own idiosyncratic terms. That Fried can find a moment of chamber-music intimacy in the midst of an emotional whirlwind seems a minor musical miracle. The emergence of the triumphant trumpets for the last pages marks a peroration of uncommon potency.
Fried’s individual rhythmic license can be heard to great effecting in the Marche funebre, in which the adjustments to both the dynamic level and linear progression often prove startling and unprecedented. Given the basic pulse Fried establishes, there still seems an incredible fluctuation of the individual melodic lines, compressed and unified through some individual musical will. The diaphanous, even punishing, colors of the polyphony in Beethoven pose yet another moment of uncanny individualism in Fried’s vision, a personality rife with daring imaginative flair. Has the trump of doom in the middle of the movement ever seemed so akin to the music of Berg and Schreker? All of Liszt and much of Wagner and Strauss permeate the latter pages of the Marche, a haunted specter of catastrophe and redemption, barely distinguishable. A whirlwind Scherzo leads to the colossal “Prometheus” theme-and-variations last movement, where, once more, Fried can slow the details of Beethoven’s harmony to reveal “modernist” elements that at once arrest and disturb. The accrued momentum of the latter variants overwhelms us through its intense articulation and the bravura application of speedy, demonic drive. Quite a demon, this Fried!
In his notes to this issue, editor Andrew Rose reminds us that Friedrich Kark made a “complete” Beethoven Fifth in 1910, and Henry Wood led an abridged Eroica in 1922.
Fried’s Eroica, too, lack repeats at various locales. But as inscriptions by world-reputable conductors and ensembles, these discs stand as early recorded monuments to the epic personalities that imposed their visions of Beethoven’s music.
—Gary Lemco

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