BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Miriam Licette, sop./ Muriel Brunskill, contr./ Hubert Eisdell, tenor/ Harold Williams, bass-bar./ Chorus and London Sym. Orch./ Felix Weingartner – Pristine Audio PASC 427, 61:42 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
The art of Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) in the music of Beethoven comes to a resolution of sorts in this issue from master producer and recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn, who concludes his 5-CD cycle of the “Centennial Symphony Series” instituted by British Columbia. The Beethoven Ninth restored here from 16-17 March 1926 actually began the Beethoven cycle, even prior to the idea of having a cadre of first-rate Beethoven interpreters address the hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s passing.
Arthur Bloomfield notes that Weingartner had an incisive beat, “curiously stinging” as one observant critic noted, propelled by that little stick at the end of a long and nicely-cuffed right arm: he prided himself, by the way, on finishing a concert without breaking into a sweat, and he didn’t have to change his collar if he went to a post-concert party. The style is light, pointed, curvy, full of juice and confidence, and somewhat more complex than Weingartner’s pigeon-hole position as an arch classicist suggests. He could be ravishingly breezy. . .producing an undulant lyric grace that dizzies the mind and conquers the heart. And he did know a thing or two about rubato although he was somewhat conservative in that department. As Weingartner himself put it, he conducted with economy of movement “almost as if I was fencing.” He used his wrist muscles, he said, and no others.
The Ninth Symphony from Weingartner has a direct, prosaic beauty, for the most part led in a sober, refreshingly literalist style, with a minimum of Romantic exaggerations. Weingartner loves interior details, as in the low winds that grumble in the intricate polyphony of the Scherzo, sometimes losing the larger thread of the main tissue. But the fluid beat, the flexibility of the melodic line become small wonders in themselves, often graciously singing in the Italian style of Toscanini. While the original acoustic of the Columbia studio in Petty, France may have been dry, Obert-Thorn has added a touch of reverberation that renders a valedictory glow to the proceedings.
The third movement Adagio remains the most “anachronistic” of the four movements, betraying a slight inclination to portamento within the confines of a rather austere, even metronomic, pulsation. Weingartner addresses the movement as a series of periods, more like Bruckner, emphasizing different orchestral choirs as though through the prism of a pictorial artist. Rarely has the middle section of the movement been rendered into a woodwind serenade over string pizzicati. With the addition of the string cantabile, I felt the color layering reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero! But the noble, aristocratic demeanor of the Weingartner conception should not be denigrated by any glib comparison.
The last movement, Presto – Allegro assai moves somewhat hastily. The sound of the LSO contrabasses and tympani, however, remain articulate and resonant, especially as Beethoven engages in the series of melodic “flashbacks” prior to his revelation of the five-note core melody. The melodic flow, once established, flows effortlessly, without mannerism, towards a pre-ordained architectural climax. The control proves lithe, forceful, and entirely natural. The Schiller poem is sung in English, a concession to the spirit of the times in Britain, if anti-intuitive by our standards. The vocal soli do possess an elegant singing line, and soprano Licette a finished top. The janissary scherzo with tenor Eisdell emanates a propulsive sway, if a bit like a variation on Colonel Bogey. But the fugato that follows means business, and I do well recall how urgent I found Weingartner’s 78 rpm set of the Hammerlavier Sonata.
The large choral line at Seid umschlungen (ie., its English equivalent) I find a mite smeared in terms of clear diction, but the emotional tenor retains its impact. A thoughtful sense of transition leads to the vocal fugue, a truly potent valediction that moves me as much as my preferred versions by Horenstein and Furtwaengler. The “by Thy magic” upward phrases as we approach the fiery coda project sincerity and vocal finesse, culminating in the resonant quartet. The janissary rush to judgment achieves a thrilling peroration, sturdy and triumphant, and a fitting closure to the Beethoven endeavor that set the standard for future cycles.