Eduard van Beinum and the Cleveland Orchestra – Ravel, Berlioz – Forgotten Records

by | Mar 30, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

WEBER: Der Freischütz Ouverture; RAVEL: Rapsodie espagnole;  BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – Cleveland Orchestra/ Eduard van Beinum – Forgotten Records FR 2229 (74:50) [] *****:

“An interpretation is only good if one does not notice the interpreter.” This aesthetic dictum posed by Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum (1900-1959) stands in sharp contrast to the manner of his notable predecessor at the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), who had led the orchestra for 50 years, 1895-1945, as the most virtuosic ensemble in Europe. Mengelberg’s methods and dictatorial perfectionism spoke to the eminence of artistic ego, whose Romantic philosophy Beinum rejected out of hand. A violinist who had risen through the ranks, even serving as Principal Conductor from 1938, Beinum viewed his post as primus inter pares, another musician merely chosen to direct the musical program. Mengelberg’s unfortunate sympathies during the Nazi occupation in Holland had him summarily dismissed in 1945, a ban to last seven years, which Mengelberg’s death obviated for any future.  

Beinum established a congenial, relaxed atmosphere among his musicians, although his penchants for speed and clarity of line could be associated with the “school” of Toscanini and Boult. This “live” document from Forgotten Records captures Beinum’s appearance (22 December 1955) with the American ensemble he favored, the Cleveland Orchestra, whose discipline had been honed by another manic perfectionist, Hungarian conductor George Szell. Beinum opens with a blazing rendition of the Overture to Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz, new the extensive discography offered on the 44-CD set from Decca. The level of orchestral response captures us immediately, from the hazy gloom of the forest to the energetic outburst of occult passion, wherein the Cleveland woodwinds and horns deliver incisive, roundly sonorous interjections and narrative riffs. The frenzied coda quite sweeps the Cleveland audience into appreciative raptures. 

Beinum had recorded Ravel’s 1908 Rapsodie espagnole in 1946 for Decca, the outer movements of which receive here broader tempos, while the interior movements, the “Malagueña” and “Habanera,” proceed in virtually the same, sonic space. Ravel’s cultured, refined sense of Iberian color finds capable realization in Cleveland, mixing a warm panoply of mysterious and erotic effects, imitative of folk rhythms and modal harmonies, mostly variants of A. The descending sequence that opens the suite reappears in the “Feria” conclusion, having shed its drowsy, repressed sensuality for an open bacchanalia in spirited, 6/8 C Major. The orchestra players themselves seem to savor the individual color their colleagues invoke, and the music swells to a grand, bravura display of controlled, kaleidoscopic wizardry.

The final work on the program, the 1830 “program” Symphonie fantasqique,” had twice received Beinum’s documented attention, in 1946 and 1951, respectively, but neither prior reading proves so broad an interpretation as the one here in Cleveland. The frenetic whims of the young man’s lovelorn obsession for the beloved, his idée fixe, becomes, in the course of the first movement, Réveries, a gripping, torrential narrative, perversely compelling. The sheer propulsion of effects, whistling in haunted ecstasies in piccolo, pizzicato strings, and thumping timpani, leave us already exhausted even before the ball begins in movement two. This movement, introduced by muted strings and harps, pulses with eerie life in swirling 3/8, careening into the very arms of love-in-death, as the fatal dies irae intrudes into the festivities.  

The third movement Adagio owes much to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for its F major, 6/8 meditations in Nature, as a balm to a distressed heart. The dialogue of English horn and oboe over tremolo strings sets another uneasy tone for the young man’s inconsolable feelings, though the pantheism of the moment manages, in the magnificent string work, to alleviate his lonely suffering, moving into stratified counterpoint, until the beloved’s menace asserts itself once more, the oboe and flute presaging the mortal storm imminent in the four timpani. The fourth movement, a nightmare conception that serves as an analogy to moments in Poe, has the Cleveland Orchestra inflamed, especially after the strings receive the sextuplet impulse from the timpani. The elements of cruel irony infest the subsequent march, the horns and bass winds cat-calling the doomed protagonist. This aggressive Allegretto provides a brash, malicious scherzo, soon bustling in whiplash gallops similar to the ride to the abyss in The Damnation of Faust. The sound of the chopping guillotine and the pizzicato imitation of the severed head’s bouncing into the basket complete the vision of self-annihilation. 

Beinum luxuriates in the malice of the Witches Sabbath, moving from its dire Largo to an impish 6/8 for the nasty juxtaposition of the idée fixe and the dies irae, the ultimate commentary on the futility of the conceit of love and death. Despite the thickness of the Berlioz counterpoint, the clarity of perverse interjections and goads to the purity of Love’s original intentions, the paced momentum builds to an unbearable intensity to destroy the last remnants of the artist’s faith. The epic, final clash of the Cleveland Orchestra cymbals, however, restores in the audience an unbridled belief in their guest conductor.  

—Gary Lemco

More information through Forgotten Records

Album Cover for Eduard van Beinum conducts Cleveland Orchestra

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