Beethoven: Violin Sonatas (complete)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Violin Sonatas (complete)
PERFORMER: Fritz Kreisler (violin), Franz Rupp (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110969-71 ADD mono
GÜNTER WAND’s Beethoven recordings from the Fifties and Sixties, long unavailable, tend to have been sidelined by his remakes for RCA. But there’s a freshness in these versions with the orchestra which Wand rebuilt after the War, as well as that scrupulous attention to detail and balance, achieved through long and meticulous rehearsal, which was always one of his strengths. He encourages the orchestra to play through all the notes so that there’s a real sense of line, even in fast music. He also observes but doesn’t overdo accents and phrasing, keeping an iron control on tempo, while still finding room for inner flexibility. The lyrical passages in the finale of the Second Symphony are expressive and shapely, but the wit of the music is also there, and Wand doesn’t treat this or the First Symphony as light hors d’oeuvres to the later symphonies. Unusually, he’s almost too heavy in the first movement of the Third, where the slow tempo seems to belong to another era. But the lead-in to the recapitulation is masterfully handled, with crystal-clear repeated quavers in the strings, and the rest of the symphony is clean and lithe. Other highlights of these performances include the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, where the sustained melody is perfectly offset by the articulation of the accompaniment; and a Fifth Symphony where the tightly propulsive outer movements remind us that Wand was a vigorous man, still only in his forties at the time.

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In his later years he became less inclined to work with soloists or choirs, partly because of his rehearsal requirements. When I asked him to conduct the Missa solemnis for the BBC, he fended me off by saying that he’d had over 40 rehearsals with the chorus before making his recording. It’s the most recent of the items here, in reasonable stereo from 1965, and you can hear how Wand’s preparation paid dividends, with the chorus as unanimous and focused as the orchestra (whose leader contributes an artless solo in the Benedictus). Alas, not only is the mono Ninth Symphony the worst-recorded of the set orchestrally, but the chorus tends to be too far in the background. The soloists come through in both works, though, and Peter Schreier is outstanding in the Mass. Try this or the coupling of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies if you want to begin exploring these recordings.

ERICH KLEIBER’s live 1946 Missa solemnis is stridently and thinly recorded (off air, to judge from some buzzes and station breakthrough) and is further knocked out of court for all but the diehard enthusiast by bumpy joins and pitch changes between the sides of the original acetates – not so hard to sort out, so why leave them like that? Underneath there’s a performance of Latin fervour, particularly from the chorus, to set alongside Wand’s more rounded view. FURTWÄNGLER’s 1937 Choral Symphony from the Queen’s Hall has been round the block a few times, most recently from Music & Arts, whose more sensitive restoration is preferable to Archipel’s garish sound. But my ears quickly overcame this, as the vibrancy of the performance, and the incredible depth of sound of the Berlin Philharmonic – even in this transfer – took hold. Whether in Paris (Fifth Symphony) or Berlin (Pastoral), SCHURICHT’s Forties performances have a lightness and elegance which are compromised only by a sluggish ‘Scene by the Brook’, and a tendency to broaden the tempo too much in the ‘Shepherd’s Thanksgiving’. The transfers here are a good deal better, but this is still niche material.

WEINGARTNER was the first conductor to record all the Beethoven symphonies, and was regarded as a model of restraint in his day, in contrast to the wayward Furtwängler. Sometimes there’s a flexibility of tempo that sits uneasily with this reputation. In the Fifth Symphony (1932) and the Eroica (1936) there’s a pulling up for the second subject in the first movement, and a variety of tempi in the other movements that would horrify any authentic performance buff. But the 1927 Pastoral is surprisingly thrusting, with a brook four minutes swifter than Schuricht’s meandering flow. Somehow these contradictory approaches all make organic sense, and though there are what we might now describe as technical imperfections, especially in the first two symphonies, the orchestral strings produce the most remarkable seamless legato.

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Which brings me briefly to KREISLER’s journey through the violin sonatas, never absent from the catalogue for long. Others may have brought more drama to these works, but few have approached them with such affection, and for Naxos to offer such good transfers at such a low price is almost indecent.