Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica); Symphony No. 8

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Berlin PO/Hans Pfitzner
WORKS: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica); Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Hans Pfitzner
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110910 AAD mono
Nowadays most readers don’t possess 78 rpm collections or even LPs, and don’t know at first hand what older records actually sounded like. Listening to some transfers they must wonder why anyone bothers with them. However, in the hands of the best transfer engineers, both 78s and LPs can yield astonishingly good results.

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The latest Naxos Historical reissues are variable, but they do include recordings that have long been out of circulation, including the work of two composer-conductors, Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. By the standards of the day, Pfitzner’s discography is quite extensive. Apart from his own music, including the preludes from his opera Palestrina, he recorded a number of Schumann and Beethoven symphonies, some more than once, and his thoughts are of unfailing interest.

HANS PFITZNER was an extraordinarily many-faceted musician, a fine pianist and teacher (his pupils included Furtwängler and Klemperer), and evidently a decent singer. He once replaced a Beckmesser who fell ill during a performance of Meistersinger he was conducting, handing the baton to his assistant. His Eroica certainly has something of Furtwängler about it with no want of gear changes. Indeed, he makes a forward spurt only a few bars into the first movement and broadens predictably at the second group. Yet the listener is gripped from first to last by the narrative quality and conviction of his conducting.

The scherzo, marvellously played incidentally, is shorn of its repeat – though this is nothing by comparison with the huge cut of some 270 bars that RICHARD STRAUSS makes in the finale of the Seventh Symphony. The present transfer is a little bass-light but perfectly acceptable: it stands up well to a straight copy of the 78s that I have. Strauss was a legendary Mozart conductor and there is no doubt as to the dramatic power and concentration of his Beethoven.

The late-Twenties sound is dry but not as impoverished as it is in a companion issue, which brings some of the pioneering Delius records THOMAS BEECHAM made – mostly in 1934. And what magical performances they are, with Leon Goossens’s seamless phrasing in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and the wonderfully spacious account of Paris. No one has ever matched Beecham’s delicacy of feeling in Paris or distilled a more heady atmosphere. The Naxos transfers are managed by David Lennick, who describes himself as ‘exercising as much control as possible on the final product’. He should apply less, for the sound is bloodless, drained of timbre and body. Those who remember the originals, or who are fortunate enough to have AC Griffith’s LP transfers, will know how good these records were.

A critic writing in the Thirties called the Boston Symphony Orchestra ‘one of the wonders of Western civilization’: that was, of course, in SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY’s days, when it produced a sumptuous, full-bodied sound of the greatest splendour. There was no comparable partnership in the United States at the time and Koussevitzky’s record in commissioning new music was peerless. One disc not to be missed is the first performance of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra broadcast from Boston in December 1944. Not only does it enable us to hear the first and shorter ending, but to hear this work as it has never sounded since. All first performances convey a special excitement as the artists themselves are discovering the music for the first time. But with Koussevitzky, there is the paradox that they also sound as if they have been playing this piece all their lives; the immediacy of discovery being tempered with tremendous authority. The fill-up, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures (another Koussevitzky commission) has two of the pictures missing from the gallery and a couple of other cuts.

GUIDO CANTELLI was Toscanini’s chosen heir at the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the magnificent performances Testament has collected have been reissued many times (except for the splendidly characterised Mathis Symphony). They are just about perfect and no more need be said – save for the all-important fact that they have never sounded better than they do in these fine transfers. In need of greater advocacy, perhaps, since he has never been fashionable, is ANDRÉ CLUYTENS. I bought his 1955 account of the Pastoral Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic when it first appeared, and thought it beautifully paced and proportioned (finer than the stereo remake), and his 1960 Schubert Unfinished is no less satisfying and has an affecting eloquence. Much care and expertise has been lavished on the transfer.

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The two JASCHA HORENSTEIN reissues do not do real justice to this great conductor. The Rite is patrician with the right level of excitement and no playing to the gallery, but the sound is synthetic and unpleasantly shrill at times. The Shostakovich Symphony is a trifle unengaged, though the 1952 mono sound is better than I remembered, but the slightly later Taras Bulba is much more deeply felt.