They Shall Have Music
Every good actor wants to play Hamlet or one of the Henrys before he dies, and very nearly every orchestra conductor wants to be remembered for his nine Beethoven symphonies. Hence we have in the record catalogues an ever-increasing supply of the Nine.
I don’t want even to try to be encyclopedic about this, because it just wastes space. However, among the conductors who have essayed the Nine, complete, for records are: Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini, Eugen Jochum, Bruno Walter (twice), Hermann Scherchen, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Sir Adrian Boult, Josef Krips, and Ernest Ansermet.
The epochal series among the older editions were those of Weingartner, Toscanini, and Walter in his first time around (he has moved into the succeeding epoch, too, this wonderful, tireless man). These are receding into history, The best of the Toscaninis, never uniformly listenable, are still exciting, but the Weingartners now are antique. This still leaves us an almost embarrassing variety from which to choose.
I will say straight off that there is only one set of all Nine that I would buy nowadays, and that is the 1960 Walter-Columbia. It comes in a nice, strong, white album, and in no symphony is Walter really outdistanced by anyone. However, I am disposed toward eclecticism, although this requires caution and a thirtyfive-cent Schwann catalogue. The couplings, especially in the latest allNine issues, are such that you might find yourself with two versions of lesser symphonies. Every good Beethovenian should have two Eroicas and two Fifths, but two Firsts is one too many. No reviewer can help you at this. I will cite a current instance —Everest has just sent me the complete Nine by Josef Krips, arranged for automatic record changer, and I have not the faintest idea of how the works will be coupled in single-record issues, which surely will follow; so shop warily.
The First Symphony is a jolly thing, full of bounce and youngman’s fancy. Josef Krips is not exactly young, but he is younger than any of his serious competitors. And as for the bounce, all you need do for proof is listen. Walter and Ansermet have created niceties, very enjoyable. But Krips is the one who gives you the gallant young man about Vienna and moves the doings up behind the Grinzingerstrasse, where you find the gold yearling wine. His orchestra is the London Symphony.
The Second Symphony is a little more militant and contemplative than the First, but still kin to it. Again Krips is the man. This may have been the first romantic symphony written. It is Krips’s own favorite Beethoven symphony, and Krips is as good a classic-romantic conductor as we have; perhaps the best. The recording is a sunny marvel most of the way, with a good rousing gallop at the end. A word of caution about these Krips-Evercst records. They may be a little futuristic. None but the most compliant phono-pickups can track the grooves to good effect. I have tried them only in stereo editions, but I am sure their transients, meaning the quick high overtones of fiddles and trumpets, are as hard to handle in monophony as in stereo.
The Third Symphony, the Eroica, is where Beethoven showed himself different from any predecessor, and for that matter, from any follower. This was Beethoven’s own favorite symphony, and it is mine too. It has built, I am sure, more valor in more thoughtful souls than any other music ever written. No one plays it badly. Who plays it best? Toscanini, naturally; and his 1953 aircheck performance is a performer’s criterion. But the new buyer should choose among new sounds to find great playings. Here, Walter’s is the loftiest, his horns the most golden. But for the fiercest, with the finest rattling thunder of drums and blaze of revolutionary trumpets, the choice is Ansermet, and this was the Beethoven symphony he waited longest to make. There has been much admiration for the Klemperer Eroica, too. I have to say, as a general thing, I do not like Klemperer’s Beethoven symphonies. He makes them sound as if Wagner were conducting, slow and morose. I handled Beethoven’s walking stick in Vienna. Two centuries old, it was still a light, swift, springy stick, fit for quick walking, for slashing the tops off weeds in the path, and for stinging ugly stray dogs. Beethoven was not morose, or slow.
The Fourth Symphony seems almost a light thing, between its formidable companions. Walter plays it pastorally, not a bad way. Krips plays it joyously, a better way.
The Fifth makes us come to the conclusion that Beethoven was older than his years; the old men comprehend it so much better than their juniors. Here again, the ancient Toscanini-NBC is the criterion. Of the new readings, a tossup once more. Ansermet has the best sound, the best inner voices, the best first movement. Walter has the better concept of the finale, perhaps the slightly more rousing triumph, though the Columbia sound cannot compare with London’s.
Now, the Pastoral. This is the most loved symphony there is, except perhaps for the Mozart G Minor. It welcomes its performers, as it does its listeners. And it delights them too. Here, for my preference, we must break out of the complete series. Walter’s performance is exquisite and shadowy. Ansermet plays the work like a dance suite, and with much charm. But another elderly gentleman enters, with a quite unfair advantage. This is Pierre Monteux, whom any of the others would happily acknowledge as equal, and his unfair advantage is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. These men have all been to see the brook at Heiligenstadt, and they do not so much play the symphony as live it. It comes out simply like a walk in a sunny wood, and we are wafted back two centuries in two minutes, to share a very great man’s most cherished delights. Parenthetically, it should be said here that Monteux is a superlative Beethoven conductor, as anyone who heard his Ninth at Boston or Tanglewood last year can testify. He has made an Eroica with the Vienna, as I know because I wrote the jacket notes, but I cannot evaluate it because it has not been published at the time of this writing.
For the Seventh, Boult. All good solid Teutonic musicologists to the contrary notwithstanding, this is Celtic music, mostly Irish. Beethoven, like Haydn before him and Dvořák after, could easily feel and write in foreign idioms, and he was especially attracted to those of Ireland and Scotland (as some dozens of songs prove). The formal German approach is a wrong one, however well tried. Sir Adrian is not an Irishman, but he comes from the River Dee country, which is the next best thing, and he knows his island tempos. The last movement of the Seventh is not hectic merrymaking among peasants; it is an uphill charge, a martial jog, as played by Scottish and Irish pipers for centuries. And it must be paced right to stir the blood. Boult paces it right.
The Eighth is almost always taken too lightly, which is partly Beethoven’s fault, for putting Maelzel’s metronome into the middle of it. The third movement is a constant enigma; hardly ever do the conductor and the horn players know how it is meant to sound. Maybe (quite seriously) Beethoven didn’t himself. It teases. The last movement is plain, but often, and puzzlingly, mistaken. It is at once humorous and furious, a discovery to which Bruno Walter can make you partner and make your hair stand up a little as he does so. This may be the best string writing among all symphonies. Play it loud enough. (Nobody ever has made the drum beats in the bridge passage of the first movement as clear as they should be, so there’s no use comparing.)
Of the Ninth there is no discoursing. All critics disapprove of it; nearly all composers try to imitate it; nobody really can do anything about it. It is like Mount Everest. It is there. There is no definitive approach to it. Weingartner and Toscanini tried different ascents, toward the same peak. The latter’s record would be my choice if I were to be marooned with a disc collection, but it is, admittedly, starting to sound a little old. Some hesitation is in order here, because Monteux, it is rumored, will make a Ninth soon. Meanwhile, Walter has it all to himself — stereophonically and in new sound. He does not set fire to the feelings quite as Toscanini did, but he makes his gospel wide and high, inspired and inspiring. Ansermet might have measured against him (especially by virtue of a first movement in which the inner strings really are audible, and quite excitingly) but for the efforts of a Dutch bass baritone named Arnold Van Mill. No doubt Van Mill meant well, but he emoted, and, of course, in a very vulnerable place in the symphony, right at the beginning of the choral portion of the finale. Early nineteenth-century music — The Star-Spangled Banner is a fair example — has to be presented without orotundity to twentieth-century ears or it will sound silly. Too bad for Van Mill. Take instead, then, William Wilderman, who for Bruno Walter rings out a recitative and an aria really fit to ring in one of the best battle hymns ever written. Because that is what the end of the symphony is, in its vast and singing simplicity. With Walter leading, it reads like the final marching orders from Moses on Pisgah, with a force surpassing mere eloquence.
This concludes the choosing and proves that Beethoven, long dead, has proved a rather wonderful and refreshing theory: great interpreters, worthy and comprehending of great ideas, get greater as they get older.
Brahms: Concerto No. 2
Rudolf Serkin, piano; Eugene Ormandy conducting Philadelphia Orchestra; Columbia MS-6156 (stereo) and ML-5491
This is not a remake of the not-so-old ML-5117, with stereo companion added, so far as I can discern; it is a whole new recording. Anyway, it seems sonically Columbia’s best stereo piano concerto yet. Serkin and Ormandy agree beautifully on mood and tempos. The piano is not too forward (the work has been described as a symphony with piano obbligato), and the great orchestra positively shines.
Copland: Piano Fantasy; Piano Variations
William Masselos, piano; Columbia MS6168 (stereo) and ML-5568
America in its national lifetime has bred a very good crop of composers, but some of the best have refused to take themselves seriously. They have preferred to be academicians or insurance men or newspaper critics first, and to write music only avocationally. One who has not done this is Aaron Copland, now rightly reckoned the dean of American composers. He has not shrunk from thinking himself important or from the aim to be at once a popular success and an explorer in art. Here — partly in celebration of Copland’s sixtieth birthday — Columbia has put forth a beautiful pairing of two of his most notable piano works, one dating from 1930, the other, the Fantasy, written only three years ago. They are kindred in that they show him at different stages of experimenting with twelve-tone techniques, but the similarity almost ends there. The Variations remain attractive today, especially in the devoted performance by Masselos, a gifted young man, but there is a hint of selfconsciousness in their swift economy and their passing dab at the jazz idiom. What really cuts the Variations down to size, though, is the superb Fantasy on the overside. Forget about twelve-tone technique. Just listen to the sure, strong cleverness, the cordial wit, the pure beauty in the use of single notes, the plain sense of completeness. Don’t misunderstand: this is not quick and easy music, but at second hearing its symmetry and stature begin to show themselves, and at third hearing they entrance.
Gould: Fall River Legend: Spirituals
Howard Hanson conducting EastmanRochester Orchestra; Mercury SR-90263 (stereo) and MG-50263
Fall River Legend is proclaimed a ballet suite (it is about Lizzie Borden and was produced on the stage by Agnes de Mille), and Spirituals might as well be. Both have much folksy verve, and Gould plainly intended neither to be quite as deep as a well. Still they make delightful listening, especially at the hands of Hanson and the Mercury magicians, the perfect explorers of Gould’s bag of sonic tricks. In fact, this is about as hi-fi a record as I ever have heard — I commend to you especially the bass drums and the sandpaper blocks on Side 2, though how Shortnin’ Bread got into a suite called Spirituals, I am rather at a loss to explain. No one will mind, though, once the percussion gets going.
Haydn: Symphonies No. 94, “Surprise,” and 101, “Clock”
Pierre Monteux conducting Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; RCA Victor LSC2394 (stereo) and LM-2394
Apparently this marvel has been out for some time, but I received it only last fortnight. When I say “marvel,” I do not speak lightly, for this is a love affair built on the lines of a better triangle than the tediously eternal one: this one joins a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra. And what comes of this interplay is a winsome, singing, roaring, dancing, profound, and endlessly witty delight. I cannot imagine these two irresistible symphonies more irresistibly played, and the quality of the sound matches that of the spirit.
Weber: Der Freischütz
Eugen Jochum conducting Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Kurt Böhme, othersingers; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Radio; Deutsche Grammophon SLPM-138639/40 (stereo) and LPM-18639/40: two records Der Freischütz has been a love of mine ever since a day in 1949 when I went into a record store in Washington, intending a much more serious purchase, and heard the proprietor gleefully playing the Wolf Glen scene, complete with magic bullets, evil spirits, ghostly huntsmen shooting guns, and ghostly hounds barking, for a dubious customer. I snatched the album from right under his dubious nose, asked how much, paid over my $24 (imported 78s, you remember), and dashed away with it. That was a Deutsche Grammophon, too, Robert Heger dirigent, and I have to say that it was much better than the new one: more fun to it. However, you cannot get the old one now, and it amounted only to excerpts. The new one is well sung and well played. All that can be said against it is that it is a little dignified, as if Jochum had mistaken it for Fidelio or Don Giovanni; the villagers don’t stamp when they dance, and you have to listen closely for the magic bullets. Still, all Weber’s rousing and completely whistleable ensemble tunes are there, and most of the spoken dialogue to boot.
Anthony Quayle, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Stanley Holloway, other actors; Caedmon SRS-231 (stereo) and SA-782: two records
Now we have another Shakespeare drama series coming upon us, the originating group being the Shakespeare Recording Society in New York. Unlike the Marlowe Society of Cambridge, the SRS identifies its actors. Frankly, I like the English Macbeth better than this, but I am not sure I prefer it $6 worth, and being longer, it does contain a good deal of the dialogue Shakespeare may not have written, since on Macbeth, a hurried task, he used a collaborator. Both versions are fine. From London-Argo one gets, I think, the better Elizabethan atmosphere and the uncut play. Caedmon gives an edited job and a latter-day polish and Stanley Holloway as the talkative porter, which is no mean asset. You will have to choose; maybe I just like English witches better. It seems to me they cackle more horribly.