Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B-flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C-minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D-minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Edith Wiens (soprano), Hildegard Hartwig (contralto), Keith Lewis (tenor) & Roland Hermann (bass)

Choirs of Hamburg State Opera & North German Radio

NDR Symphony Orchestra
Günter Wand

Recorded in Hamburg between February 1984 & October 1988 at either Friedrich-Ebert-Halle or at Grosses Musikstudio des NDR
CD No: RCA RED SEAL
19075818872 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 57 minutes
Reviewed: July 2018

Günter Wand (1912-2002) is in the German tradition – in a commentary written sixty-seven years ago I read that he was a great conductor of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. It seems nothing has changed and his approach to these symphonic works is all the more convincing because he eschews those well-worn interpretative conventions which many of his contemporaries imposed. Above all, having once set a tempo he remains with it. In general, his chosen speeds seem exactly suitable. He is not among those who hold firmly to Beethoven’s often surprisingly fast metronome marks, only very occasionally taking that view, although when he does it is to thrilling effect.

Symphony No.1 is given a powerful reading, driven strongly and with emphasis on Beethoven’s forte chords which enhance the drama of the outer movements and this makes it clear that though retaining the familiar structure of a Symphony by his teacher Haydn, the music already anticipates the challenging musical philosophy of the nineteenth-century. In the coda of the first movement, the thrice-stated trumpet and drum figure makes for great excitement, and the timpani’s disturbances to the Andante’s peaceful nature are also a feature. The so-called Minuet is clearly a Scherzo and is treated as such. The hurried re-entry of the da capo Trio is not a Wand characteristic; and I wondered if editing were a factor. A similar concern occurs in the introduction to the Second Symphony where at twenty-five seconds the first two notes of the initial melody’s string restatement are unnaturally crushed together. This trifle is of little consequence however in the context of a reading which gives great stature to the music. After the exhilaration of the Allegro the Larghetto has a calming influence; Wand avoids the common tendency to apply a Largo tempo and the gentle flow is followed by the forceful, but not hurried approach to the Scherzo. The large scale of the reading is confirmed by a firmly driven Finale.

The ‘Eroica’ is given an imposing outing – a serious approach, the philosophy of which continues in the solemn ‘Funeral March’ given with a measured, unaltered pulse which enhances its darkly dramatic effect. The Scherzo is forceful, and after a suitably brief pause Wand surges into the Finale during which the lengthy Poco Andante is contrasted strongly in pace – an unexpected idea from this conductor. The Fourth is often thought of as a lyrical work but Wand shows its rugged side, especially in the outer movements, the first enhanced by crisp timpani – this feature also makes their quiet solo at the close of the Adagio particularly effective. The Minuet (a Scherzo by nature) finds Wand among those who make only a modest alteration of speed for the two Trios, and although the Finale is swift, the tempo still permits the bassoonist to achieve the near-impossible solo with great precision.

Many years ago Erich Kleiber caused a stir by recording Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a thrilling performance which for the first time on disc eschewed all the traditional exaggerations that had been found acceptable for so long. Wand takes the same fiery view. His dramatic reading displays the greatness of the work, the important facet being his obedience to Beethoven’s score. Moments like the thrilling transition from Scherzo to Finale make a stunning effect but so too the forceful moments in the slow movement, given great nobility. The recording does not quite capture every detail of the Finale – the remarkable piccolo part is not very evident but the weight of those rare visitors to the Classical orchestra, trombones, is certainly felt.

Modern performances of the ‘Pastoral’ pay far too much respect to Beethoven’s eccentrically fast metronome marking at the start which, if obeyed, confounds the non troppo instruction. With Wand, tempo is convincing, the first movement (with repeat) being slightly longer than the strongly-flowing ‘Scene by the Brook’. There is no haste in the very peasant-like Scherzo and the thunderous ‘Storm’ – as wild as any recorded – is succeeded by a thoughtful approach to the final movement. Grandeur is the essence of Wand’s approach to the Seventh; the bold introduction heralds a broadly-paced Vivace. The recorded sound, which varies slightly from work to work is excellent and does credit to Wand’s attention to inner detail. The following movement is played at its true Allegretto pace, but not everyone will be convinced by Wand’s slow take on the Assai meno presto instruction for the Trio sections of the Scherzo but justification for it is offered by Felix Weingartner in his book On the Performance of Beethoven's Symphonies where he suggests they should be played at half the tempo of the Presto – that is how Wand does it. Entering promptly after the Scherzo, the Finale is gripping – speed without haste. Symphony 8 is full of humour but there is also much drama; this interpretation is larger in scale than many and full of attention to detail as evidenced by the clarity of the lower strings, and by the clearly audible quiet timpani in their accompanying passages during the Finale. The Tempo di Menuetto is a leisurely eighteenth-century dance and Wand treats it as such, adding lyricism to the horn-led Trio.

One of the many admirable aspects of Wand’s readings is his observance of repeats, so it is a great surprise that he omits the second one in the Scherzo of the ‘Choral’ Symphony, undermining the symmetry of the movement which is played with great force, similarly the first movement; in fact the big moments find strings sometimes overwhelmed by wind and timpani. Wand’s sensitive, calmly flowing reading of the slow movement also finds him stressing the two major outbursts, making the beauty of the quiet music all the more effective. The Finale begins with a dramatic introduction: the main theme announced firmly and quietly at the required Allegro and by the bold arrival of Roland Hermann who sings his first statement in one breath; while Keith Lewis, supported by a magnificent bass drum and well-balanced against the chorus, is as heroic as could be in the military episode. The nobility of Wand’s reading of this masterpiece, ending with a swift, strongly rhythmic coda, typifies his revealing view of Beethoven’s Symphonies.

 

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