Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies Nos. 5
, 7, 8, 9
Eduard van Beinum, cond; Concertgebouw O
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 7068, mono (4 CDs: 262:47).
Live: Amsterdam 3/12/1959
If you had turned on an FM radio in New York City in 1960, perhaps a big Blaupunkt console with a green illuminated dial, as I did during my teenage years, you would have thrilled to find that there were 14 classical FM stations at
your fingertips, all monaural, of course. And coming through the speaker, often as not, would be music performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Eduard van Beinum. It is hard to grasp today, but van Beinum was one of the most recorded conductors of the era—and greatly beloved and respected by musicians. His recordings were found everywhere, right up there with Szell’s, Reiner’s, Ormandy’s, Munch’s, and Walter’s. And in those days, stations played full symphonies all day long. Confronting that embarrassment of riches, I recall once having to decide
Brahms First to listen to, of several being broadcast simultaneously. I chose van Beinum’s 1958 performance, never regretted it, purchased the LP, and never looked back.
But sadly, van Beinum was already dead, another conductor of the day felled by cigarettes. He collapsed during a rehearsal of that very Brahms Symphony in 1959. As a result, listeners did not have the opportunity to hear him very much in stereo, as they did Reiner, Walter, and Szell, all of whom outlived him just enough to participate in the era of improved sound and carry their reputations into our time. So it is with a sense of nostalgia that I review these Bruckner symphonies. They date from 1953 right up to the month before van Beinum’s death, when the radio broadcast of the Fifth Symphony contained here went over the air. The remaining symphonies were issued on LP.
Van Beinum and Mengelberg shared the Concertgebouw podium for decades, and I can only suppose it must have been a schizophrenic experience for the players. Mengelberg never found a workable rubato he didn’t want to adopt. Van Beinum fell more into the warm but undemonstrative category. He was rather like Rudolf Kempe. Everything unfolded naturally but without self-conscious phrasing. Indeed, heard with today’s ears, he sounds like a slightly more intuitive version of Bernard Haitink or Marek Janowski.
The approach van Beinum took to Bruckner makes the symphonies sound remarkably natural, beautiful, and flowing to today’s ears, a fraction faster than they are normally played now, and largely missing that marmoreal sense of the apocalyptic we now expect. Van Beinum, to his credit, always let a phrase ending have its full rounded measure, unlike Toscanini or Szell. But once that happened, he would be found immediately moving on with the next phrase. No gigantic, enervating pauses….
There are many joys in these performances. The most astonishing to me is the swift but hushed approach to the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. He doesn’t throb to the main melody like Karajan, nor does he dig in hard the way everybody else seems to. Instead we almost get Vaughan Williams-level smoothness and quiet sentiment. The strings are utterly beautiful. Van Beinum opts for the famous cymbal crash at the apex, and precedes it with a timpani roll not in the score, but the effect remains smooth and supple. Indeed,
would be the wrong word here. It is always a shock to see that Bruckner responds to delicacy, but he does!
The Fifth Symphony broadcast dates from 1959, as mentioned earlier, and it is remarkably similar it is to Haitink’s LPs recorded a few years later. But it delivers an extra quality of grace. Midway into the first movement is to be found a famous quiet passage where a lonely woodwind plays just one short note per beat, revisiting the opening theme of the introduction, while underneath the strings engage in filigree. Somehow, van Beinum finds the tiniest of opportunities for portamento in the quiet swirl. It unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes. When Bruckner can do that to you, you know you are in the presence of greatness.
The earliest performance here is the Seventh, recorded in 1953. The Eighth dates from 1955 and the Ninth from 1956. But all share very listenable sound, and are similarly miked. Despite the occasional bit of distortion in the trumpets or a slightly honky quality in the trombones here or there, listeners will find the sound uncontroversial. And always, one can recognize that the acoustic represents the rich reverberant field to be found in the Concertgebouw. Absent the opportunity for remakes, we are fortunate at least that these performances do not emanate from some 8H-ish studio.
All the qualities mentioned above are present in van Beinum’s view of the Eighth and Ninth symphonies, taken more swiftly than now. (Even Furtwängler’s way with the Ninth is rather fast by current lights, as was Bruno Walter’s.) In the Eighth, van Beinum catches effectively the convulsiveness of the first movement development climax. The slow tempo usually adopted today tends to get in the way of its fierceness. That’s not a problem here; there is plenty of momentum for the effect. Indeed, both symphonies build cumulatively and effectively.
There is much to enjoy in these releases. They are now archeology. One is grateful for what we do find. But had van Beinum only lived to practice his art 30 years longer than he did, as conductors tend to these days, we would be facing a great, even digital legacy.
FANFARE: Steven Kruger
Now available from Australian Eloquence, Beinum’s Bruckner recordings are classics–as unique as they are rewarding. These discs were briefly available in a slim Philips box and in a few other configurations, but if you blinked you probably missed them. Symphonies Nos. 7-9 were studio recordings, while No. 5 is a live broadcast. As you might expect, it has a few shaky moments, and Beinum’s scherzo is arguably too relaxed, but on the whole it’s amazingly well played, and well recorded for a 1959 mono radio broadcast.
What is immediately apparent in this and all of the other performances, is that Beinum was a natural Bruckner conductor. His approach was, in some ways, reminiscent of Jochum’s. That is, he preferred flexible tempos. In the (ostensible) allegros he is invariably on the swift side. He gets through the Seventh Symphony in less than an hour, for example, but the music never sounds rushed. This is partly because Beinum just plain nails the codas of each movement. Seldom will you hear the last couple of minutes of the Fifth, for instance, build so inexorably. I don’t know if Beinum uses extra brass (probably), but most performances sound exhausted at this point. Not here.
The same observation holds for the finale of the Eighth. When the brass and timpani take off with their galloping rhythm, Beinum steps on the gas in the most thrilling fashion, and when the cavalry arrives he hits the brakes to give the final celebration maximum force. No one does it more excitingly. And yet, in the Ninth, the Adagio times out at a healthily transcendental twenty-six minutes. In short, Beinum knows exactly what the music needs, and how to provide it. As already suggested, the mono sonics are generally quite good for their 1950s vintage, and the orchestra, brass especially, plays with a character that has long since vanished. At budget price, this is a set to treasure.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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