BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (rec. Oct. 19, 1937). Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36 (rec. Mar. 2, 1938). Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72a (rec. Feb.14, 1938). Fidelio Overture, Op. 72b (rec. Oct. 7, 1938). The Ruins of Athens Overture, Op. 113 (rec. Feb. 29, 1940). The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op. 43 (rec. Feb. 25, 1936).
Vienna Philharmonic Orch (Sym. 1/Prometheus); London Symphony Orch (Sym. 2/Ruins); London Philharmonic Orch/Felix Weingartner, cond.
NAXOS 8.110856 (B) (ADD) TT: 73:37
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BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55 Eroica (rec. May 22-23, 1936). Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (rec. Nov. 13-14, 1933).
Vienna Philharmonic Orch (Sym. 3); London Philharmonic Orch (Sym. 4)/Felix Weingartner, cond.
NAXOS 8.110956 (B) (ADD) TT: 75:27
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BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (rec. Mar. 17-18, 1932). Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 Pastorale (rec. Jan. 18-19, 1927). Eleven Viennese Dances, WoO.17 (rec. Oct. 7-8, 1938).
British Symphony Orch. (Sym. 5); Royal Philharmonic Orch. (Sym. 7); London Philharmonic Orch/Felix Weingartner, cond.
NAXOS 8.110861 (B) (ADD) TT: 75 :33
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BEETHOVEN: Incidental Music to Goethe's Egmont, Op. 84: Overture (rec. Oct.19 , 1938); Entr'acte No. 2/Clarchen's Tod (rec. Oct. 7, 1938) Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (rec. Feb. 24-26, 1936). Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (rec. Feb. 26, 1936).
Vienna Philharmonic Orch (Egmont Overture/Sym. 7 and 8); London Philharmonic Orch (Egmont excerpts)/Felix Weingartner, cond.
NAXOS 8.110862 (B) (ADD) TT: 73:32
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BEETHOVEN: The Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124 (London Philharmonic Orch)(rec. Oct. 7, 1938). Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 "Choral." (rec. Feb. 2-4, 1935).
Luise Helletsgruber, soprano; Rosette Anday, contralto; Georg Maikl, tenor; Richard Mayr, bass; Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal, Vienna; Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Felix Weingarter, cond.

NAXOS 8.110863 (B) (ADD) TT: 74:04
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Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), born in Dalmatia to Austro-German parents three years after Mahler and four before Toscanini, died a month short of his 79th birthday. Because he frequently changed posts as well as wives, and conducted stateside only before WW1, he was known best in this country by recordings, which he began making in 1910 for the next 30 years—after 1923 exclusively for English Columbia, increasingly after English Columbia and HMV merged as EMI in 1931. He was the first conductor to record all of Beethoven’s symphonies, though not in sequence nor in a given time-period (and in three cases just once). Most were issued here on US Columbia. This collection begins with a 1927 Pastoral, FW’s only completed version of the work, and concludes in 1938 with Symphony No. 2 (although The Ruins of Athens Overture, one of four bracingly played fillers on disc 1, was recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, on February 29, 1940, just two years before FW’s death).
Throughout, Mark Obert-Thorn’s remarkable remasterings relied “almost entirely [on] pristine late-1930s US Columbia ‘Full-Range’ label pressings. No artificial reverberation has been added to these transfers....The Vienna recordings [of Symphonies No. 1, 3, 7, 8, 9 plus the Egmont and Prometheus Overtures] reflect the rather reverberant characteristic of the original venue” – the Mittlerer Konzerthaussaal. I knew Weingartner’s 78s only during and after WW2 in bargain-basement pressings, which were offputtingly shrill and noisy beyond keeping. Besides, Toscanini was broadcasting at the time, no matter the dead acoustic of Studio 8-H at Rockefeller Center, with an Italianate temperament that usually outpaced Weingartner’s shared abnegation of “Wagnerian” Beethoven, perpetuated by Hans von Bülow in particular, but also by Nikisch, Mahler, Mengelberg, later on Furtwängler, and a host of lesser lights.

What I found most agreeably surprising here were Weingartner’s tempi—close to the composer’s controversial metronome markings that have recently been espoused by younger conductors, among them Michael Gielen and David Zinman. FW’s downbeats didn’t always produce clean attacks—both of them in the introduction of Symphony No.1 verge on arpeggiation (yet in the finales of Nos. 2 and 4 there’s absolutely razor-sharp playing by two of the four London orchestras he worked with). But the VPO Eroica that bygone critics ranked second only to Toscanini’s (on a good Toscanini night) starts with two immaculate chords, while the NBCSO never had horns like the three in Weingartner’s scherzo!

The finale of No. 2 is a hair’s breadth slower than today’s norm, but you hear every note, which was not true of Reiner’s faster Pittsburgh tempo in the ‘40s. FW’s No. 1 overall is genial, and No. 4—in spite of Obert-Thorn’s apology for “a boxy [Abbey Road, London] acoustic and mastering flaws [that] include a dull muted sound at the start of Side Two of the first movement”—sounds a degree more drab only at the beginning because a vivid-sounding Vienna Eroica precedes it on disc 3. I found the performance absorbingly fine, to the extent that the sound became natural albeit dated.

Over the years, FW recorded the Fifth Symphony four times in London, but the Naxos version is a neglected 1932 performance with an eponymous British Symphony Orchestra, comprised chiefly of WW1 veterans. EMI considered the sound too dim to release in the U.K., but here it appeared as set 178—the source of Obert-Thorn’s remastering—although a 1933 remake with the London Phil replaced the 1932 version as soon as it became available. Weingartner mavens, however, consider the BritSO performance “distinctively fiery...something special caught very much on the wing” according to a gushy annotation (not just here but throughout the cycle) by Ian Julier. In the same year FW made his first Fifth—1924—he began but did not finish a Pastoral, undertaken only one more time in 1927 with the Royal Philharmonic (Society) Orchestra, not to be confused with Beecham’s postwar revival of the title for a new set of players.

Weingartner’s Pastoral I count his one outright failure, both too brisk and too brusque, to the degree that he may really have disliked the piece. Its 1927 sound is subpar for the series, and the playing correct but soulless. However, for Symphonies 7 and 8, recorded in February 1936 at Vienna, as well as No. 9 made the year before over a period of three days, the now-old man was galvanizing, despite a very slow tempo in the B-sections of No. 7's Scherzo. His scherzo sub- sections tended in most cases to be slower than the A’s, yet reveal a gemütlichside of FW’s personality that is is invariably charming, with great care to let everything in the score sound. I don’t find his 7th as gripping as Toscanini’s contemporaneous statement with the NYPSO for the Victor Company, but otherwise, for its time, it was surely the league-leader in Europe. Weingartner’s 8th, furthermore, is the most persuasive performance I’ve ever heard of the piece—he doesn't’t miss a joke yet doesn’t wait for laughter, or over-punctuate. Were it not for the majesty of No. 9, I’d rank this 8th alongside the Eroica.

The Ninth comes close to sublimity in its structural arch and expressive urgency, with a slow movement that supercedes the best ever recorded. The added trumpets that reinforce attacas twice at the start of the finale were an inspiration; soloists were equally matched with soprano Luise Helletsgruber’s fast vibrato adding a frisson. Note, please, that all of these performances came from an era when repeats were deemed nonessential; indeed, only in the last 30 years have early-instrument groups and their conductors restored them pandemically. From roughly 1860 forward, the Beethoven symphonies were considered well-enough known by cosmopolitan audiences that iteration was unnecessary (the raison d’etre behind most exposition and scherzo repeats long before Haydn).

Naxos promises the complete Weingartner canon before its job is done; meanwhile this is the pioneering bulk of his Beethoven, not counting a transcription for orchestra of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata still to come. It is significant as well as instructive, from a conductor who must be ranked a silver-medal winner among keepers of the flame in his time.

R.D. (July 2003)