Friday, January 08, 2016

Beethoven pure and simple

We have Toscanini's Beethoven, Furtwängler's Beethoven, Karajan's Beethoven, Kleiber's Beethoven, and, if you must, Norrington's Beethoven. But where is Beethoven's Beethoven? My nomination for Beethoven pure and simple would be the LP of the Seventh Symphony conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt seen above. This great German conductor, who was born in 1900, was a product of the kapellmeister system. After studying at Berlin University he held a series of posts at German opera houses before holding the post of chief conductor of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin from 1943 to 1944. Despite holding such a prominent position under the Third Reich, Schmidt-Isserstedt was not a member of the Nazi party. This perceived political 'neutrality' counted in Schmidt-Isserstedt's favour with the occupying forces at the end of the war, so he was invited to form the Symphony Orchestra of North German Radio (NDRSO) in 1945, a position he held until two years before his death in 1973.

Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt made many great recordings with the NDRSO of the mainstream repertoire, and at the same time championed contemporary music by Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith. He also composed, and his opera Hassan gewinnt was premiered in Wuppertal in 1928, while his son Erik Smith went on to become a respected Decca recording producer. As well as working with the NDRSO, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt recorded Mozart and Schubert with the London Symphony Orchestra for Mercury, and Berwald for Tono in Denmark. But, arguably, his finest recordings were the cycle of Beethoven Symphonies he made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

I bought the vinyl LP of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony seen in the photo above in 1974. When I play it on my Thorens TD125 seen below I hear Beethoven pure and simple. It is Beethoven without the refractive prism of a celebrity interpreter, but it is most definitely not Beethoven-lite. This is red-blooded Beethoven and if you want to understand what Wagner really meant when he famously described the Seventh Symphony as 'the apotheosis of the dance' look no further than Schmidt-Isserstedt. And the sound of the Vienna orchestra captured by the Decca engineers in this 1970 recording is a pure undigitised delight. To my ears the sum of the parts becomes even greater when they remain in the analogue domain without the parsing that is integral to digital encoding. Yes, my 1970s LP pressing suffers from the notorious Decca clicks of the time. But the breadth and width of the soundstage still put the digital equivalents to shame. Why do we accept that a Stradivarius can defy science and logic by sounding better than a 21st century violin, yet still deny that a 1970 LP can sound better than its 21st century digital equivalent?

Sadly Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's recordings have not fared well in the age of the celebrity interpreter. His Vienna Philharmonic Beethoven recordings did appear on Decca mid-price CDs, but they now deleted. [Jan 2016: however they can be bought from Amazon for the astonishingly cheap price of £7.99 for all nine symphonies.] Today a slew of very fine opera archive recordings from his time in Hamburg comprise this great conductor's legacy on disc, unless you go hunting on eBay. But fortunately, there is an alternative: in 1982 Günter Wand became chief conductor of the NDRSO, and as the critic Wolf Eberhard von Lewinski explained, his interpretative style was very similar to that of his illustrious predecessor:

'Wand adheres strictly to the score without losing sight of the decisive factor, namely what lies behind the notes.'
In the 1980s Günter Wand recorded the Beethoven symphonies with the NDRSO. They may not quite reach the giddy heights of Schmidt-Isserstedt's Vienna cycle, but this is still Beethoven pure, simple, and unmissable; yet these recordings, which are captured in excellent sound, are virtually unknown today. They can still be bought at bargain price if you move quickly - Beethoven, pure and simple, has never been cheaper.

* It is my wish that On An Overgrown Path should be remembered as something other than a victim of social media and churnalism. So over the next few days I am burying it by repeating some personal favourite posts. This one first appeared in June 2011.

With thanks to Leo Carey who took us down this path. Leo actually asked me in 2009 ago to write another piece about favourite record stores, and that is how this article started. But, like many paths it went of at a tangent. To keep the record (pun intended) straight, my copy of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, was bought in 1974 from a small independent record store in Ewell, Surrey called Lesley Bond Music. It was one of those long-departed shops where teenagers listened to 45 rpm singles in listening booths lined with acoustic tiles - 1974 was the year of Abba's Waterloo but I won't go there! Having seen John Bormann's film Zardoz, which uses the Allegretto second movement during the closing scene, I was looking for an LP of Beethoven 7 and Mr Bond recommended the Schmidt-Isserstedt interpretation. At which point another path emerges, because the main music credit for Zardoz, which is available on DVD for less than a CD, went to David Munrow.  Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said...

Right on cue news comes that Technics are reviving their SL-1200 turntable range, which decades ago was one of the few serious rivals to the Thorens TD 125 -

Jorge Alberto Birrueta Rubio said...

Both recordings are available in Apple Music, I think technology can bring hidden paths if you know where to search.