It’s a feeling, said Beethoven, not a painting

Welcome to the 60th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Pastoral Symphony (part 2: click here for part 1)

Beethoven’s sixth symphony was the first to tell a proper story in music, about a day out in the country. That opened a window to an entire century of symphonies with programmes attached. But it also set the tone for future pastoral masterpieces by Brahms (symphonies 2 and 3), Bruckner (4), Mahler (1, 3 and 7), Elgar, Vaughan Williams and many more.

Beethoven’s other striking innovation is that this symphony breaks the Haydn four-movement straitjacket and sprawls across five. By now, Beethoven was not bothered by convention. Almost totally deaf, he could not hear criticism and never read reviews. Unusually, it ws he who gave the symphony its name. He also provided a brisk summary of what listeners could expect:

Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting. 1st movement: pleasant feelings awaken on arriving in the countryside. 2nd: scene by the brook. 3rd piece: merry gathering of peasant, interrupted by 4th: thunder and storm, yielding to 5th: salutary feelings combined with thanks to God.

Beethoven is supposed to have said: ‘I love a tree more than a man’. Yet that is not the impression we get from the music. We sit back and appreciate nature without wanting to hug it. What we hear is human interaction with the universe.

Aside from the Bruno Walter/Otto Klemperer polarity that I discussed in a previous post, there are well over 100 recordings of this eternally attractive work, among them some of the most hopeless, miguided and unlistenable in the entire history of recording. Let me swiftly dispose of the worst by eliminating Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan, the first for a heavyhandedness not untypical of his general approach to Beethoven, and the second for ignoring Beethoven’s instruction of ‘feeling, not painting’ and splashing out a picture-postcard countryside replete with jolly maids and millers and lowing cattle – at least in the 1963 recording that appeared in his seminal Berlin Philharmonic set. Karajan re-recorded the symphony several times more without ever showing that he had learned much from this original sin. There are moments in the 1963 release when you just want to clap hands over your ears. Unless, of course, you just love crackpot recordings, in which case Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw (1940), with tempi as slack as an old lady’s stockings, could be the right fit for you.

On a higher plane Toscanini’s La Scala successor Victor de Sabata (19747) breathes so deep at first of the country air that you fear he might asphyxiate. But he captures, both in expression and pacing, Beethoven’s idea of feeling – an impression of nature, rather than cowpats. And who knew the orchestra of Santa Cecilia played this beautifully in post-War Rome?

Wilhelm Furtwängler in March 1944, in the thick of world war and genocide, imbues an uncomfortable Berlin performance with intimations of an imminent reckoning. Disturbing as this is, it is outdone in spookiness by a May 1954 Berlin recording, months before his death, the shadows gathering around him. Even the joyous passages of relief after the storm are somehow mournful.

The young Lorin Maazel, conducting the orchestra of the American-funded Berlin radio station in 1960, offers a reminder of what a brilliant artist he was at his best – the sharpest stick technique, the clearest in conveying to players and audience exactly what he understood the meaning of a symphony. Although Maazel went on to head the Vienna Opera, the Bavarian radio orchestra, the Philharmonia, Cleveland and the New York Philharmonic, the recording of his early days in Berlin have an inexhaustible vitality and warmth. Likewise, the over-recorded and not over-intelligent Karl Böhm had one of his finest moments with a 1971 Pastoral with the Vienna Philharmonic, both conductor and orchestra revelling in a common Austrian understanding of their glorious landscape. Just about everything in this performance sings – except, mercifully, the conductor. Brilliant as it is, I am inclined to prefer Erich Kleiber (1953) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the top of its form, playing with a delicacy and refinement that surpasses the Viennese. And Kleiber’s pinpoint pacing is incontestable. This is a recording that has been raved over for almost 70 years and still outshines almost all others, before and since.

The Americans on my panel cite George Szell as a supreme interpreter of this work, and they are not wrong. Szell recorded the Pastoral three times, achieving in 1962 with the Cleveland Orchestra an extra-terrestrial transcendence, almost as if they were imagining nature from one of America’s new spacecraft. The strong sound is unsurpassed and I am not sure the finale has ever been more safely landed.

Two more American orchestras enter the fray – the Los Angeles Phil with Carlo-Maria Giulini,  bucolic in feeling but with horns blaring the magnificence of mountains. Giulin, raised in the Alpine foothills around Bolzano, had an instinctive affinity with the pastoral expressions of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. The other US contender is Chicago in 1974, early in Georg Solti’s rule, when the ranks were packed with recent European refugees who endowed the work with tremulous nostalgia, while the brass blew out windows three blocks away. Of the three Solti Chicago recordings, this remains my first choice.

Among modern accounts, Riccardo Chailly in Leipzig (2012) achieves epic drama in the storm scene and serene consolation in the finale. Simon Rattle is unfailingly persuasive with the silken Vienna Philharmonic (2002), less so with the Berliners (2016).  David Zinman (1997) has a marvellous way of combining period practice with a modern orchestra, outfacing even Nikolaus Harnoncourt in this work, let alone the remainder of the period-instrument performers who are disabled in my assessment by striving too hard to make their point. Using a chamber orchestra, as Alexander Rudin (2013) does in Moscow, is no more than a gimmick. The strings-brass balance gets shot to pieces. You won’t want to hear it twice.

The one recording among these many marvellous contenders that I would not wish to live without is both the most romantic and the least predictable: the Abbey Road performance that Klaus Tennstedt gave with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986. A refugee from East Germany where he had languished in total obscurity, Tennstedt could never fully believe that he was worthy to conduct the world’s great orchestra. His humility drew performances of surreal fervour from hard-bitten players. The Pastoral Symphony, he told me once, was his favourite Beethoven because he would never fully understand it. Each performance was an attempt at the unattainable. Here one has a sense – a ‘feeling’, Beethoven would call it – of a lone explorer on the steep slope of a mountain meadow, alone amid the marvels of nature. Go straight to the scene by the brook and you will hear an unparalleled childlike wonder at the joy of being alive. The playing is world class and the tension rivetting.

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    • One way to regard Haydn #60 is that it is less a symphony and more a set of six extracts from the incidental music he wrote for a 5 act play.

  • Klemperer’s 1957 Philharmonia recording is reprised and intensified in a 1962 concert performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, remastered by Pristine Classical as a 24 bit download or CD. The first movement is 14 minutes long ( exposition repeat observed ); and the remaining movements are all slightly slower than in the EMI recording.

    This is the best sounding Klemperer Pastoral I know of, with the intensity and richness of the Philadelphia string section in particular making the performance seem to flow as gracefully. Even on a Japanese SACD transfer of a 24 bit new remastering of the 1957 Philharmonia version, this recording was showing its age.Though Klemperer’s 1962 Philadelphia concert tapes show a trace of peak distortion, ( The Eroica, 7th, Mozart Jupiter and Brahms 3 were also recorded ), these are remarkable documents.

    For those enamoured of Böhm’s VPO recording of the Pastoral, this is widely available as a 24bit/96k download that is markedly better in portraying the VPO sound without edge or glare. Japanese Universal have just released the entire VPO/Böhm Beethoven cycle on SHM SACDs. I haven’t heard these, but in recent years the Japanese are using their own remasterings of the master tapes in the DGG vaults. ( For instance, their new SACD sets of Karajan’s 1960s and 1970s Beethoven cycles are remastered and possibly remixed, and aren’t the same as those released on SACD, CD or blu ray audio elsewhere.)

    NHK, the Japanese state broadcaster, released a few years ago a DVD of Böhm/VPO on their 1977 tour in Japan. If you can find it, the DVD of the Beethoven Pastoral, couple with the 5th and Leonora 3 is remarkable. The performance of the Pastoral is to all intents that of the studio performance, with the orchestra visibly enjoying themselves at times. This DVD uses the audio tracks from an FM broadcast of the concert synchronised to the videotape. The Japanese radio sound engineers had fantastic quality control, and the results are evident on this DVD.

  • I’m glad you mention Zinman. I love his whole Beethoven cycle – he makes #2 sound like a work of real consequence – and in #6 the basses propel the first movement forward in a way I’ve heard from nobody else. I heard him conduct it with the Czech Philharmonic a few years ago and it was equally compelling.

    But I must ask where is this 3rd Solti/CSO recording? They recorded that early 70s cycle and another in the late 1980s. Never heard of a third one.

  • I am aware that the Pastoral requires a “long now” perspective from conductors who are willing to take expansive speeds. However, there can be some spirited Pastorals from the newer cohort of recordings that can still make listeners feel at ease.

    In a lot of my other Beethoven comments I’ve mentioned that I’m deeply fond of Gardiner’s way with the symphonies. The recording of the Pastoral in his cycle was a sleeper performance as I didn’t see people highlighting it in their reviews. Now with the box set reissue of his collected Beethoven recordings, I hope people give it a fair hearing. I find it interesting that without the first movement repeat, Gardiner just about matches Karajan’s speeds. Norrington and Hogwood go faster that he does. At the same time I see that he is a bit more expansive in the Shepherd’s Thanksgiving finale. He is also fastidious but tender in the Brook movement. Also, the peasants’ merrymaking is rustic and the storm brings out his dramatic instincts very well.

    I know that the Walter, Klemperer, Bohm and Cluytens versions cast a long shadow over this piece. However, newer up-tempo recordings can still find listenership. Besides Gardiner, Bruggen’s two versions, Krivine and Immerseel all have winning versions of this symphony. In addition, I am quite fond of Antonini’s Kammerorchester Basel version. Antonini’s version makes you feel at ease in the fast movements and the wind players really shine. In addition, the brook has a deep sound and the water burbles and babbles along.

    I would give honourable mention to Abbado’s 2001 Berlin version from his Beethoven cycle in Rome, and even to Mackerras’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra version on Hyperion.

  • I am completely biased towards the Vienna Philharmonic when it comes to this symphony, and I love both the Böhm and the Rattle. However my favorite Pastoral is from the very first official Beethoven cycle in the history of the orchestra, under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (who would suggest to Anglo audiences that had trouble with his name “Call me Messerschmidt.”)

    This is an expansive and flowing account, never rushed, and the wonderful orchestral playing (listen to those woodwinds!) was flawlessly captured by Decca engineers in the Sofiensaal. If only he had taken the exposition repeat in I like Böhm did!

    • Ivan Fischer’s recording is striking — not least the textual emendation in the finale. Gustav Mahler may have re-orchestrated his performances of the Beethoven and Schumann symphonies, but even he didn’t think of what Fischer has done : changed the opening phrases of the first violins in the finale to those for a solo violin. It really does conjure a ‘shepherd’s hymn’ after the clearing of the storm.

      Incidentally, of all the modern performances that use the Bärenreiter Urtext edited by Del Mar, do any use the textual variant with the longer ending to the ‘Scene by the Brook’, purportedly Beethoven’s earlier MS version? The inserts of these bars are catalogue BA 9006.5

      • Interesting mention of Iván Fischer and “his” use of a solo violin at the beginning of the finale, Ramesh.

        I was at the Concertgebouw on January 10, 2014, when Fischer led the RCO in an all-Beethoven program – his sixth and seventh symphonies. Knowing what he had done with the Pastoral on his recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, I was relieved when the entire first violin section started the first statement of the Shepherd’s Thanksgiving theme. Needless to say, it was a magnificent performance.

        • Greetings from Auckland, NZ, Mezzo! Thanks for the heads-up. There are a bunch of HD video freebies on the Concertgebouw’s website, including it seems the entire Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle. I hear what you mean about that splendid performance. Excellent that the RCO, like the BPO, have concerts on their own website, rather than on Youtube with the latter’s low-definition sound.

          I share your enthusiasm for the VPO Hans S-I performance. A couple of years ago Tower records Japan released that entire 1960s VPO cycle on SACDs, which show for the first time in the digital era the magnificence of the Decca engineering. Tower records Japan classical releases are exclusive to the chain in Japan. However if you go to eBay UK or US and and do some googling/filtering, there are usually a handful of Japan-based third party resellers that sell new Tower SACD sets at fixed price.

          • Nice to know that you also enjoy the VPO Hans S-I performance, Ramesh. It is no wonder this recording sounds as magnificent as it does – it was produced by Erik Smith, one of the so-called “Decca Boys” (that also included Gordon Parry and Christopher Raeburn, all under John Culshaw), and the engineer was Michael Mailes, who would later help design and develop the very first – and spectacularly successful – digital audio recording system for Decca’s own use.

  • There are of course many great recordings of this symphony. Most of them are mentioned here. I would add Carlos Kleiber’s live recording, the only time he conducted the work (1983) but surely among the greatest recordings of the Pastoral.

    • A slightly off the wall choice when this version fared the best in a BBC building a library programme along with the much maligned Karajan one. It made for an interesting alternative view.

  • There’s also a live 1992 LPO/Tennstedt performance on the orchestra’s own label (LPO-0085) which is truly remarkable, a performance that outclasses all others I’ve heard. This would be my first choice.

  • I am surprised that nobody mentioned Pierre Monteux´ recording with Vienna Philharmonic at the end of the 50s…
    For me always one of the most convincing I have heard on recording or live in the last nearly 50 years…

    • Monteux, yes! Both his Vienna and live Boston recordings are exceptional in terms of tempo, clarity and balance.
      Wasn’t the Maazel recording with the Berlin philharmonic?

  • A couple of observations about the music itself; I’ll stick with my old Szell/Cleveland and Steinberg/Pittsburgh recordings, thank you very much.
    1: Bartok pointed out in an essay that the opening of the first movement is a clear reference to Croation street musicians who plied their trade in Vienna, playing a bagpipe-like instrument, . This accounts for the drone fifth that opens the symphony and the sixteenth-note flourish at the end of the main theme. The opening theme of the finale of Haydn’s last symphony, according to Bartok, draws inspiration from the same source.
    2: I think my favorite moment in the symphony is early in the development of the first movement. The music gets “stuck” for a moment, repeating a rhythmic figure from the end of the first measure of the opening theme in the woodwinds against triplets in the strings 24 times, the first 12 in B flat Major, the second 12 in D. There is no attempt to connect the keys in any conception of functional harmony.
    And it is a unique use of repetition in Beethoven, as far as I know. Usually, his obsessive repetitions are either to create maximum tension (the E-D sharp oscillating baseline in the coda of the finale of Symphony #7), or to express a triumphant affirmation (the endless reiteration of C Major at the end of Symphony #5). But in the Pastorale, he just seems to like the sonority and wants to stop and smell the flowers for once.

    • I completely agree with your second point, Mr. Raimi. That passage drove me crazy as a teenager and I played it over and over, wearing out great sheaths of vinyl in the process!

    • Indeed, indeed. Those repetitions are the way of puting time ‘on a hold’ which was later-on picked-up again by the minimal composers who abused the idea ad infinitum.

      The most striking feature of the symphony is that while it is ‘telling a story’, it is structurally a very thorough and balanced work which can be fully experienced without any association at all; the ‘subject’ does not result in loosening the form. For instance, the ‘storm’ episode is structurally a necessary dramatic climax to end the ‘simple pleasures’ and to prepare the way for the crowning ‘apotheosis’.

  • This seems very sound. It is good to see Maazel’s recording brought back to light. Cluytens, Monteux, and Davis in Dresden deserve anyone’s time,

  • Just wanted to add to the previous comment in support of the 1962 Szell/CO recording. For me this recording personified everything that makes the 50’s and 60’s GS/CO performances standout. Both the solo playing of the Principals, Myron Bloom’s horn/Bernard Adelstein’s trumpet/Cloyd Duff’s timpani during the storm/Jules Eskin’s cello/Druian & Steinhardt’s violin/ Goslee & Sharp’s bassoon & flute, as well as the ensemble playing combine extraordinary virtuosity, transparency and apt vitality. The performances are always idiomatic, and at no point are the strings too lush, the brass blaring or the woodwinds drowned out. The ability to enable everyone to be heard, maintain a structural coherence and yet never sacrifice forward momentum is what imo GS brought to his best performances. There is someone posting re-engineered GS/CO recordings on You Tube (Brahms & Strauss) which have enhanced the qualities mentioned above and I hope he/she tackles the Beethoven cycle.

  • I grew up with #6 on Reiner/Chicago, but I have always found it rather chilly, as with other Reiner recordings. For me the old Weller/City of Birmingham is satisfyingly warm, sweet, and beautifully recorded.

    • Glad you brought up Lenny with Wiener Philharmoniker, Andrei. It is indeed a marvelous performance and the orchestra play wonderfully, as always.

      However, it is a live recording (like the rest of Lenny’s Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Phil). To me – and this is entirely subjective – live recordings of the Vienna Phil made in the Musikverein can only be considered poor aural approximations of what the orchestra truly sounds like in that fabled concert hall which is notoriously difficult to record in. The DG engineers certainly did not succeed in capturing the superb acoustics of the Großer Saal where this performance of the Pastoral Symphony took place.

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