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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphonies #6 & 8

  • Symphony #6 "Pastoral", Op. 68
  • Symphony #8, Op. 93
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
MCA Millennium MCAD 80077 ADD 57:43
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These performances were briefly available some years ago on a hard-to-find MCA Double Decker reissue which soon vanished. Now they are back, at an almost insultingly low price, and there is – or should be – rejoicing in the streets, for these are two of the finest Beethoven symphony recordings ever made.

After years of apparent indifference, MCA at last seem to have taken their back catalogue seriously and the first release of the Millennium Classics line is full of enticing bargains, of which this disc is perhaps the greatest.

While Hermann Scherchen is better known for his championing of 20th-century repertoire – he took over, at less than 24 hours' notice, the 1936 Barcelona première of Berg's Violin Concerto – his repertoire was vast, ranging from the baroque to the avant-garde.

His 1958 stereo Pastoral is an astonishing tour-de-force; his tempos, especially in the first movement, are quicker than just about anybody else, including all the Period Performance crowd, and yet in his hands the music never fails to sound relaxed. And the final Shepherd's Hymn is truly a joyful celebration.

But it is the 8th which is the standout on this disc. The narrowly focused, somewhat constricted 1954 mono sound comes initially as a shock, but within seconds the listener is swept up in the whirlwind that is Scherchen's opening movement.

Although the keynote of the outer movements is excitement, Scherchen still finds time to relax and I've rarely heard a more genial account of the allegretto scherzando.

Simply put, this is one of the two greatest performances of the 8th I have ever heard on record – the other, by Barbirolli, is long out of print. MCA can now put us further into their debt by reissuing Scherchen's other great recordings, including his astonishing 1958 Eroica, to my knowledge one of the two fastest ever recorded and certainly my favourite stereo recording of the work.

These are different transfers from those found on the previous issue and, while there is undoubtedly less tape hiss, I am not altogether sure that a little of the life of the original recordings has been lost too. But only a little.

So, if you have that Double Decker issue (which also includes the First and Eroica) there is no need to rush out and replace it. If you don't, however, then run, do not walk, to your local emporium and buy this disc.

Note to U.S. readers: this line may not have appeared in the U.S. as yet; they can be purchased by mail order from Canada. Which is an interesting reversal of the previous state of affairs: it was nearly three years after I read a U.S. review of the previous issue that I found it in Canada. Odd.

Copyright © 1997, Deryk Barker