BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21. Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68.
Berlin State Opera Orch (No. 1); Berlin Philharmonic Orch (No. 6 ); Hans Pfitzner, cond.

NAXOS 8.110927 (B) (ADD) TT:  63:50

BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92.
Berlin State Opera Orch; Richard Strauss, cond.

NAXOS 8.110926 (B) (ADD) TT:  60:01

Like the Pfitzner-led pairing of the "Eroica" and No. 8 on Naxos reviewed just recently, these "Historical Recordings [by] Great Conductors" were installments in a centennial edition of the Beethoven Symphonies by Deutsche Grammophon (a.k.a. Polydor elsewhere in Europe; Brunswick in the U.S.). In addition to Pfitzner and Strauss, D.G.'s conductors were Erich Kleiber and Oskar Fried, leading Kleiber's Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra and Wilhelm Furtw”ngler's Berliner Philharmoniker. But not Furtw”ngler himself, already Germany's most celebrated conductor, who didn't get a Beethoven symphony onto disc, as I recollect, until the Fifth for British EMI, circa 1937. Odd, maybe even weird.

If you are a historical-performance maven (not that Pfitzner's are historic interpretations), Rob Cowan's notes for this ongoing Naxos series are models of insight and instruction—what happens and where to find it. Transfers from 78s by David Lennick ("from the collections of David Lennick, Marc Bernstein and the Sniderman Recording Archive, University of Toronto") are good without challenging the remastering expertise of Marc Obert-Thorn or Ward Marsten. Indeed, the beginning of both CDs—Pfitzner's quirkily antique Sixth and Strauss' red-blooded Fifth—is seriously noisy. Scratch and rumble clear up for the most part later on, but you're constantly on edge, wondering when they might return.

Neither Pfitzner performance is recommended to the non-specialist listener, despite occasional flashes of light—chording and harmonic emphasis in particular. His "Pastoral" tempi mostly drag, except in the third movement where the peasants sound uninhibited, even drunk. The First is less old-fashioned but not very enlivening, although the Berlin Philharmonic plays handsomely—yet without quite the polish of Kleiber's pit orchestra Unter den Linden in the "Pastoral." No recording dates were kept, only release dates: No. 6 in 1931, No. 1 in 1928.

Strauss does some reining-in and hurrying-on. In addition, his circa-1926 Seventh is disfigured by a monster cut in the finale—275 measures out of 467, not counting repeats (which aren't taken in any event)—to fit on a single 78-side. But the circa-1928 Fifth is a classic that even non- specialists might enjoy, warts and all, although Kleiber's orchestra (used in both works) commits some ensemble errors, especially in the scherzo at Beethoven's metronome (and surely messy for that reason)! The Seventh is more touch-and-go—outstanding in the Allegretto movement, where Strauss refused to sentimentalize or funerealize; sluggish in the trio sections of the Scherzo —but more illuminating than anything on Pfitzner's disc (or the previous one), in spite of the unspeakable cut. Irony of ironies, these two elderly post-Wagnerians (who died within three months of one another, in 1949, in Bavaria) were Hitler's trophy composers after the Nazis came to power in 1933.

R.D. (Sept. 2000)