BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36.  Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60
Berlin State Opera Orch/Hans Pfitzner (No.4) /Erich Kleiber (No. 2).

NAXOS 8.110919 (B) (ADD)  TT:  62:39

BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 9 in D, Op. l25 "Choral"
Lotte Leonard, soprano/Jenny Sonnenberg, contralto/Eugene Transky, tenor/Wilhelm Guttmann, bass/Bruno Kittel Choir/Berlin State Opera Orch/Oscar Fried, cond.
NAXOS 8.110929 (B) (ADD)  TT:  61:16

These two discs complete Naxos' restoration of performances originally recorded by Deutsche Grammophon to commemorate the centennial of Beethoven’s death. Lacking any documentation about when they were recorded—only when they were first released in Germany—one must conclude that the original masters were destroyed, most likely during World War Two. Here again, however, surface noise is more than obtrusive; it distorts the sound, most distractingly in the Fourth and portions of the "Choral" Ninth Symphonies despite "digital noise reduction" by Graham Newton. Surely, somewhere in the world, cleaner (if not mint) copies exist than these from the "collections of David Lennick and David Burnham,"transferred by the first-named.

Although a lion's share of the nine (minus repeats in all but a couple of the scherzo movements) were played by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra—the capital's best until the collapse of the Weimar Republic—music director Erich Kleiber was chosen only to record the Second. His growing legion of admirers outside Germany (and in Argentina, where he settled in 1935) had to wait until 1950-55 for his readings of Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 on London/Decca with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (3, 5, 7) and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras (9, and another Third).  R.E.B advises that Decca Legends has announced reissue of the Amsterdam 3 and 5 coupled on a single CD. However, like his colleague and friend Fritz Reiner, an equally eminent Beethoven specialist, the senior Kleiber was never able to record all nine symphonies commercially before his death in 1956.

This Second—released in 1929, and the only State Opera performance to be recorded electrically—finds the orchestra playing at its peak, not unexpectedly, in a reading once credited to Wilhelm Furtw”ngler during the LP era. The reading is weighty without being ponderous (although Kleiber slowed down the Trio of the Scherzo) and everywhere meticulously articulated. It has the further benefit of a large recording venue, which the subsequent Fourth does not. That supply-closet Fourth, indeed, is the most perfunctory of Hans Pfitzner'’s contributions to the series—he was assigned no fewer than five of the nine symphonies for reasons known only to the suits between wars at D.G.G. The first chord staggers, and thereafter what gets through the surface detritus lacks character. It hasn't even a profile. Rob Cowan's usually authoritative annotations give Pfitzner a pass, although I'd bet that his tongue still bears bite marks.

Even with the pleasure of a Second Symphony from Kleiber, the surprise for me in this series is Oskar Fried's interpretation of the Ninth Symphony—not, as Cowan misspeaks, in the Toscanini tradition but closer to the classicism of Felix Weingartner, with the bonus of thrills along the way. Portamento has been banished (that queasy sliding from note to note by strings and voices), and a few passages of undersyncronized ensemble are as nothing to smears heard in some of Pfitzner's performances, or in Richard Strauss' slapdash conducting of 5 and 7 (see index).

Fried, who like Strauss and Pfitzner was a composer as well as a conductor, produced a substantial discography (including the first-ever recording in 1923-24 of Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection) before the Nazis forced him to flee. He went east to the Soviet Union, where performances as a visiting guest had been welcomed. Appointed music director of the Moscow All-Union State Radio Orchestra and also the opera in Tiflis, Fried became a Soviet citizen in 1940, a year before his death at age 70. His pacing takes no prisoners, yet tempi breathe, are musical, and in the slow movement expressive although he obeys Beethoven's instructions not to drag. Berlin's famed Bruno Kittel Choir gives pause only between 13:17 and 17:19, when their pitch sags, suggesting not exhaustion but a defect in disc mastering that escaped notice. Soloists are good and the ending is climactic (rather than chaotic) despite Fried’s speed. A large hall was used to record this Ninth, to everyone's advantage starting with Beethoven, which has left me wishing to hear a source-sound without Naxos' noise, even after the ear has told the mind there is plenty of grit in the transfer.

In closing, indulge me in a question, please. Cowan speaks teasingly in his program notes of a Berlioz Symphonie fantastique that Fried recorded in Moscow in 1937. Does anyone know where a copy might be had? Like Diogenes seeking an honest man, I search while breath remains for a definitive Fantastique. (NOTE: A reader informs us Fried's Fantastique was once issued on a Melodiya LP(M88329), and we have also found it was issued on CD (LYS 280) coupled with Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre, the former with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, the latter with the Berlin Philharmonic).

R.D. (Oct. 2000)