The Beethoven Symphonies

How they may have been performed in Beethoven’s day.

When playing the Beethoven symphonies I have often been asked, and I’m sure many of my colleagues out there have also been asked by conductors for much more sound. But not all the great conductors were like that.  I remember some elegant performances by Furtwangler, de Sabata and Bruno Walter.

I have often performed them with a small orchestra consisting of instruments of a type that were used in Beethoven’s day and the sound was completely different as was to be expected.  There was not the blaring brass and screechy string sound that some orchestras make today. But there were drawbacks. For instance in the trio of the “Eroica” Symphony very often the old style horns fluffed it.

It is interesting to note that when Sir George Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 that four celli and two basses only played the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, which, said Sir George, is certainly better than if one takes all the basses.

However, Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play the recitatives in a singing style, not stiffly, but in strict time, not dragged.

According to my research there were mostly only four basses in Beethoven’s orchestra (in which the basses were sometimes led by Domenico Dragonetti) playing on gut strings and some with only 3-stringed instruments, so it must have been a completely different sound than we hear today when up to ten basses are used, all with metal strings


Video Reminiscences: On Conductors

In these brief videos I discuss some of my memories of working with the great conductors.

On Conductors: Part 1 What Makes a Good Conductor – Sir Thomas Beecham, Dr. Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Victor de Sabata, and others.

On Conductors: Part 2 Walter Legge’s Conductor Competition – “The best of a bad lot.”

On Conductors: Part 3 The Truly Great – What sets the truly great conductors apart from the also-rans.

Bruno Walter, an extraordinary conductor

I first encountered Bruno Walter when I was playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. At that time he would have been around seventy years of age. He was short, thickset with thinning, greyish hair and had a pleasant, almost jovial air about him.

We played Mozart and Mahler.  Although he did not have a great stick technique, he was able, like most great conductors, especially with a good orchestra, to obtain some wonderful performances.

There were no pyrotechnics, he calmly stood there waving his hands and the music just welled  out.  His Mozart was scintillating.

In Mahler’s 4th. Symphony he seemed almost overcome in one of the movements which he said was Mahler’s tribute to the animals who were killed for our food.  So many conductors play a symphony as though there is a disconnect between movements; not so with Bruno Walter who, like Klemperer managed to obtain a cohesive overview of the whole work.

In Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony which has been dubbed “programme music” there is a definite thread running through the whole symphony – the ardent lover taking opium in the first movement, the Ballroom waltz, In the Countryside, the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath.

Mahler’s 4th. Symphony, although it could be called “absolute music’ as opposed to “programme music”nevertheless has a thread running through it that Bruno Walter captured.

His concerts were sold out, and he was received enthusiastically by the orchestra and the audience alike.

There was an amusing incident that showed his humorous side. He asked the concertmaster what time it was,  (rehearsals were mostly 10 am until 1 pm)  somebody called out “one o’clock”, at which he smiled and drew out his own watch and said “No, it’s only ten minute before one, musicians’ watches – always fast!”

If I were asked to rate him as a conductor I would place him high amongst  the small Pantheon of elite conductors – and I have encountered many conductors in my time.