A Pristine Christmas

James JollyThu 24th December 2009

Paray in Beethoven

You can always tell when Rob Cowan has heard something that really appeals – his usually sparky nature positively effervesces with excitement. The past couple of mornings as he handed over from his Radio 3 breakfast show at 10am, he’s been raving about Pristine’s new transfer of Paul Paray’s Beethoven Seventh Symphony. It dates from February 1953 and was recorded in Orchestra Hall, Detroit with the Symphony, an orchestra that Paray turned into an instrument of sparkling elegance and style (as his stunning Mercury legacy only too perfectly demonstrates – and we play a lot on Paray's discs on the radio!). But Paray in Beethoven?

Well, the first thing to say is forget ‘received wisdom’ that Frenchman can’t conduct Beethoven (Pierre Monteux is proof enough to the contrary): Paray’s Beethoven is wonderfully lithe, amazingly light on its toes and fast (the finale is astounding)! He was one of the few conductors of his time who clearly had a go at performing Beethoven’s symphonies at somewhere approaching the metronome markings. And the orchestral ‘tiering’ in the third movement where the theme is tossed from section to section is just joyous – perfect music for a rather chilly Christmas Eve night! (The Pristine download also includes a performance – from the following year – of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a performance that had Gramophone’s Malcolm Macdonald breaking out into a sweat to keep up – in these Historically Informed Performance times it actually doesn’t sound that fast! And MM’s certainly right about the woodwind playing.)

On the subject of Pristine, do check out the free download of the best of 2009. It’s only available as a FLAC file so check that you can play it (there are quite a few options for this – and Pristine helpfully offers guidance). It’s got some terrific clips that just make you want to get hold of the complete albums – Erich Kleiber’s Concertgebouw Eroica, Toscanini’s Otello and Brahms Second (NBC, 1951) are pretty well known, but Stokowski’s 1958 USSR RSO Prokofiev Fifth sounds rather special judging by its second movement – and the sound is most impressive! I’ve already acquired Kentner’s Hammerklavier complete, but the Budapest Quartet’s 1940 Ravel Quartet is quite something too!

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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