Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony: a guide to the best recordings
Friday, October 20, 2023
The Sixth is the outlier among Beethoven’s symphonies, rural and rustic where the others are driven and dramatic. Richard Osborne makes a selection of the best versions from a rich recorded history
The poet Walter Savage Landor’s line ‘Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art’ is one that Beethoven would have been happy to adopt. An odd idea, some might think: Beethoven and Nature? WR Anderson certainly thought so when he told Gramophone readers in November 1933: ‘Nature meant to him nothing very deep; philosophical notions did not bother him in that connection.’ Happily, WRA’s primary task was to review records, not write music biography. As we shall see, his assessment of the set in question – Serge Koussevitzky’s fine 1928 Boston recording of the Pastoral Symphony – was pretty well spot on.
Beethoven’s closest acquaintances knew of the depth of his attachment to Nature. His access to the meadows, elm-rich woods and brookside paths that lay around the villages beyond Vienna’s city wall was an inexhaustible supply of joy and inner peace. As Alexander Thayer records in his monumental Life of Beethoven: ‘When, in sorrow and affliction, his art, his Plutarch, his Odyssey, proved to be resources too feeble for his comfort, he went to Nature for solace, and rarely failed to find it.’
The Pastoral Symphony carries programmatic titles but is not programme music. ‘More expression of feeling than painting’ is the strategically important declaration Beethoven inscribes on its title page. By the early 1800s, the imitation of Nature in music was no longer in fashion – not even Haydn escaped censure. Beethoven being Beethoven, he was happy to defy the fashionistas with eight bars of birdsong imitation at the end of the ‘Scene by the Brook’. His aim, however, was to explore not landscape but the interrelationship between landscape and the conscious mind – what his exact contemporary William Wordsworth called ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. ‘The Pastoral Symphony happens inside us’, conductor Iván Fischer has noted, echoing Beethoven’s sketchbook observation that lovers of Nature will create their own images as they listen.
What makes the symphony such a challenge to direct – ‘immensely difficult’, as Carlos Kleiber remarked with engaging frankness – are the extramusical factors that are part and parcel of its make-up. ‘Only when the sameness of fields, woods and streams becomes distasteful will the Pastoral Symphony weary its hearers’, wrote George Grove. Tell that to the conductor who doesn’t quite know what to do with such repetitious writing. And what of those pantheistic, not to say overtly Christian, elements that are so marked a feature of Beethoven’s many written annotations; remarks such as his diary entry: ‘O God, what majesty is in woods like these; in the heights there is peace – peace to serve Him’?
Given the number of writers and critics who are indifferent to the symphony or actively dislike it, it’s safe to assume that there are conductors who feel the same. Willem Mengelberg, for instance, who treats it as a kind of musical punchbag in his two recorded Amsterdam cycles. Musically unsatisfactory accounts of the Pastoral became a particular problem after the introduction of the pre-packaged box-set in the early 1960s. Herbert von Karajan’s influential 1961‑62 Berlin cycle is the earliest example of a set containing an unsatisfactory Pastoral; another is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s similarly influential 1990s cycle – his Pastoral as laboured and self-consciously phrased as Karajan’s is brusque. These things matter. Writing in Gramophone in April 2009, writer and producer Armando Iannucci described the Pastoral as ‘languid, static and, apart from the storm, unengaging’, adding that Harnoncourt was his go-to recording.
A bigger problem than either faith or repetition is that of the newly invented metronome and the figures Beethoven added in 1817, eight years after the work’s completion. It’s a telling example of the Enlightenment’s trust in numbers which Beethoven’s contemporary William Blake excoriates in his portrait of Isaac Newton, seated on a barnacled rock making measurements with a compass. Mendelssohn loathed the device. ‘Any musician who can’t guess the tempo of a piece, simply by looking at it, is a duffer’, he told Berlioz. But, as Berlioz well knew, different musicians hear things in different ways. In the first movement of the Pastoral, a conductor such as Hans Pfitzner will move at around 44 bars a minute and Victor de Sabata at 58, while the metronome – in open contradiction of Beethoven’s original written marking Allegro ma non troppo – says 66. None of us, with the possible exception of a small child, runs hell-for-leather at the start of a day’s walk, nor should this symphony – unless, some will argue, the speed signifies an onrush of joy in the walker’s mind.
It was this clash between the tempo indications in the first movement which inspired Robert C Marsh’s observation in Toscanini and the Art of Orchestral Performance that there are two Pastorals: ‘One is a warm German work, relaxed and reflecting the mood of rustic poetry; the other is this [Toscanini’s], a dazzling classical landscape, brilliantly illuminated by the Mediterranean sun.’
In the earliest electrical recordings, cued by the 1927 centenary of Beethoven’s death, there are, indeed, two Pastorals. Three European labels commissioned sets from leading Beethovenians. HMV drew the short straw with Franz Schalk driving the Vienna Philharmonic like a troupe of scouts on a cross-country route march whose only relief is a leisurely sojourn by the brook. Felix Weingartner’s Pastoral is also fairly driven but it’s a lucid, unaffected account, well realised by the bespoke orchestra Thomas Beecham had assembled for English Columbia under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
What Weingartner lacks is imagination. Claude Debussy said he conducted the symphony like a ‘a conscientious gardener’, which is not something that could be said of Serge Koussevitzky. His 1928 Boston recording draws on a richer palette of orchestral sounds than Weingartner while creating an altogether deeper sense of well-being. Hear that, then scroll forwards 70 years to Seiji Ozawa’s similarly skilled and affecting performance, recorded not with the Boston orchestra, which he also led, but with his Saito Kinen Orchestra.
The earliest recorded example of Marsh’s ‘warm German work, relaxed and reflecting the mood of rustic poetry’ is composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner’s 1930 Berlin set. Both orchestrally and as a recording, it leaves a good deal to be desired, but the performance itself is fathoms deep, the first two movements contemplative and slow-moving, the final three a good deal fierier.
Hans Pfitzner recorded the Pastoral Symphony in Berlin in 1930 (photography: Lebrecht Music Arts/Bridgeman Images)
Pfitzner’s vision of the work is one which Wilhelm Furtwängler endorsed in his own distinctive way. Furtwängler’s is another slow-burn reading, beginning with what Neville Cardus described as ‘a sleepy sort of grandeur’ and ending with an accelerating sense of joy. To experience the spontaneous outflow of emotion that’s so crucial to the concept, I would choose not Furtwängler’s well-regarded 1952 Vienna studio recording (Warner, 12/53, 2/01) but his live 1944 Berlin Philharmonic performance, a Reichs Rundfunk transmission, finely engineered by Friedrich Schnapp in the rebuilt (and shortly to be destroyed again) Berlin State Opera.
DOWN THE YEARS
The Pfitzner-Furtwängler approach has been adopted down the years with varying degrees of success. Some conductors, such as Igor Markevitch (DG, 1/59), merely become becalmed; others get too close to the flame: Daniel Barenboim (Warner, 4/00), for instance, whose account of the first movement is overburdened with expressive detail. Better remain at a safe distance, as André Cluytens does in 1960 (with Karajan’s refashioned Berlin Philharmonic in much better shape than it was at the time of Cluytens’s 1955 mono recording – Testament, 11/57, 7/00). Or Christian Thielemann, on film and CD, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2010 (Sony, 4/12). Carlo Maria Giulini might be thought to belong to the Pfitzner school, though his musical monumentalism, most effective in his 1991 Milan recording (Sony, 5/94), seems more influenced by a sense of this as a semi‑sacred text.
Pfitzner’s Italian opposite number is Victor de Sabata, a far better conductor than Pfitzner but an established composer whose musical antennae are well tuned to the quickening motions of the poetic mind. (Would that those of composer Thomas Adès with the Britten Sinfonia were similarly so – Signum, 2/21.) When Naxos reissued de Sabata’s 1947 Rome recording, Rob Cowan wrote of ‘telling observations that even a dozen hearings wouldn’t really do justice’ – an echo of RC’s earlier identification of those tiny shifts in pace and emphasis in Pfitzner’s performance ‘that suggest an acutely creative mind attempting to delve behind the notes’.
De Sabata was clearly mindful of Beethoven’s faster metronome marks while realising that no orchestra of his day could afford to take them literally. Go forwards 60 years and we find fellow Italian Riccardo Chailly doing just that with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Their quicksilver response to the music makes for an exhilarating performance that somehow manages to find that all-important sense of the numinous in the work’s loftier moments. As to period-instrument performers, for whom metronome marks are an article of faith, these are fine as long as the conductors and their players are masters of the medium, as a small handful of the very best – Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuel Krivine and their respective ensembles – clearly are.
Emmanuel Krivine’s 2010 period-instrument reading is exhilarating (photography: Philippe Hurlin)
The fact that Norrington has recorded the symphony twice, first with the London Classical Players and later with the modern instruments of the Stuttgart RSO (Hänssler Classic, 8/03), shows that, in the right hands, period sonorities (horns and winds especially) can make a special impact. With Norrington in characteristic hunter-gatherer mood in the first movement and proving his country-loving credentials in the third, this is a pleasingly characteristic reading, rich in interest. As is the Krivine, live with a hand-picked band of period instrumentalists from his La Chambre Philharmonique. Among period performances, this is in a class of its own orchestrally, such is the acuteness of Krivine’s X‑ray analysis of the text and the players’ vibrant, multicoloured realisation of it.
Krivine’s is a performance even Arturo Toscanini might have wondered at. Toscanini’s own 1952 NBC recording is less of a high-wire act, with a more leisurely opening, a gradual acceleration to the oboe’s gamesome entry and occasional easings where symphony gives way to song. (52-58-54, metronomically measured.) With lean and athletic orchestral playing (superior to that on Toscanini’s live 1937 BBC SO performance – Naxos, 12/37), phrasing that’s taut but never breathless and excellent Carnegie Hall sound, it’s the finest of the three recordings of a reading that’s at its best in the two opening movements.
It certainly puts into the shade Leopold Stokowski’s roughly played 1954 NBC version (Cala/Signum, 12/06), where stop-go conducting treats the opening movement as a kind of overture to one of the most leisurely brookside scenes on record. At over 16 minutes, it’s even slower than Sergiu Celibidache’s (Warner, 9/99), which is saying something.
Erich Kleiber’s 1952 Amsterdam recording rightly won favour in the early days of LP for its vitality and good sense. This, in sharp contrast to his son Carlos Kleiber, who loved the symphony but was baffled by it. He conducted it just once, in Munich in 1983, a high-speed performance shorn of all repeats (Orfeo, 7/04). The audience raved and critics, including the present writer, were suitably mesmerised. But Kleiber knew it was a hastily erected facade and abandoned the work for good.
Given the symphony’s Austro-Hungarian roots, does ethnicity matter? Up to point. A typical small detail comes in the first-movement recapitulation (bars 383‑89), where Beethoven introduces a new pizzicato accompaniment, a bit of country roughage, in the second violins. Inaudible on most recordings, it’s there on two fine Czech Philharmonic accounts – the first under Karel Šejna (Supraphon, 6/60), the second with Paul Kletzki, both of which do the music proud – and on Karl Böhm’s 1971 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Böhm, few collectors will need reminding, finds this shrewdest and most rhythmically secure of Austrian conductors caressing, cajoling and inspiring the Vienna Philharmonic into one of its own – and the symphony’s – finest performances on record.
Karl Böhm caresses and cajoles the Vienna Philharmonic in one of the finest Pastorals on record (photography: Siegfried Lauterwasser/Bridgeman Images)
Nor should we forget two distinguished expatriate Austro-Hungarians, Fritz Reiner and Antal Dorati. Reiner’s involvement with the symphony goes back to 1925‑26, when he conducted two pianists in an unpublished Welte piano roll. Were it not for his unbalancing the work’s entire structure by reducing the peasants’ merrymaking to a mere 3’20” – an odd thing to do on a 1961 stereo LP – his beautifully paced and flawlessly played Chicago performance would be on any shortlist. As for Dorati, he so loved the work, he made three separate versions, of which the 1962 Mercury recording with the London Symphony Orchestra is perhaps the pick of the bunch.
The United States has not been especially kind to the Pastoral. When John Barbirolli (who never recorded it) proposed including the symphony in his inaugural concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1936, he was told that it had enjoyed little success in New York – until Toscanini, and even that was ‘something of a mystery’, given the general lack of interest.
Other Europeans arrived to conduct and record it, but they often changed tack when faced with an American orchestra. The French composer and conductor Paul Paray followed his spruce and musicianly 1945 Colonne Orchestra account with a technically more proficient but decidedly hard-bitten 1954 Detroit recording (Eloquence, 1/57). Even Bruno Walter fell victim in his 1946 Philadelphia recording (Sony, 12/19), though made amends when he brought the Vienna woods to Hollywood in a strong, idiomatic, deeply affectionate late performance made with the elite musicians of the specially assembled Columbia Symphony Orchestra.
Cologne-born German émigré William Steinberg made two excellent recordings with his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (5/53, 5/69); far better than Manfred Honeck, whose widely trailed 2017 Pittsburgh release (Reference Recordings, 8/22) came with a sheaf of notes listing the ‘improvements’ Honeck had made to Beethoven’s scoring. These turned out to be either irrelevant or weirdly intrusive. I think of the piccolo added to the peasants’ merrymaking, a flirtation made worse by the fact that in the ‘Storm’, where a piccolo really is deployed by Beethoven, the Pittsburgh instrument sounds like a stationmaster’s whistle.
Beethoven might have been charmed by Iván Fischer’s reducing the first violins’ initial statement of the finale’s song of thanksgiving to a single instrument in his keenly observed if at times slightly hesitant Budapest performance. Not so the changes Honeck makes, or David Zinman in his strangely decorous 1997 Zurich recording (Arte Nova, 12/97, 7/99).
The one successful American export is Leonard Bernstein, a musician who loved and understood the Pastoral like few others. His 1963 New York recording (Sony) would have been a winner were it not for a Medinah Hall acoustic that has the woodwind and horns too distantly placed. Happily, he was able to re‑record the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Their natural diction helps avoid what in New York is a rather bluesy way with the ‘Scene by the Brook’. Otherwise the reading is largely unchanged: a touch more relaxed, perhaps, with its own beguiling intimacy of address.
Beethoven’s pastoral vision has much in common with that of the English poets of the period; but, where music is concerned, Austrian and English pastoral are very different creatures. A famous Delian but no friend of most British pastoralists, Thomas Beecham recorded a graceful and airy account of the symphony over five sessions between December 1951 and May 1952. True, his brookside sojourn lasts all of 14 minutes, but such is the witchery of the playing it’s churlish to complain. Any good Pastoral requires a principal oboe, horn and clarinet of unimpeachable quality, and with Terence MacDonagh, Dennis Brain and Jack Brymer in attendance, Sir Thomas was (as ever) quids in.
Colin Davis took up the Beecham mantle in 1962 (Eloquence, 12/62), then re-recorded the work in Dresden in 1992 (Philips, 12/95). It’s not the best of Davis’s Staatskapelle recordings technically or orchestrally. For a classic account from deep within the mainstream German tradition, turn to the one recorded almost 20 years earlier by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That or a lyrical and affectionate 2012 Bavarian RSO recording conducted by Mariss Jansons.
Adrian Boult’s 1977 LPO recording is as wholesome as a Sunday afternoon walk in the Malvern Hills, a most satisfying affair, infinitely preferable to a 1972 Proms performance which, unaccountably, the BBC later released on CD (BBC Radio Classics, 3/95). Equally sure-footed is James Loughran with the LPO in 2010. Back in 1961 the 29-year-old Loughran won the inaugural Philharmonia conducting competition, whose judges were Klemperer, Boult, Giulini and Walter Legge. That this Collins Classics Pastoral is fit to be heard alongside any of those made by Loughran’s erstwhile judges is testimony both to their perspicacity and the skills Loughran always showed in handling the Beethoven-Brahms repertory.
GRAND OLD MEN
Otto Klemperer was one of three grand old men – the others were Pierre Monteux and Bruno Walter – who recorded the Pastoral in 1957‑58. There’s no finer account of the finale than Klemperer’s in that 1957 Philharmonia performance. Unlike some lesser mortals – Christopher Hogwood, for example (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 1/89) – who race through the first movement and then turn the finale’s ‘beneficent feelings bound with thanks to the Godhead’ into a churchy processional, Klemperer reserves his fastest tempo for the finale, the playing majestic and life-affirming: an ode to joy in the meadows of Heiligenstadt. Sadly, his lugubrious account of the peasants’ merrymaking is a no-no for many collectors, which explains why his earlier Vox recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (8/53) has its adherents. It’s a performance – thanks to quicker tempos, distinctive wind-playing, sweet, sinewy Viennese strings and a brighter, more intimate recording – that has a pleasingly ‘local’ feel to it.
An excellent library choice, too little noticed, was the one Pierre Monteux made with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1958, an early stereo recording, produced by John Culshaw in Vienna’s Sofiensaal. It’s a free-flowing yet never over-hasty performance that shows off to perfection Monteux’s gift for drawing from an orchestra playing of poise and spontaneity, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s special skill in making the most of such a godsend when it happens. A lovelier ‘Scene by the Brook’ you will rarely hear. Monteux always divided his violins antiphonally. Here, led by the legendary Otto Strasser, the Vienna seconds are a minor wonder in their own right, and the Decca recording does them proud.
Klaus Tennstedt recorded live in 1992 with the LPO (photography: courtesy of the LPO)
In lesser hands, Monteux’s method might produce anaemic results, especially in a symphony that palpably does not play itself. I rather feel this about Bernard Haitink’s well-liked 2005 LSO Live recording (8/06). But, then, I had recently revisited another live London recording which, as you listen, makes you wonder why you would ever want to hear any other. The orchestra is the London Philharmonic, the conductor Klaus Tennstedt, whose love of this bewitching score is palpable in every bar. There are a few pauses by the wayside, but who abandons an old friend simply because of a momentary slowing to take in the wonder of the scene? By the middle of the ‘Scene by the Brook’ it’s clear that the entire orchestra is on cloud nine. Acoustically, the Royal Festival Hall may not be the best place in which to stage a storm, but the BBC engineers have produced a recording that’s as good as many bespoke studio versions.
Who would want to watch the Pastoral on film, other than once to see how it works on the orchestra? I can think of three DVDs that might suit. Christian Thielemann has the Vienna Philharmonic on view in a set that’s become famous for Thielemann’s Beethoven conversations with the late Joachim Kaiser (C Major, 4/12). I also enjoy a smiling Philippe Jordan with the orchestra of the Paris Opéra (Arthaus, 12/16 – his CD recording with the Vienna Symphony is also very fine) and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos with his superb Danish Radio orchestra. I remember Frühbeck conducting a rather bandmasterly account of the symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Lincoln Cathedral in the 1960s. Now seated like the elderly Klemperer, albeit with that Frühbeck baton still as active as ever, he leads a performance in which symphonic rectitude joins hands with a sense of unalloyed joy, the whole thing unerringly tracked by the cameras of video director Arne Rasmussen.
The symphony’s end is a thing of musical joy and interpretative peril. First, there is the strings’ awed reprise of the finale’s song of thanksgiving, pianissimo and sotto voce, after which we have the horn’s distant farewell, and two final fortissimo chords that, played insensitively, can sound like a door being slammed in our face. The horn entry, muted and remote, is a particular stroke of genius that is very much of its time – shades of Thomas Gray’s line ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ or the sudden chill that descends on the final stanza of John Keats’s previously lush and drowsy ‘Ode to Autumn’.
Here Tennstedt is almost unbearably moving, a true song of farewell unblemished by any taint of sentimentality. Other master musicians – de Sabata, Monteux, Boult, Ozawa – are as sensitive at journey’s end as they are at the very outset. A marginal lack of poise and sonic focus in Bernstein’s Vienna performance may be down to the fact that it’s live. Not so the recording Karl Böhm made with the same orchestra in the same hall in studio conditions seven years earlier. But then, Böhm’s Pastoral is something else: as fine a realisation of this most egregious of Beethoven symphonies as any of us is likely to encounter in a lifetime of listening.
VPO / Karl Böhm
No performance has a more certain tread or more distinctively Austrian feel. Preserved in exceptionally well-made recorded sound (there has been no better recording of the Pastoral Symphony made in Vienna’s Musikverein these past 50 years), it is a gift that keeps on giving.
THE MODERNIST WAY
La Chambre Philharmonique / Emmanuel Krivine
Beethoven’s late flirtation with the metronome may have caused the symphony, inadvertently, to anticipate a more motorised way of seeing the countryside. For this, no one exhilarates more than Emmanuel Krivine, a wayfarer who moves at speed and misses nothing.
LPO / Klaus Tennstedt
The greatest performances of the Pastoral Symphony are collaborative acts between a conductor who knows and loves the music and the players who, suitably inspired, take themselves to the heights. As Carlos Kleiber said of Klaus Tennstedt in another context, ‘Quite astounding!’
REFLECTION AND RELAXATION
Staatskapelle Berlin / Hans Pfitzner
Wilhelm Furtwängler, live in Berlin with the Philharmonic in 1944, or Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in Hollywood in 1958 may be better bets technically, but composer Hans Pfitzner’s 1930 Berlin recording is the source of the old German way of playing the Pastoral Symphony.
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – consider subscribing to Gramophone