Beethoven: Egmont, Incidental Music (CD review)

Pilar Lorengar, soprano; Klaus-Jurgen Wussow, narrator; George Szell, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 448  593-2.

As I was listening recently to a new Naxos recording of Beethoven's complete incidental music to the play Egmont, I couldn't help thinking of and comparing it to George Szell's celebrated 1969 Decca rendering with the Vienna Philharmonic. Now, I thought it might be time to go back and mention that earlier disc because it is pretty special. Therefore, this is a new review of a 1996 remastering of a 1969 recording.

When Vienna's Royal Imperial Court Theater decided to stage poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Egmont in 1810 (thirty years after Goethe wrote it), they asked Beethoven to write the incidental music for it. Today, we don't see much of the play or the full score of the music, although the Overture has a remained a staple of the classical repertoire.

With the Naxos disc, a little of the complete incidental music (beyond the famous Overture) went a long way, and some of it even became a tad tedious without the accompanying stage action, especially toward the middle of the work. But here, with Szell, things are different, and there is much in the music, singing, and narration to enjoy.  The Decca disc may presently be a little hard to find, as I believe it's out print, but it's so good it's worth tracking down.

The play itself is rather melodramatic, and Maestro Szell and the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play it up not only for maximum dramatic effect but for it subtlety as well. By comparison to other conductors in the work, Szell and the VPO are more highly charged in their music making. In other words, you'll find the opening Overture powerful, the march to the execution emotionally draining, and the closing "Victory Symphony" thrilling, with the quieter interludes in between totally charming.

Soloist Pilar Lorengar cannot be faulted, her singing voice in the several vocal numbers exquisitely sweet and pure yet appropriately forceful. I hadn't remembered that the Szell disc included so much of the narration between each number, and narrator Klaus-Jurgen Wussow is positively inspired; I don't speak a word of German (the booklet insert contains translations), yet I loved just listening to the man speak. What with the orchestra's lofty playing, the soloist's poignant performances, and Szell's sublime conducting, this is a disc gets my highest-possible recommendation.

As far as Decca's sound is concerned, recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, it is highly dynamic, very clean, and exceptionally clear, with strong dynamics, a wide stereo spread, a solid impact, and a quick transient response. The orchestra is never unduly hard, harsh, or forward, the orchestral soundstage lacking perhaps only the last degree of depth and ambience. Although Ms. Lorengar's voice is a touch metallic at times, this is hardly even a quibble on my part.

Great music.  Great performance.  Great sound.  What do you think?  Do I like it?


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa