This is a review of a concert given at the Queen’s Hall in London on 8 April 1929 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Felix Weingartner. The programme included Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a work for which Felix Weingartner had a special affection; he gave numerous performances of the work throughout his long career and was the first conductor to make a recording of it as early as 1925; the recording was made in London with the LSO, the same orchestra as in his 1929 concert. Weingartner had been a frequent visitor to London from 1898 onwards. The First World War interrupted his international career for a few years, but he returned to London in 1923 and made frequent appearances there subsequently up to 1940. The review of this concert (and of an earlier one on 25 March 1929, also by Weingartner and the LSO) is by W. J. Turner, together with Tom S. Wotton one of the most prominent champions of Berlioz in Britain in the period after the First World War. He was the author of a book entitled Berlioz, The Man and his Work, which appeared in 1934, a year before the book on Berlioz by Wotton. Turner’s review is valuable in giving a clear description of Weingartner’s style of conducting, and may be compared with other reviews (in French) of Weingartner concerts dating from 1898 onwards, given mainly in Paris and reproduced on a separate page.
The two concluding concerts of the London Symphony Orchestra’s present season were exceptionally good. On March 25, Mr. Felix Weingartner conducted a Beethoven programme consisting of the “Eroica” symphony, the F major (No. 8) symphony, and the Leonora overture No. 3. It was a perfect programme, splendidly conducted and well played. On April 8, Mr. Weingartner again conducted, and the programme consisted of Mozart’s E flat major symphony, Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll”, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”. The remarkable performance of Berlioz’s symphony lifted this concert on to the same high level as the previous one, and I was glad to find that a crowded audience was so moved to enthusiasm that even the playing of the National Anthem did not prevent Mr. Weingartner from being recalled again.
It is a pity that the public is not always right in its judgments, because, on the whole, it is so much more appreciative than the critics and professional musicians. Nobody who was in the Queen’s Hall a fortnight ago would have failed to become aware of the strong impression made by Berlioz’s symphony. It was most striking, and yet some critics had nothing next morning but a few sneering words for this wonderful symphony. On the other hand, Hermann Abendroth, who conducted a couple of London Symphony Orchestra concerts earlier in the season, was as great a draw as Weingartner, although he is in every respect less of a musician, less of a virtuoso, and less of an artist than Weingartner. In fact, they are at such poles asunder that it is inconceivable to me how those people who can properly appreciate Weingartner can possibly like Abendroth. Perhaps they don’t; perhaps the two audiences were alike only in their numbers — let us hope so!
Mr. Ernest Newman has devoted many columns of his witty pen in the Sunday Times to demonstrating that all criticism is subjective and personal; but it seems to me that if one gives reasons for one’s likes and dislikes, one provides some common ground on which to base a judgment that has more than an individual validity. I will try to give the reasons why I think so highly of Weingartner and so poorly of Abendroth as a conductor.
In the first place is it not an advantage — seeing the conspicuous position, elevated on the rostrum before the audience, which a conductor has to take — to have a man who is not an acrobat or a gymnast, and whose remarkable movements and gesticulations do not therefore distract our attention from the music? When I see a first-class acrobat like Mr. Hermann Abendroth or Mr. Koussevitsky or Mr. Mengelberg, I like to be able to enjoy his virtuosity without being distracted and tormented by the musical ideas of Beethoven or Schubert or Mozart or Wagner. I should therefore prefer to see them presented as separate turns at a music hall — separated from the music. There have been many attempts to define style — including whether in batting or in writing — but certainly a style is good according to the proportion between the effort and the effect. A maximum of effect with a minimum of effort is the hall-mark of a perfect style, and Mr. Weingartner is the only conductor I know of who has a perfect style. Mr. Abendroth’s style is compounded of immense muscular effort and microscopic musical insight — about as bad a mixture as one could possibly have. And what is the result? Whereas with Weingartner the music dances along on its toes as if it were pure rhythm made audible, with Abendroth it is pulled about, distorted, dragged hither and thither, but always heavy-footed and in chains.
When a man is throwing his arms about, waving and gesticulating so excitedly in front of his orchestra, he cannot possibly hear what they are playing. He mistakes his own dynamics for the music and ascribes his own heated condition to the effect the music is making. It is true that by this means a certain sympathetic warmth is generated in the average audience, which does not examine with much nicety the origin or character of its sensations. And so non-musical people often feel they have had a warm evening with Abendroth and rather a flat one with Weingartner, whereas musical people who can listen attentively to the music have exactly the opposite experience.
Some musicians think Weingartner tame. I suspect such persons of preferring crude high-lights and shadows to expressive modelling, because Weingartner brings out the necessary contrasts. His conducting is never perfunctory and stereotyped, but always alive and always musical.
Since he controls his orchestra with a minimum of effort, since he conducts Beethoven, Mozart and Berlioz without a score and — unlike some conductors who attempt to dispense with a score — knows every bar of the music he is conducting, he starts with his mind completely free to concentrate on the music. As a pure musician, he is simply remarkable. From whom else do we hear such phrasing, such compactness of rhythm, with no loose ends, no bursting seams when the wood-wind takes a theme from the strings or the brass from the wood-wind? And who else keeps such a delicate balance, such perfect proportions? You don’t find Weingartner moving from climax to climax like a man jumping over stepping-stones and missing everything between them — which is frequently the method of Albert Coates and many other famous conductors. His climaxes and crescendos are magnificently prepared for and controlled, and always he is alive to the musical and not the histrionic expression of the work he is performing; and that is why in his hands the Berlioz symphony was so satisfying. It is easy for a bad conductor to make Berlioz’s music sound like drivelling rant and bombast. But Weingartner, who is very sensitive to dramatic imagination when it has musical form, can conduct the “Symphonie Fantastique”, giving its proper value not only to the exquisite pastoral music of the third movement, the graceful, haunting waltz rhythms of the second movement (so free from all vulgarity and blatancy!), and the touching sentiment of the first movement, but absolutely thrilling us to our marrows with the fourth movement — the most macabre piece of music ever composed! And then, after that “nightmare”, Weingartner’s quality was shown by the fact that he handled the last movement — which most conductors make us feel to be a failure coming after the “March to the Gallows” — in such a masterly way as to make it a fitting finale to a great work; and this was done by taking thought, by an exact understanding of when to put the light and shade, sustained by Weingartner’s lucidity of mind and unfailing sense of rhythm.
It is strange that the admiration of such a pure musician and classicist as Weingartner for Berlioz’s music has not made Berlioz’s detractors a little uneasy. Perhaps the vehemence of their denunciation is a mark of their inner disquietude, but the lovers of Berlioz are constantly being affronted by the ridiculous “criticisms” of this great composer. Many writers on music will begin discussing Berlioz with the admission, “of course, Berlioz was a genius, but …” — and then there will be such a succession of ‘buts” that one wonders whether the word “genius” has any real significance for them. We lovers of Berlioz may comfort ourselves by remembering the words of Schumann, who wrote many pages of passionate admiration of the “Symphonie Fantastique.” I will quote one passage which shows how much more fully genius can appreciate genius than the layman can. After eulogising his originality, imagination and invention, Schumann says:
If I were to reproach Berelioz, it would be for his neglected middle parts; but here we may meet with a peculiar obstacle such as we seldom remark in any other composer. His melodies are distinguished by such intensity of almost every tone that, like some old folk-songs, they will scarcely bear a harmonic accompaniment, and even seem to lose in fulness of tone when accompanied. On this account Berlioz generally harmonises them with a sustained ground bass or with the chords of the surrounding upper and lower fifths. … His melodies are not to be listened to with the ears alone, else they will pass by misunderstood by those who do not know how to sing them in their hearts; but for those who do, they possess a meaning that seems to grow deeper the more often they are heard.
These words were written in 1835. Could we have a better example of the truth that genius is in advance of its age? The critic of the Times who wrote about the Weingartner concert on April 8th last, nearly one hundred years later, has not yet caught up with Schumann
W. J. TURNER.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 September 2020.
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