Beethoven: Symphony No 3; Wagner: Excerpts from The Ring

London Symphony Orchestra/The Covent Garden Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti (BBC Legends 4239-2)

19 September 2008 5 stars

Renee Fleming: Four Last SongsThe BBC Legends label from Medici Arts Ltd aims to bring outstanding performances from the BBC Radio archive to a wider public by issuing them on CD via a 20-bit remastering system.

This new release of Sir Georg Solti conducting works by Beethoven and Wagner is a complete triumph for the series and justifies the endeavour in every sense.

Solti conducted all the works on the CD in studio recordings: the 'Eroica' Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of a complete cycle, and both Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung with the Vienna Philharmonic, instalments of his legendary series of Wagner recordings with his then-favourite orchestra. He also recorded the 'Eroica' with the latter orchestra in 1959.

Yet the performances captured on the present recording, which comes live from a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 30 January 1968 (Beethoven) and a Prom on 6 September 1963 (Wagner), are arguably more exciting than those deriving from the studio. Perhaps it's because Solti's well-known fastidiousness regarding rendering music with technical accuracy caused a tension in the studio compared to the electricity he generated in live performance (I was fortunate to see a concert he performed in Manchester just a few months before his death). That's not to take away from the breathtaking quality of his achievement over many decades with Decca, but I'm amazed that the performance of the 'Eroica' here is so fresh that I have wanted to revisit it so many times within a couple of weeks.

In particular, I was struck by the unusual intensity of the March funebre, the so-called 'slow' second movement, which is taken at quite a pace. Solti's funeral march isn't limp and sad but solemn and majestic, and even in the opening phrases once can hear how acutely he has encouraged the strings to articulate the appoggiaturas. He both establishes and maintains a momentum that I find unusual in performances of this movement. I was delighted later to read the liner note and discover that this performance decision was based on careful planning by Solti: like Haitink in his recent LSO Beethoven cycle, he refuted the idea that Beethoven's metronome markings were incorrect, citing the composer's relationship with Maelzel, inventor of the clockwork metronome. Thus he believes that while Beethoven's indication to play the music at a mark of 80 for a quaver is slightly too fast to carry out successfully, the inclination of many conductors to play it at a mark of 50 makes the music drag endlessly.

It's the cornerstone of a reading of the 'Eroica' that is uniformly invigorating. Aside from the occasional ill-tuned brass note and one or two slips of co-ordination that are inevitable in a live performance, the level of concentration Solti achieves borders on the miraculous. The London Symphony Orchestra's performance is outstanding, responsive to the conductor's very Classical view of the first movement, outlining the elegant phrase structures whilst also maintaining the tension. The third movement is striking for its precision, again Classical in outlook rather than merely jolly, and the result is a masculine character that I've not always heard here: Solti gets the timpanist to pound the dominant rhythms with exuberant force. The same goes for the finale, which must have been quite an experience in the concert hall. The opening is always a call to attention, of course, but Solti drives it home as never before, and in the exposition the fluctuations of tempo and dynamic are remarkably fluid, showing a special trust between orchestra and conductor.

BBC Legends provides a generous running time of 79'18 for the disc, and the three Wagnerian bleeding chunks, which last over twenty-six minutes, are no mere filler. When the concert from which the recording was taken occurred, in 1963, Solti was a couple of years into his tenure at the Royal Opera House, but already his ability in Wagner had rubbed off on The Covent Garden Orchestra. Siegfried's Rhine Journey is lively and multi-faceted, but it's the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan that truly impress here. As much as Solti's meticulousness is apparent, one or two slips notwithstanding, the performance stands out for its sensuous, angst-ridden atmosphere (something I felt was lacking in Sir Mark Elder's recent recording with the Halle). It's a treat to have Birgit Nilsson at the peak of her form, too, in the Liebestod – a gem of a performance in which her ability to ride the orchestra with ease is in evidence throughout. It's also one of her most beautiful renditions of her party piece, genuinely touching in the first couple of minutes where she has the voice under control rather than singing at full pelt.

In all, a true pleasure from start to finish and an unreserved recommendation.

By Dominic McHugh