Conductor-composer-pedagogue Felix Weingartner (and he had five wives) was Columbia Records’ Number One Beethoven/Brahms expert in the Twenties and Thirties, running strong but a little in the shadow of HMV/Victor’s demonic property Arturo Toscanini — and Weingartner’s baton was probably too short to break effectively in a royal snit as was his colleague’s delight. Toscanini while a great reader wrote no books; Weingartner between covers was a gentle (well, mostly gentle) arbiter of major interpretive issues. So he’s one of the several maestri who come complete with a user’s manual: in his case On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies.

Doubtless Weingartner didn’t expect everyone to follow his advice – as that inimitable musical analyst D.F.Tovey once wrote, “nothing is more vexatious than the laying down of a priori limits to what is legitimate for artists” – but he had pointers galore, stepping through the music measure by measure, artistic mine-fields and all, and sometimes the book reads like a thriller: what will Weingartner think about that crazy metronome marking? There’s a video of Weingartner conducting in Paris in 1932 and he stands there very erect, a benign and courtly figure, like God, or is it a maitre-d’ from some nearby Ritz? This we can almost see while listening to his many recordings, made in the great light of London, Paris and Vienna although he lived and taught in Basel.

Weingartner had an incisive beat, “curiously stinging” as one observant critic noted, propelled by that little stick at the end of a long and nicely-cuffed right arm: he prided himself, by the way, on finishing a concert without breaking into a sweat and he didn’t have to change his collar if he went to a post-concert party. The style is light, pointed, curvy, full of juice and confidence, and somewhat more complex than Weingartner’s pigeon-hole position as an arch classicist suggests. It had, in fact, a rather androgynous quality, like a perfumed glass of Musigny rouge. Weingartner was not one for deeply etched lines or great phraseological expansions – his sense of irony was meager — but he could be ravishingly breezy, he could produce an undulant lyric grace that dizzies the mind and conquers the heart. A romanticist, in short, of touch! And he did know a thing or two about rubato although he was somewhat conservative in that department. As Weingartner himself put it, he conducted with economy of movement “almost as if I was fencing.” He used his wrist muscles, he said, and no others.

Orderliness in a Weingartner performance sometimes gets in the way of go-for-broke expressivity – I’m thinking right now of passages in his London Philharmonic Beethoven Fifth – and his fondness for bringing out subsidiary lines while sometimes revelatory could go beyond the bounds of good musical entertainment. Too many trees, in other words, and not enough forest. But damn the negatives! There’s  much about Weingartner’s svelte, twinkly musicmaking that’s appealing. And who cares that he seldom put a lot of hair on a symphony or tone poem’s chest. Interesting evolution: twenty years ago I found Weingartner’s ultra-feathery London Symphony recording of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz too spongy by half, but now it seems enchanting as can be, as if someone with Fred Astaire’s footwork were dancing the devil. If this were cooking it would be a confection made with sugar and egg whites, no yolks.

Another treasure: Weingartner’s Paris Conservatory version of Wagner’s rather clattery but lovable Rienzi overture – never, it seems, has its gorgeous molto legato tune sung forth with such lilt and glow, sanded finely into a delectable carpet of euphony. And the noisy bits are done with a spare-the-frenzy charm that puts the music two steps from Offenbach.

I would also strongly endorse Weingartner’s Bach Third Suite, also from Paris, with its neat and zesty overture, a long-lined aria and a broad-paced gavotte: this is Bach neither ascetically musicological (authentic is not a word you’ll read here much) nor bursting its baroque britches. An encore, the sixth side of the original short-playing issue, is “the” Boccherini minuet on delicate ball bearings. A rococo fete seems to be taking place just in the next room. But the composer for whom the elegant and optimistic Weingartner surely was placed on this planet – and yes, I know about all that Beethoven, much of it commendable – was his namesake Felix Mendelssohn. The record collection on that proverbial desert island would have to be stocked with his wonderful Twenties recording of the Scotch Symphony with the old Royal Philharmonic.

Evidence of greatness as follows: the delicate edge of exaltation on which the first movement introduction moves; the slight erotic tinge of the succeeding allegro in which the tempo is comfortably slowed for second and concluding themes; the flickering, elfin vision engineered by a wing-collared genie in the scherzo; the delicious lyric flutter of the adagio in which – and this time Weingartner’s passion for subsidiary lines is fruitful indeed – the pianissimo of the second violins’ and violas’ sempre pizzicato beneath the piano cantabile of the first violins is elevated to “piano” at least and comes on as a kind of faux mandolin accompaniment, or collaboration one should say, quite up-front and delightful. See Letter A!

And then the finale with that not very Mendelssohnian marking allegro guerriero: Weingartner is relaxed in tempo here, and expectant in mood: ah, what he’s pointing to is that long and triumphant coda, allegro maestoso assai, several minutes up the road, and in this performance this coda of codas is absolutely radiant, aristocratic to its core, constructed of course with Weingartner’s trademark benevolent tonal velvet.

Berlioz was a Weingartner spécialité and his 1925 Symphonie Fantastique with the London Symphony is one of the earliest symphonic recordings done in the then-new electrical as opposed to “acoustical” process. He conducts the music with conviction, but this is a gentleman’s interpretation compared to the aural drug trip of Oskar Fried’s ’37 Moscow version, the spurts, tumbles and twinges of which we will ogle in a later chapter. But Weingartner is not so safe as to be featureless and there’s at least one amazingly unconventional tempo, almost sixty-six percent higher than the score requests, with the swipes and rumbles at the beginning of the Witches’ Sabbath finale. Some commentators have wondered if he was momentarily confused. Not at all, one of the hallmarks of Weingartner’s style was an ability to scoop the music up and whisk it along like a page of Virginia Woolf.

In this case he seems to be anticipating the loony-tune transformation of the symphony’s idée fixe soon to chortle forth in clarinet. Back up to the first movement and this thematic symbol of the narcoticized hero’s beloved appears at the outset of the allegro agitato, itching with a succession of crescendo hairpins, and Weingartner fascinatingly injects a threatening note, a sinking feeling in the music’s pit. He does so by, for him, the simplest means: the poco sforzando at the top of the phrase is gently, almost under-played, and the attendant diminuendo is put into play very promptly with, perhaps, just a shade of exaggeration: the music sounds, as a result, as if it were losing consciousness or in danger of falling off some precipice.

But to Beethoven à la Weingartner . . . Don’t expect Mengelbergian drama or Furtwaenglerian vision (and why should you?) and you’ll be fine. Writing about the Eroica, Weingartner decries “sentimental variations of the sighing order” but his Vienna Philharmonic recording is not an uptight performance, the opening movement is in fact quite flexible in tempo, answering as well to the adjectives springy, luminous, wistful. He’s characteristically buoyant in conveying the hammerings, the knockings-on-doors, of the development section, and the poetic shudders at the recapitulation of the movement’s expansive second theme, that theme that seems to grow before one’s eyes, are most fetching.

In the Fourth Symphony, with the London Philharmonic, the opening movement has about it a little of that “delivered from the lectern” atmosphere the pedagogue in Weingartner sometimes fails to conceal (he of course saw no problem), but the adagio that follows with such verve and dainty sighing is another in his inimitable series of spellbinding Charmers. No surprise, I suppose, that Weingartner in his “manual” makes no reference to the touch that makes his performance of this adagio so special. That finesse is no news to him, and besides, pressing minutiae confront him at the program-note barricades: “The Breitkopf and Haertel complete edition has a troublesome misprint here . . .”

Now the slow movement, the scene by the brook, in Beethoven’s Pastoral, more dramatic conductors will turn it, and very effectively too, into a love scene.Weingartner in his seersucker and straw hat manner suggests a jolly picnic of Oxbridge undergrads discussing philosophy by river’s edge circa 1900. Surely Lytton Strachey the star nerd of Bloomsbury must be among them.

By the way, God does not always follow his instructions to the letter. In his book on the Beethoven symphonies Weingartner reminds his readers that in the scherzo of the Fourth the composer-prescribed d. = 100 indicates a not-too-quick tempo and he complains that many conductors like to play Beethoven scherzos “quasi presto.” Weingartner doesn’t quite do that, but he adopts 108 rather than 100, producing therewith a nice dash of impetuosity.

Meanwhile we musn’t forget the sleeper of Weingartner’s Beethoven discography, his fruitful on-point partnership with the coquettish Marguerite Long in the C minor piano concerto recorded in Paris late in that last edgy spring before the ’39 war began and never issued on “78s” in the USA. My only quibble is Weingartner’s shortchanging of the amorous wonderment in those descending thirds of flute and bassoon in the slow movement’s central section: can’t he see this girl and boy in woodwind clothing when they’re staring him in the face? Now Weingartner made few concerto recordings: I find it difficult, for instance, to imagine him collaborating with a Horowitz or a Hambourg – but perhaps Rubinstein or Gieseking?

With Weingartner’s Brahms we’re a long way from Max Fiedler, the product is lighter, more direct, but not without, yes of course, charm. In general Weingartner’s leanness teases the Goliath of Brahms’ bulky textures. In the opening movement of the Second Symphony he does a curious but characteristic and not ineffective thing, he stirs the famous horn solo late in the movement into the string swells that underlie it. A culinary maneuver, this, that deprives the horn of some of its limelight, a rich limelight rarely abused; still, the recipe works. A curious and altogether less felicitous Weingartnerism occurs in the slow movement of the Second, measures 6-8 to be precise, where rest-separated quarters in the woodwind offer background support for the continuing flow of the featured cellos. These mezzo staccato quarters are always there, but we don’t think about them much, they’re like movie “extras.” Weingartner, however, chooses to chisel them into something close to eighths and raise their dynamic: the result is they toll monolithically against the melody, like bells impatient for their hour.

On a happier note: we’re well along in the first movement exposition of Weingartner’s Royal Philharmonic Brahms First and the closing theme is just sprouting at bar 157. The violas have a pesty little figure, piano and marcato, rather quiet in other words but emphatic, then the figure lifts into the violins, still piano but Brahms doesn’t renew his marcato marking. Possibly it’s implied, energy is mounting, but a case could be made that it isn’t, especially as a pair of accent marks for those violas are dispensed with as well – could it be, in fact, that the conductor should actively un-marcato the violins’ entrance, as if that way lyricism, we’ve had a lot of it in the second subject area just passed, might be prolonged, at least briefly. This is the interpretive limb onto which Weingartner with not much company sprints: what we hear is a violin attack, or an anti-attack rather (some would call it a “feminine” entrance) that’s wonderfully mellifluous, absolutely on air, sexy into the bargain, and the weightless texture of this magic Weingartner moment makes Brahms’ attendant crescendi all the more exciting.

A detail, this, which is so suffused with Weingartner’s characteristic touch, just a shade soft, like a moon not quite full.