The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 2

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Continuing our traversal of the finest Beethoven recordings, from the Violin Concerto to the symphonies...

Verdi's Macbeth

Violin Concerto. Romances 1 & 2

Christian Tetzlaff vn Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich / David Zinman

Arte Nova

This superb Beethoven disc from Christian Tetzlaff is a real winner. The main stumbling-block on so many rival recordings of this work is a sort of romantic reverence, a trend challenged by Zehetmair, Kremer and others. For all its many moments of profound repose, Beethoven's Violin Concerto is a forthright, heroic piece, with boldly militaristic first-movement tutti and a rollicking finale which Tetzlaff invests with numerous added colours. Following on the heals of Zehetmair, Kremer and Schneiderhan, Tetzlaff performs the violin version of the cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his piano transcription of the work, a playful excursion and a snug fit for his overall interpretation. Tempi are brisk without hurrying, the slow movement has an unruffled serenity and a lively added cadenza in the finale helps accentuate the pervading sense of play. Excellent booklet-notes explain the work's genesis and the basic drift of Tetzlaff's approach and the two Romances that complete the programme are performed with the same chaste lyricism. Rob Cowan (June 2006)

Buy Now

 

Violin Concerto

Jascha Heifetz vn NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini

Naxos

‘An old diamond in the rough’ is how Robert C Marsh (Toscanini and the Art of Orchestra Performance; London: 1956) recalled the original Victor 78s of this 1940 Heifetz Studio 8-H recording of the Beethoven. Of the LP reissue he wrote: ‘On the whole, the recording is so dead and artificial that at times the thin line of violin sound reminds one of something from the golden age of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil cylinder rather than 1940.’ Early CD transfers suggested that all was not lost but even they barely anticipated the extraordinary fineness of the sound we now have on this transfer by archivist and restorer Mark Obert-Thorn.

The performance itself is one of the most remarkable the gramophone has ever given us. The visionary, high tessitura violin writing is realised by Heifetz with a technical surety which is indistinguishable, in the final analysis, from his sense of the work as one of Beethoven’s most sublime explorations of that world (in Schiller’s phrase) ‘above the stars where He must dwell’. Those who would query the ‘depth’ of Heifetz’s reading miss this point entirely. To adapt Oscar Wilde, it is they who are in the gutter, Heifetz who is looking at the stars.

As for Toscanini’s contribution – another cue for rancorous comment in the past – it, too, is masterly. Now that we can actually hear the performance, the orchestral tuttis (‘wooden grunts’ says Marsh) seem beautifully balanced both within themselves and vis-a-vis the soloist. As for the actual accompaniment, it is discreet and self-effacing, fiery yet refined, and always wondrously subtle. Under Toscanini, the fabulously responsive NBC strings match Heifetz every inch of the way in their mastery of the long rhythmically buoyant, subtly inflected, lyric line.

In the case of the Brahms, it is more reasonable to argue that there are other ways of playing the concerto: Kreisler’s way, for instance, or that of Kreisler’s colleague, Efrem Zimbalist, whose live 1946 recording of the Brahms, also with Koussevitzky and the Boston SO, makes an interesting comparison with this 1939 Heifetz recording. Heifetz’s is not a romantic reading. It is lean, athletic, classical, aristocratic, finely drawn, an approach which wears exceptionally well on record – witness his widely collected 1955 remake with Reiner and the Chicago SO.

The Brahms enjoys another impeccable transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. Musically and technically, this is a real thoroughbred of a release, unignorable at any price, let alone the one Naxos so modestly asks. Richard Osborne (November 2000)

Buy Now

 

Triple Concerto

David Oistrakh vn Mstislav Rostropovich vc Sviatoslav Richter pf Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

Warner Classics

These are illustrious performances and make a splendid coupling at mid-price. EMI planned for a long time to assemble this starry line-up of soloists, conductor and orchestra for Beethoven's Triple Concerto, and the artists do not disappoint, bringing sweetness as well as strength to a work which in lesser hands can sound clumsy and long-winded. The recording, made in a Berlin church in 1969, is warm, spacious and well balanced, placing the soloists in a gentle spotlight. Indeed, the sound need make no apology for its age, and since we also hear playing of effortless mastery this disc would be worth the money for this work alone. Christopher Headington (July 1993)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Warner Classics

Stravinsky called Beethoven's Grosse Fuge ''that absolutely contemporary work that will be contemporary for ever''. Looking over what has happened in Beethoven performance in the concert-hall and on record over the last two or three years I've had the growing feeling that the same is true of the symphonies. Just when everybody seemed to be saying that the mighty nine had been worked to death, along came Christopher Hogwood, Frans Bruggen and that provocateur par excellence Roger Norrington to shake us out of our complacency. Then, last month, came confirmation in Gunter Wand's Eroica that the traditional-classical approach can still be roundly satisfying.

And now this – a new Beethoven cycle which manages to combine the shock of the new with an uncanny sense of familiarity. Harnoncourt doesn't pretend that what he offers is Beethoven as the composer imagined it. With the exception of the trumpets, the instruments are all modern, and while phrasing, rhythmic articulation, expression and balance reveal Harnoncourt's rigorous and passionate pursuit of historical truth, the results neither sound nor feel like anything offered under that banner before. Right from the start—the slow introduction to the First Symphony – the feeling that emerges through the finely differentiated phrasing is surprising in its intensity.

So why 'familiarity'? Because listening to this set I was reminded over and over again how exciting it was to discover Beethoven's symphonies for the first time – I'm not exaggerating. One could argue for pages about Harnoncourt's theories on musical rhetoric in Beethoven's time, on musical genres as ''dramas or novels'' or ''the links between body movement and music''; what is beyond dispute is the vision that motivates Harnoncourt's music-making. The driving force behind many of the allegros is comparable with Toscanini, but unlike the familar NBC Toscanini cycle, or for that matter Roger Norrington, he can be flexible: rubatos, even allargandos, aren't uncommon, and important changes of key or character can bring minute tempo changes of their own – the kind of subtle inflexion Czerny observed in Beethoven's playing.

The most striking contrast with period instrument recordings, however, is in the slow movements. Harnoncourt's tempos can be pretty mobile, his phrasing sharply featured, but the emotional generosity, the telling contrasts of mood and colour suggest older models. Even Gunter Wand (RCA), excellent as he is, doesn't equal the expressive range and penetration of Harnoncourt's Eroica Funeral March, and only Carlos Kleiber (DG) amongst recent-ish versions matches the superb drama of light and scale in the Andante con moto of No. 5. And what happens on the large scale is often mirrored in miniature. In the Adagio of No. 4 the dotted figure in the first bar keeps its tension not only through the long diminuendo but even while the violin line sings warmly above – two very different voices, each to play a major part in the drama that follows. I admit there are places where I missed the sharp definition that period instruments can bring to Beethoven's textures, but given the resources he is working with Harnoncourt's achievements can be near-miraculous. Here, and in many other passages, I was repeatedly impressed by the way the COE not only take on board Harnoncourt's ideas but give expression to them so naturally. There's nothing studied: the Pastoral breathes freely – even in the ''Szene am Bach'' the sharply 'classical' pointing sounds entirely natural – while each movement of the Seventh dances, athletically, gracefully, titanically, but always with a combined sense of freedom and tight control.

A warning voice suggests that I ought to tone down the encomium a little. All right, I do have a few quibbles: I can do without both scherzo repeats after the trio as in Nos. 1 and 2, and his continuing the finale of No. 5 at virtually the same pulse as the scherzo seems to go against the implications of the metronome markings – though it's good to see Harnoncourt too observing the scherzo-trio repeat, and once the finale has established itself it's as thrilling as anything else in the set. I have to say that the performance of No. 9 doesn't seem to me quite as consistent as the others: tension in the first movement and the Adagio does flag a little in places. The finale makes up for it though – every long crescendo is like a gradual ascent skywards, and the sections flow into one another beautifully. Even with reservations, this is an exceptional Ninth.

Casting around for a parallel, I have to say that the only recorded cycle I have heard recently in which the musical insight is as consistent and the emotional charge so consistently high is the 1939 Toscanini, currently available on Nuova Era ((CD) 2243/48) but the sound here is far preferable. When this set has had the circulation it deserves, perhaps we'll see an end to that weary lament for the days when conductors were gods, and you could go to a concert and have tea at Lyons Corner House and still have change from a threepenny bit. For those who don't view everything present through black-tinted spectacles this must be one of the most exciting, challenging Beethoven releases to appear in many years. Stephen Johnson (November 1991)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig / Riccardo Chailly

Decca

The fact that the classic impulse vies with the Romantic throughout Beethoven’s nine symphonies presents a perennial problem to would-be interpreters. Klemperer came as close as any conductor to enabling both impulses to inhabit a single style. Elsewhere Romantics vie with the Classicists, while the temporisers, sailing under various flags of convenience, attempt assorted syntheses of their own. Riccardo Chailly’s first recorded Beethoven cycle shows him to be a Classicist through and through. This is no surprise given the classicising tendency of the Toscanini-led Italian school of Beethoven performance. There are classicising tendencies in Leipzig too. It was Mendelssohn who set the Gewandhaus Beethoven agenda in the 1840s, aspects of which have never entirely disappeared. When Kurt Masur recorded the symphonies in the 1970s, Robert Layton wrote in these columns of an orchestra that was consistently sensitive in its responses, its expression unforced, the overall sonority beautifully weighted and eminently cultured.

You can hear music-making of comparable pedigree at the start of the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. Chailly’s tempo is swift. But just as Toscanini’s marginally slower tempo never loses a sense of forward impulse, so Chailly’s never seems hurried. There is also a lovely Italianate cantabile which period strings would find it impossible (and possibly undesirable) to match, and which you will look for in vain in Simon Rattle’s Vienna Philharmonic account, where the orchestra suffers the double burden of an inordinately slow tempo and the imposition of an astringent “period” sonority on its own natural sound. Under Chailly the Leipzig players never sound less than their eloquent selves.

Chailly has used the old Peters edition as the basis for his own performing version. Before too many eyebrows are raised, I should point out that much of this affects how the music is delivered rather than what we hear. The odd retouching apart, there is no reversion to the wholesale bolstering of orchestral lines or shearing of repeats: quite the reverse in fact.

Two private reference points Chailly has cited in interview, alongside Toscanini and John Eliot Gardiner, are Karajan and Szell, conductors who were less concerned with “interpreting” the symphonies as realising these rhythmically and dynamically complex works with accuracy and expressive force on their own fabulously schooled instrumental ensembles. Chailly’s specially created sound palette is even sparer and more classically ordered than Szell’s or Karajan’s c1962. Flutes, oboes, bassoons and sharp-edged trumpets create the cycle’s distinctive tinta, underpinned by strings that marry high-wire virtuosity with an exemplary fineness of tone and touch. Chailly is, however, rather more dispassionate in his dispatch, not of the selection of programmatically derived overtures but of the symphonies themselves.

The extreme here is a performance of the Eroica that is stripped bare of most of its expressive content. Bracing as Szell or Gardiner are, they allow significantly more agogic freedom than Chailly. The absence of expressive nuance is the more noticeable given the many internal clues the work itself and its creator (“I was Hercules at the crossroads”) have offered. The distilled pathos of the Seventh Symphony’s Funeral March is clearly more to Chailly’s taste than the picturesque brooding of the Eroica’s Marcia funebre, which he dispatches in a mere 12 minutes. Gardiner’s revelatory performance is similarly swift but, in its distinctive sonority and gait, has the true reek of revolution about it.

Happily Chailly is too good a musician to put into practice his reported assertion that he performs everything at “precisely Beethoven’s metronome mark”. Despite a speed that is noticeably slower than Beethoven’s absurdly optimistic metronome=69, his fast tempo blurs the opening measures of the Eighth Symphony. Even where Beethoven’s metronomes are entirely plausible they can cause problems. The first two movements of the Fifth Symphony are brilliantly realised here but the lack of a consistent pulse in the Scherzo and finale makes for broken-backed transitions (Klemperer played the two movements in a single pulse, one bar of the Scherzo equalling half a bar of the March at Beethoven’s metronome=84, conferring a sense of sublime inevitably on the whole).

These, however, are my only reservations. Chailly’s account of the First Symphony is a tour de force of wit and subversive joy, and the performance of the Second Symphony is almost as good. There is a fine account of the Fourth Symphony, that fiery aggregation of the spirits of Apollo and Dionysus which Mendelssohn loved to conduct, and a gamesome rendering of the Pastoral that doesn’t entirely rule out a sense of the numinous in its final pages. After which we get a distinguished account of the Seventh Symphony and an occasionally uneven but generally electrifying account of the Eighth. The Ninth gets a predictably swift reading, compact and powerful, which, like everything else in this cycle, is of a piece with itself.

The recordings, I should add, are superb. These are proper studio recordings, not concert paraphrases. There is space around the sound, as there needs to be in Beethoven, complemented by an immediacy and clarity of detail that derives in large measure from the playing itself. Richard Osborne (Awards issue 2011)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons

BR-Klassik

This is an exceptional realisation of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, one of those rare occasions when one is left with a feeling of having been in the presence of the thing itself. The key to the cycle’s success is the quality of the musicianship. Thanks to Mariss Jansons’s expert schooling of his superb Bavarian musicians in works which continue to enthral, move and entertain him, the dramatic and expressive elements are derived from within rather than – as is often the case with lesser conductors – imposed from without.

The project comes to us in two distinct forms. The ArtHaus DVDs give us the nine symphonies luminously and unfussily filmed live in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. By contrast, Bavarian Radio’s six-CD set intermingles the symphonies (also mainly recorded live in Tokyo) with six newly commissioned ‘reflections’ on them by living composers.

From the information provided by ArtHaus it’s impossible to say to what extent the different versions overlap. The Tokyo performances on CD and DVD are self-evidently from the same cycle, though not I suspect from the same performances. To complicate matters further, two performances on the CD set – the Eroica and the Pastoral – were recorded live in Munich’s Herkulessaal shortly before the Japanese tour. Not that the Tokyo performances of the Eroica and Pastoral we have on DVD are necessarily inferior. (I marginally prefer them. They are a touch broader yet, paradoxically, a degree or two tauter.)

Despite all this chopping and changing, the technical quality of the recordings is consistently superb. If there are caveats to be entered for the CD set, they would concern evidence of the odd ‘patch’ (in the finale of the Eighth, for instance, which doesn’t flow quite as well as its DVD equivalent) and an occasional moment when the sound of one or other of the orchestra’s two outstanding principal oboes is less than ideally present.

At the heart of the cycle’s success is Jansons’s flawless command of rhythm. You can hear this in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony, which are ‘right’ in precisely the same way that they were whenever Klemperer conducted the work. You hear it too throughout what is by any reckoning a gloriously purposeful account of the Seventh Symphony.

Quality of articulation is also key. How this is achieved is revealed in a 45-minute documentary on the rehearsing of the Eroica Symphony which is included in the DVD set. As the documentary shows, this is an exacting business involving matters as various as how best to realise the sudden juxtaposition of pianissimo and fortissimo chords that Beethoven frequently asks for, and what reserves of concentration, energy and aural imagination are required to realise the electric ‘charge’ which courses through the many pages of pianissimo writing that inform even the most extrovert of Beethoven’s symphonic movements. ‘Jansons is very strict on technique,’ observes one player, ‘but that doesn’t affect expression.’ It’s a point confirmed by the Bavarians’ very disciplined yet at the same time imaginatively fluid realisation of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony.

In matters of rhythm and articulation, Jansons and his players don’t put a foot wrong. Where Riccardo Chailly in his widely praised Leipzig set (Decca, A/11) reduces the start of the Eighth Symphony to an unseemly blur, Jansons bides his time, giving Beethoven’s ideas room to register and breathe before getting down to the business of conjuring forth a performance of wit, charm and gathering power.

Orchestral texturing is more transparent here than it tended to be under the old German masters, and slow movements are less heavily indulged. Yet, like those old German masters, Jansons understands the importance of proportionality within and between tempi. He is no metronome-monger, nor do his performances need to race in order to generate symphonic momentum. Should the lovely Fourth Symphony be directed with German rigour or Latin fire? Jansons and his players resolve this ancient conundrum by bringing the competing aesthetics within the ambit of a living whole.

As an ensemble, Jansons’s Bavarian orchestra is in a similar league to the pre-war BBC SO under Toscanini or the Berlin Philharmonic at the time of Karajan’s celebrated 1961 62 cycle. The string playing is of superlative quality, its transparency enhanced by the dispensations favoured by Jansons: antiphonally divided violins, double basses to the left, cellos in front of the podium, violas to the right. Vibrato is sparingly but progressively used by an ensemble which takes on weight as the cycle progresses. There are four double basses in the first two symphonies, six in the Seventh, eight in the Ninth. The quality of the winds – undoubled throughout – is first-rate. Textually, the new Bärenreiter edition is Jansons’s starting point. When he breaks ranks the results can be diverting, as at the moment in the finale of the Eroica Symphony where the horns unexpectedly make common cause with cavorting cellos and clarinets.

Several of the contemporary ‘reflections’ take their cue from Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. The octogenarian Soviet-born Rodion Shchedrin’s ‘symphonic fragment’ is a powerfully scored darkness-to-light piece which works well as a musical digestif after the Eroica. Fires by the Lithuanian composer Raminta erk≈nyte˙ explores sounds which she associates with hearing failure. Most enthralling of all are Jörg Widmann’s Con brio and Johannes Maria Staud’s Maniai (‘Furies’). Strategically placed between the First and Second Symphonies, Maniai explores the psychic turmoil Beethoven must have experienced as he confronted the catastrophe of his emergent deafness. Fortunately, Jansons’s superlative account of the Second Symphony readily withstands the juxtaposition.

CD layouts occasionally impose constraints. Misato Mochizuki’s Nirai doesn’t come between the Second and Sixth Symphonies as originally intended, and Giya Kancheli’s Dixi, a meditation for mixed chorus and orchestra on 54 lapidary Latin texts, needs to be heard after the Ninth Symphony. That said, nothing better sums up the reach and originality of the CD set than the disc on which memorable accounts of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies sit astride Jörg Widmann’s dazzling and wittily subversive Con brio.

If the Beethoven symphonies are your principal concern, the DVD set might well be your first port of call. The eye is notoriously intolerant of repetition, but I have yet to tire of these DVDs. Jansons’s rostrum manner is as unobtrusive as it is visually informative, and watching orchestral playing of this level of skill and concentration is always a joy. Richard Osborne (December 2013)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Le Chambre Philharmonique / Emmanuel Krivine

Naive

In providing us with this vital, keenly played and always engaging new period-instrument Beethoven cycle, Emmanuel Krivine is effectively challenging what has in recent years become an all-too-familiar template of sleek, bloodless lines and fast-lane tempi. I would imagine that the texts (or urtexts) used are the ones prepared for Bärenreiter by Jonathan Del Mar: the signs include muted strings in the Pastoral Symphony’s “Scene by the Brook” and a solo cello in the third movement of the Eighth.

More important overall is Krivine’s preference for flexible phrasing, even as early as 2’21” into the first movement of the First Symphony, where the subtle but significant easing of tempo as the line bends reminded me of Toscanini with the BBC Symphony Orchestra back in 1937. Time and again, spatially divided violin desks make musical sense, especially as the recording captures their antiphonal banter so brilliantly.

Krivine knows how to slam a Beethovenian sforzando without breaking glass, and his canny sense of musical timing brings a real buzz to (for example) the first movement of the Second Symphony. He knows how to let the music breathe, too – where to put on the pressure and where to ease off again: the Eroica’s first movement is lithe and stealthy, with delicate detail but plenty of well-targeted power at key moments, the coda’s high-rise climax being a fair case in point. The Marcia funebre has an air of ascetic solemnity about it and Krivine’s mastery of transitions benefits the palpitating leap from Adagio to Allegro vivace in the first movement of the Fourth.

Woodwind lines sing out in the Fifth’s finale, the Scherzo having enjoyed a vigorous fugato on the lower strings, the first movement high energy levels but with air around the phrases. The Pastoral burbles and dances, and the Seventh – with an added, if not always audible, contrabassoon – is a joy to encounter, the Scherzo and finale bounding along with heady abandon. Krivine’s Eighth is both lively and admirably transparent, and although the Choral is a worthy summation – the finale is particularly good – I would say that, interpretatively speaking, the cycle’s musical climax is the sequence of middle symphonies from No 3 to No 7. The Ninth’s first movement hasn’t quite the clarity or impact of, say, the Eroica or Seventh. But it works none the less and throughout the cycle the Chambre Philharmonique (Krivine’s own baby) proves alert, responsive and consistently spontaneous. Each performance is tailed by applause and the recordings have considerable presence, the woodwinds coming off especially well. All key repeats are observed.

Fond as I am of Frans Brüggen, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Charles Mackerras, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, David Zinman, Paavo Järvi and Osmo Vänskä, all of them informed by significant post-war Beethoven scholarship, I am inclined to place this new cycle fairly near the top of the pile, principally because it has such strong character. Certainly if you know someone who has yet to discover this greatest of all symphony cycles, you could hardly do better than give them this as a gift. It will set them up for life. Rob Cowan (July 2011)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 2 & 8

London Classical Players / Sir Roger Norrington

Erato

With this exceptionally exciting new record, Roger Norrington joins Frans Bruggen and John Eliot Gardiner among a small elite of musicians working with period instruments whose interpretations of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven can stand comparison with the best we have had on record on modern instruments during the past 20 or 30 years.

The works Norrington has selected to launch this projected Beethoven cycle are, it must be said, shrewdly chosen. They suit Norrington's temperament and musicological preoccupations unusually well. The D major Symphony is a joy from start to finish, whilst Norrington treats the F major as though it was specially written for him in an electrifying performance which challenges such distinguished versions as the 1952 NBC SO/Toscanini and the 1963 Karajan set made for DG in Berlin.

Like his revered seniors, Norrington has learnt conducting in the opera house. Though he conducts Beethoven's music with the verve of a young man who has just discovered it for the first time, he is in years (53 this month) an experienced musician with the kind of control over rhythm and argument which was always the hallmark of the very best kind of operatically trained musicians. Norrington's way with Beethoven – which is recognizably Toscaninian in some of its aspects - is mapped out in his own sleeve-note where he states as his aim the recapturing of much of "the exhilaration and sheer disturbance that his music certainly generated in his day". Like Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, and others before him, Norrington achieves this not by the imposition on the music of some world view but by taking up its immediate intellectual and physical challenges.

Norrington is not unduly preoccupied by matters of orchestral size (44 players are listed on the sleeve) or by pitch (the London Classical Players have settled for A = 430). Sound interests him a good deal. Throughout these two performances the contributions of horns, trumpets and drums most rivet the attention (the introduction to the Second Symphony's first movement is glorious); by contrast, the woodwinds have, to modern ears, an almost rustic charm, a naif quality which technology and sophisticated playing techniques have to some extent obliterated. What really fascinates Norrington, though, is rhythm and pulse and their determining agencies: 18th-century performing styles, instrumental articulacy (most notably, bowing methods), and Beethoven's own metronome markings.

In his sleeve-note annotations, Norrington is somewhat cavalier on the metronome question. Beethoven's metronome marks are printed alongside the movement titles but having set this particular hare running, Norrington declines to explain why some of his tempos fall short of those advertised. In fact, the metronomes are good in the Second Symphony, the Larghetto apart, and in the middle movements of the Eighth, but not in the Eighth's quick outer movements. That said, Norrington strives to get as near to the metronome as is humanly possible consistent with instrumental clarity. He plays the first movement of the Eighth at nearly 60 bars to the minute (the metronome is 69) which is quicker than Toscanini or Karajan; and he takes the finale at arround 74 (the metronome is 84). However, Karajan's 1962 Berlin performance (from the DG set already mentioned) is even quicker and superior in articulation, Norrington plays the Eighth Symphony's third movement as a quick dance and makes excellent sense of crotchet = 126, a marking often regarded as being beyond the pale. The second movement is spot on: as witty and exact a reading as you are likely to hear.

It must be said that at these tempos Norrington stresses the anxious, obsessive side of Beethoven's artistic make-up. I can well imagine Sir Thomas Beecham opining from some celestial vantage point that the music was quite as vital and rather wittier at his rather more considered tempos; but in Beethoven urbanity is not everything. In the Second Symphony Norrington does make the music smile and dance without any significant loss of forward momentum, and he treats the metronome marks more consistently than Toscanini (who rushed the Scherzo) or Karajan (who spins out the symphony's introduction), whilst sharing with them a belief in a really forward-moving pulse in the Larghetto (again an approach to the printed metronome if not the thing itself). On his rival L'Oiseau-Lyre disc (3/86), also played with period instruments, Hogwood broadens the slow introduction in the Karajan manner. More seriously, he lacks real control of his band. The sound he draws from his players is turgid and unwieldy and his readings seem random and cavalier alongside Norrington's astutely judged readings.

The recordings are warm and vivid and generally well balanced. The fff climax of the development of the Eighth Symphony's first movement is slightly underpowered, which is odd when the horns and trumpets are elsewhere so thrillingly caught; perhaps, in the Eighth, the recording could have been a shade tighter and drier in order better to define the playing of the London Classical Players. None the less, this is the most interesting and enjoyable new record of a Beethoven symphony I have heard for some considerable time. Richard Osborne (March, 1987)

 

Symphony No 3. Overtures – Leonore Nos 1 & 2

Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer

Warner Classics

This is a great performance, steady yet purposeful, with textures that seem hewn out of granite. (Once or twice they cause a slight buzz of distortion for which EMI apologise in their booklet.) There is no exposition repeat, and the trumpets blaze out illicitly in the first movement coda, but this is still one of the great Eroicas on record. As Karajan announced to Klemperer after flying in to a concert performance around this time: 'I have come only to thank you, and say that I hope I shall live to conduct the Funeral March as well as you have done'. Richard Osborne (April, 1992)

Buy Now

 

Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

BIS

It was during Osmo Vänskä’s time with the BBC Scottish SO that his Beethoven began winning golden opinions. There was an admired recording of the Pastoral Symphony, given away with a magazine, and a Proms performance of the Seventh Symphony which David Gutman described as ‘terrifically fresh and alert’ (BBC Proms, 11/99). Vänkä’s new recording of the Fourth Symphony is that, and more. His account of the Fifth also bristles with character.

Where the Fourth is concerned, I confess to a bias in favour of readings which match Apollonian loveliness with Dionysiac drive. Toscanini blazed the trail with his glorious 1939 BBC SO recording; Karajan followed in 1962 with a Berlin performance of unimaginable grace and fire; and Rattle was not far behind with his 2002 Vienna Philharmonic account. Vänskä’s reading is comparable to these: fiery but not relentless. Metronome marks are important but not mandatory. Transparent textures and a rigorous way with dynamics also feature. Of particular interest is the skill with which Vänskä keeps the bass line, and thus the music’s harmonic contour, continuously in view, never easy to do given the ‘open’ nature of Beethoven’s scoring.

The Minnesota Orchestra are extraordinarily proficient: fleet-footed and articulate, though tonally they have less in reserve than the Berlin or Vienna orchestras. This can be a limitation in the Fifth Symphony where the sound occasionally edges towards coarseness but it makes little or no difference in the Fourth, even in the Adagio. What Vänskä sacrifices in lyric poetry he makes up for in justness of rhythm and chasteness of texture. A word of warning, though. Skilful as BIS’s engineers are in dealing with the quietest of Vänskä’s pianissimi, finding an optimum playback level for the vibrant but pianissimo-strewn Fourth takes a certain amount of time and patience.

Vänskä’s performance of the dynamically less problematic Fifth is also highly explicit (I have never heard antiphonally divided second violins play with such distinctness and fire). It is an urgent performance and a substantial one. Typically, Scherzo and finale are bound to one another structurally but not tamed emotionally.

The text, I imagine, is new Bärenreiter, though Vänskä makes a couple of aurally arresting modifications to the timpani parts in the finale of the Fifth. (The final bar has always been problematic.) Like all good Beethovenians, he is clearly not afraid to be his own man. Richard Osborne (March, 2005)

Buy Now

 

  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5   

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017