BEETHOVEN The Symphonies and Reflections
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.