Beethoven Complete Symphonies

Abbado’s second complete cycle on disc is very different from his first and the results are mixed – swifter tempos and a light orchestral palette both excite and disappoint

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Beethoven Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3, 'Eroica'
  • Symphony No. 4
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6, 'Pastoral'
  • Symphony No. 7
  • Symphony No. 8
  • Symphony No. 9, 'Choral'

Reviewing Abbado’s ineffectually eclectic account of the Ninth Symphony in his mid-1980s Vienna Philharmonic Beethoven cycle, I wrote: ‘Next time, he should do everything his way.’ The new cycle is certainly different – quicker, lighter-toned, more ‘Italianate’ – the Ninth Symphony radically so, something flagged in advance by Abbado’s 1996 Salzburg Festival recording (Sony, 1/97) which uses the same orchestral and choral forces as here. By concentrating on pace, logic and transparent texturing Abbado effectively draws Beethoven into that distinguished circle of musical obsessives – Rossini, Stravinsky, Prokofiev – whose music he has always conducted as to the manner born.
The question remains, is this the Beethovenian ‘truth’ as Abbado feels it in his bones? Probably not, since in a long and absorbing interview with Wolfgang Schreiber published in the CD booklet, he articulates yet again his long-standing preoccupation with the Beethoven conducting of Wilhelm Furtwangler. Hermann Scherchen, Abbado’s teacher in the early 1960s, thought Furtwangler ‘terrible’. ‘The only good conductor for him,’ Abbado recalls, ‘was Toscanini, who did everything right: chop-chop, keep moving!’ How vehemently Abbado disagreed, and disagrees still: ‘Toscanini’s music-making was more of a schematic, technical affair … I think he was the greatest conductor for an orchestra, the most important for an ensemble. But as far as the significance of a phrase … ’
It is a curious statement, not least because ‘chop-chop, keep moving!’ is a decent description of Abbado’s new cycle, with its air-brushing out of the picture of most of the music’s autochthonous ‘German’ character. Back in 1962, the Beethoven playing of another ‘new’, ‘young’, Berlin Philharmonic was similarly fleet of foot; but Karajan (whose interpretative model was clearly Toscanini’s work with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1930s) had been careful to graft mainly home-grown young vines onto the old German root-stock. Abbado, by contrast, appears to have favoured an ‘inclusive’, ‘internationalist’ style of recruiting and music-making. With the Berliners thus transformed into a kind of glorified Chamber Orchestra of Europe – though better schooled rhythmically than the COE in Harnoncourt’s much-praised set – the contrast with recent Beethoven cycles made in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin by Wand, Davis and Barenboim could hardly be more marked.
It is all vaguely puzzling. The new young players who have flocked to the Berlin Philharmonic during the Abbado years may fancy they owe a diminished allegiance to the traditions forged in the von Bulow, Nikisch, Furtwangler and Karajan eras; but as his continuing talk of Furtwangler makes clear, Abbado’s own roots in the German school of Beethoven interpretation are unignorably deep.
He began his Beethoven odyssey in April 1966 when he recorded the Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca, 1/67 – nla). The performance was dismissed in these columns as dull and laboured. The tempos in the two opening movements were certainly Klemperer-like in their deliberation, but there is nothing wrong with that. The idea of the Seventh Symphony as a great harmonic drama massively built around key centres strategically remote from the home key of A (‘more like dimensions than keys’ as Robert Simpson memorably put it) is an entirely plausible one. Re-hearing the LP the other evening, I was mightily impressed by it. I also got down from the shelves the performance of the Eighth Symphony which Abbado recorded with the VPO in 1968 (Decca, 1/73 – nla). The pacing here is less controversial, but again the reading has a wonderful earthiness and humanity.
Abbado developed both readings in his 1987 remakes with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG, 4/88). Now, with his own new-look Berlin Philharmonic, it’s a case of ‘all change’. The first movement of the Seventh is now quick to the point of skittishness, the finale a hectic sprint outstripping Beethoven’s – very good – metronome mark. (Abbado’s tempos here are identical to those on Karajan’s 1983 Berlin recording. In the finale, the Abbado is the clearer of the two texturally – a fabulous performance if you can stand the pace – but in the first movement the power and narrative drive of the earlier Berlin version entirely eclipse the newcomer.) Abbado’s new account of the Eighth offers no such volte-face. Marginally more streamlined than his 1968 version, it has marginally less character. Hans Keller once remarked that the Eighth is very easy on the ear, especially if you don’t listen to it; once you do, your mind is fully occupied with the sheer pace of structural events, of violent contrasts chasing one another. Abbado’s Vienna recordings of the symphony’s epic finale are only 20 seconds slower than the new one, but it is the Vienna readings which hold pace and structure in a finer accord.
The First and Second Symphonies were recorded with reduced orchestral forces in the Philharmonie’s Chamber Music Hall. Whether ‘early’ Beethoven should be condescended to in this way is open to debate. The performances, crisp and stylish, will give a good deal of pleasure. But how characterful is the playing? Toscanini, whose tempos are identical to Abbado’s in the First Symphony’s difficult first movement, gives the introduction a much sharper dramatic profile and his Allegro con brio has a real spring in its step (the pacing and phrasing taken, quite literally, from the violins’ bow-spring). The Berlin playing under Abbado has a flatter trajectory, something which appears to inhibit the solo winds at the start of the second subject where the playing is tentative and dull.
The question of ‘character’ in the orchestral playing is something I found cropping up frequently during my comparisons with the rival Berlin and Vienna versions. I have no doubt that in the opening bars of the Second Symphony’s Larghetto some collectors will prefer the cool yellows and greys of Abbado’s young players to the russets and old golds of the Berlin orchestra in 1982 where the crescendos are steeper and the violins’ high-lying legato-staccato alternations are played with an eloquence that makes the music seem to tower above us. In the new recording of the Pastoral Symphony there is some marvellously sensitive oboe and horn playing in the Scherzo, and the ‘Storm’ is truly menacing, but there is a lack of uplift in ‘Shepherds’ Thanksgiving’. The first movement, taken at a joyously quick tempo, is again uncannily similar to the 1982 Karajan version. Here I prefer Abbado and his players in the exposition (Abbado is good at expositions), where the playing seems crisper and fresher, but I lose patience in the development. Here the ensemble-playing is routine in comparison with that of Karajan’s musicians, who take wing as if of their own volition, making marvellous music together.
Spike Hughes once likened the swift change of string sonority at bar 422 in Toscanini’s performances of the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony to the sudden reflection of the sun on a farmhouse window-pane. Fanciful stuff, but unless a conductor can articulate the sound as well as the sense of Beethoven’s symphonic world, his performances will never really touch the imagination. In the Eroica and the Fifth Symphonies, Abbado’s Berliners are never encouraged to develop the palette of sounds which these huge symphonic canvases demand. The new Fifth is only intermittently exciting (the controversial repeat of the Scherzo and Trio adding to that sense of intermittence) and it ends with a typically underprepared final chord: etiolated brass and a rattling drum. As for the Eroica, Abbado has never done a great deal with either the Funeral March (here entirely unmomentous) or the epic first movement. His 1985 recording of the first movement is strangely static, though that at least gives us time to wonder at the mighty procession of events the Vienna Philharmonic is unfurling to the view. In Berlin, after another crisply articulated exposition, we embark on what is a largely meaningless helter-skelter through the ruins.
Ironically, Abbado uses here for the first time the correct Eroica text, the coda’s spurious ‘Victory Symphony’ (bar 658) eliminated, the real climax (bar 671,15'32'') grimly placed (oldies like Monteux and Erich Kleiber used it, too, but that is by the by). Throughout the set, Abbado uses the new Bahrenreiter texts, edited by Jonathan Del Mar, with intelligence and respect – an object lesson in musical manners to others whose espousal of the edition has been little more than a PR exercise.
The Fourth Symphony, by contrast, is superbly done, a fiery reading of Apollonian loveliness, though it is worth pointing out that anyone who has Karajan’s 1962 Berlin performance (the only time Karajan played the work this way) already owns a more or less identical reading played in a more or less identical way. I don’t normally care for a quick-fire performance of the finale (the marking is Allegro ma non troppo), but even this seems plausible when, as is the case with both Karajan and Abbado, the playing is sublime and the pulse (metronome=72) binds together the first movement Allegro vivace, the third movement Trio and the finale.
There is one blot on the new Fourth’s copybook. Unless you are prepared to play the whole recording at ear-threatening volume, you will barely hear the harmonically crucial pianissimo drum rolls (8'00'' et seq) in the transition to the first-movement recapitulation. Given the fact that Gunter Hermanns’s 1962 Berlin recording judges the levels to perfection, one is tempted to chuck DG’s state-of-the-art digital technology with its ‘sampling rate of 96kHz’ back in its face. At best, the new technology produces sound of astonishing transparency (I have never heard the finale of the Ninth Symphony so astutely and lucidly performed and recorded, the inner part-writing, vocal and choral, crystal-clear), but there are times when the technology’s application is more than a touch quixotic.
Though they are not advertised as such, all the recordings are live, with the exception of that of the Fourth Symphony. Musicians profess to like this because it provides ‘spontaneity’, though how many live performances are in any real sense ‘spontaneous’ is a moot point. In a set where dazzlement and deadness often vie with one another, it is the studio-made Fourth and the ‘live’ Ninth which currently stand clear in my memory.'

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