BEETHOVEN Symphonies

Chailly’s first Beethoven cycle arrives

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Beethoven 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'
  • Coriolan
  • (Die) Geschöpfe des Prometheus, '(The) Creatures of Prometheus', Overture
  • Egmont, Overture
  • Fidelio, Overture
  • König Stefan, Overture
  • Leonore, ~, Leonore Overture No. 3
  • Namensfeier
  • (Die) Ruinen von Athen, Overture

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.

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