BEETHOVEN Symphonies Nos 1-9 (complete)
If Haydn spoke his last word on the symphony in 1795, Beethoven’s First five years later is no mere extension but a big leap forwards – or so it appears to Frans Brüggen and predicated by the opening chords, sonorous yet distinct but of a power that expands into the main movement and its forceful recapitulation. Cutting sforzandos from the horns between 4'05" and 4'16", timpani a presence beyond that, uncover unexpected undertones in the development of the slow movement too. Brüggen’s ear for instrumental balance is unerring. No strand is ignored if it has contextual significance. The Allegretto of the Seventh is an example of how entrancing such significance can also be, the orchestra showing here, as everywhere, real mettle in reproducing the subtleties inherent in Brüggen’s understanding of the music. But the recording is a strange mixture of clarity and congestion, full-bodied and disembodied sound with moments of transient distortion or boomy reverberation.
Yet Brüggen’s message, interpreted from uncorrupted texts, gets through, every repeat except one (in the third movement of the Seventh) observed. But he reserves judgement about Beethoven’s metronome markings, even totally repudiating speeds that reflect the brilliance, vivacity and humour of the Eighth. Slow burn is substituted for swift cut and thrust in the first movement of the Third but momentum falters at dramatic points; and Brüggen disrupts the beginning of the finale by holding back the tempo of the theme after the rushing introduction. Still, when he meets Beethoven even halfway, the results are remarkable, as in the Second. It’ll be curmudgeonly not to respond to Brüggen’s own response to the rhetoric of the outer movements or the nuanced shading and shaping of the Larghetto. If he is a touch tame in the opening movement of the Fifth, he makes amends in a meticulously detailed Scherzo graphically leading into a finale, fierily exciting at a tempo six points higher than specified. Brüggen is his own man in this matter. But when his decisions come close to or virtually equal Beethoven’s requirements, another dimension opens. Not one simply covered by pace but by a sense of space at any pace that only an elite conductor can achieve. The coherent bass-line in the opening Adagio of the Fourth underpins a consciousness of the music lifting upwards, conjuring ‘the sky-dome vastness of the dark introduction’ (Donald Tovey), a vastness that continues into the Allegro vivace with no unseemly haste at the composer’s marking of mimim=80. Similar qualities abound in the Sixth, in other movements not discussed, and exaltedly in the Ninth. Brüggen strips it of the overbearing bombast encrusted across generations and, in a recreation of beauty, both chaste and potent, phrases curve according to melodic or harmonic progressions, paragraphs unfold in long-breathed lines, changes in metre are seamlessly accommodated. Soloists convey musical substance through clearly enunciated words; the chorus does likewise without drowning the orchestra. This is Brüggen’s voyage to the vortex of Beethoven’s last symphony. Go with him for a rare emotional encounter.