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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
The Symphonies

Disc 1: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, op.21 (1797); Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op.55 (1803)
Disc 2: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1802); Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1808)

Disc 3: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op.60 (1806) and Symphony No. 6 in F Major "Pastoral", Op.68 (1808)
Disc 4: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op.92 (1812) and Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op.93 (1812)
Disc 5: Symphony No. 9 (1824)
Barbara Bonney (sop), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Kurt Streit (ten), Thomas Hampson (bar), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live, April - May 2002, Vienna
EMI CLASSICS 557 445 2 [5CDs: 75’13+64’03+78’29+65’53+69’55]

Making your first complete recording of the Beethoven symphonies when you are in your late forties seems almost de rigueur. Karajan’s first, landmark cycle (the earliest integral recording of the Nine, and this conductor’s best) was made with the Philharmonia between 1953 and 1955 and finished when he was 47; Rattle’s, recorded live with the Wiener Philharmoniker in May 2002, was completed when he was 46. Both are fresh, spontaneous and bristling with energy, both have their strengths and their weaknesses (much easier to categorize with Karajan (the even numbered are weakest) than with Rattle (the late-middle symphonies) – but there the comparisons end. Karajan’s may today seem musically unfashionable, with its occasional portentousness of tempi and broad, vibrato-dominated string tone, whereas Rattle’s uses a reduced orchestra, with almost vibrato-less string playing. Rattle owes a great deal to both a new performing edition of the symphonies, which adds considerable clarity (especially to the woodwind) in Beethoven’s scoring, and an awareness of period style, although without the pitfall of unquestionable servitude to it.

At times Rattle’s new set strikes me as an impulsive cycle, at others one which is deeply considered and intellectually thought through. The performance of the Eroica, for example, seems less to be the neo-Romantic work it is often performed as; indeed, Rattle makes it sound much closer to the Second Symphony, particularly when his metronome marking for the opening of the first movement is taken at an altogether faster tempo than either Karajan or Klemperer took it. Rattle’s vision is of a conductor who views the symphony’s opening Allegro con brio as the beginning of a journey into inner turmoil and emotional conflict – and that is what we hear. The instability and disruptiveness and the ever-escalating battle between resolution and disintegration are dominant throughout, enhanced by the astonishing virtuoso playing from his orchestra. What it is without is the monumental scale others bring to it. There is certainly no lack of power or drama, however – listen only to the horns in the Trio from bars 200 – 216 and the richness of tone Rattle elicits from his Viennese players in the triads is demonstrative of a residual weightiness.

It is a performance with many impressive moments, especially in the Marcia Funebre. Rattle has in the past been accused of ignoring text markings but listen to the ’cellos’ entry at bar 27 marked espressivo (1’42") and the decrescendo is perfectly attenuated (1’54") as are the dotted notes for the oboe at bar 38. By dividing his strings antiphonally, the second violins’ dotted quadruplets at bar 117 become as distinct and clear as the first violins’ dotted quadruplets at bar 121. Woodwind detail throughout the Maggiore (but especially from the f marking at bar 114) is fabulous and clear: a flute at 7’11" rising above the oboe, violas and ‘cellos, and so often buried in many recordings of this symphony, has unusual prominence.

It could be argued that at the start of the Finale Rattle shortens Beethoven’s rest marks too much (much as conductors constantly shorten, or ignore, Wagner’s), and indeed that might have been the case had it not been for the blistering tempi that he sets to begin the movement. Again and again one notices the clarity of the woodwind, the care for balance (a spectacularly done pp at bar 277, for example) and the passion and inevitability which determines the coda’s resolution. It is a crowning performance.

The Third is one of the symphonies most revised in Jonathan Del Mar’s Bärenreiter Urtext Edition and Rattle’s performance of it is the finest I have yet heard on record (an equally fine Eroica with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia Orchestra can be heard on the Philharmonia’s website:; Abbado’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was the one disappointment in his cycle). Most of those changes relate to markings for individual instruments – staccatos and slurs, for example – but, taken as a whole, differences in emphasis can be heard (and when we come to the Ninth they are often shattering). The Fifth, by contrast, is hardly different from what we already know in performances of the work and as such more readily stands comparison with versions of the work made prior to the Bärenreiter edition. Perhaps most significant are four bars in the first movement where the first violins now play with the woodwind rather than resting (bars 325-326 and bars 329-330). But, the chief problem with the Fifth has been whether to play the repeat in the Scherzo and Trio and Rattle has no qualms about ignoring it.

In simple terms, Rattle and the Wiener Philharmoniker give an electrifying performance of the Fifth – certainly finer than an earlier Fifth he made with the same orchestra. In part this is due to his handling of the opening bars which, taken near Beethoven’s metronome marking of 108, prepare us for the crushing momentum of this symphony. Rattle gives the fermatas after the triplets equal weight (as do Brüggen and Gardiner) and doesn’t insert extra empty measures (as do Furtwängler and Toscanini). This allows him to set the pace for the entire symphony which he does so masterfully (listen to Nikisch on a six disc Berliner Philharmoniker box set and it is all too easy to see how some conductors come to grief in this symphony).

If Rattle’s Fifth isn’t as spectacularly dramatic as a live Monteux/Boston Symphony performance from the late 1950s it is certainly a performance which is driven by power. The Vienna strings are beautifully full-toned (in contrast to their steely-sounding performance of the Seventh) but Rattle’s achievement is that he doesn’t fall into the trap that many authenticist (and even non-authenticist) conductors do of ignoring Beethoven’s dynamics (Furtwängler is especially inept at getting the dynamics right). So, when we arrive at the climax of the first movement (bars 228-252) the brass, especially trumpets, don’t drown out the string line. In the second movement, the string–bassoon melody at bar 39 is infectiously done, even though Rattle’s tendency is to minimise the vibrato. In the final movement, the piccolo is clearly audible (especially at bars 244-50).

After the achievement of his Fifth it was a disappointment hearing Rattle’s performance of the Seventh – possibly the least interesting performance of this cycle (although the Sixth comes very near). Mostly, it is due to the string playing which is both lacking in sufficient body and rather ‘colourless’ in phrasing; this is especially the case with the Viennese ’cellos and basses (so prominent in this symphony) which seem to find it difficult to rise above the rest of the orchestra. The absence of vibrato in the strings means that at times the timpani is over-projected – not that Rattle’s timpani (soft, rather than hard) are as rampant as some (Klemperer, for example), just that the bass line is more obscured than in fuller bodied recordings of the work. Listen to the final movement from 7’30" onwards and you will hear how flattened the bass line sounds.

Dynamically, of course, he is often spot-on. His near vibrato-less string players are even more emphatic in their differentiation between the subtlest markings – p and pp do sound distinctive. Individual dynamic pointers – such as the fff in the final movement and pp in the fugato - are entirely present. Rattle also joins that select club of conductors (Toscanini and Carlos Kleiber amongst them) who refuse to accelerate the tempo at the end of the Allegro con brio. Ultimately, though, this is a performance which is short on grandeur.

Rattle has said of the Sixth that ‘I’m not sure that Beethoven ever wrote a more profoundly spiritual work than the Pastoral, maybe not even the Missa Solemnis. His performance of it is actually rather on the sombre side, although it has utterly magical moments in it: the intense musicality of the slow movement (and the evocative detailing of the nightingale, cuckoo and quail), the con sordini (muted) violins which now give the movement a different soundscape, the serenity of the Rondo, and the rustic simplicity of the first movement all impress. But it also has its drawbacks – notably a storm which isn’t as dramatic as it might have been (and a performance of this work where the storm is underplayed is disadvantaged). The metaphorical rumblings of the ’cellos and basses don’t quite convey menacingly enough a picture of rolling thunder and the entry of the trombones at the climax of the storm is understated. Rattle’s conviction in the solemnity of this symphony, however, is best shown in his handling of the coda of the final movement: a beautifully etched, gloriously profound tutti which reaches atmospherically upwards and then descends into melody before being scythed by the symphony’s final chords.

Performances of the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth are all beautifully done. The First is almost impertinent in its joyfulness, the Second brilliantly energetic (its larghetto spun silkily by the Vienna strings), the Fourth dark, and sinisterly played, in the first movement, the final movement an evocation of Mozartian and Haydnesque playfulness. The Eighth is simply spellbinding: rich string sonorities meld with fleet woodwind passages to create a jewel-speckled whole.

There are many fine performances in this set – the first five symphonies and Eighth especially – but the most revelatory is that of the Ninth. It is a performance of astonishing power and there are very few recordings that match it. But what above all else makes this recording so special is the clarity of the chorus in the great last movement. I have already demonstrated how closely Rattle projects inner-orchestral dynamics and sonorities (notably in the Seventh where he controls his timpani superbly) but he achieves something on an altogether more rarefied level in the Ninth. I haven’t yet heard a performance, until this one, where every word of the chorus is audible, both at a sotto voce level and a declamatory forte level.

Abbado’s most recent recording of the Ninth (using the same Del Mar edition) was a highly provocative performance, taken some 12 minutes faster than Furtwängler’s Philharmonia version. Rattle is much closer to Furtwängler taking a little under 70 minutes (against just over 74 minutes for the latter). But things are never quite that straightforward. In some ways Rattle’s performance is a hybrid of Furtwängler’s live 1954 Lucerne and Klemperer’s live 1957 Philharmonia recordings: nearer Klemperer’s tempo in the outer movements, and nearer Furtwängler’s in the inner movements. Rattle, like Furtwängler, takes the Molto vivace at a fast 12 minute pace (against Klemperer’s and Barenboim’s 15 minutes); Klemperer, however, takes the Adagio molto e cantabile at under 15 minutes, much nearer to Abbado’s over-swift 13 minutes, but well off Rattle’s timing of 17 minutes and Furtwängler’s of 19 minutes.

I quote all this to emphasise how differently conductors approach Beethoven’s metronome markings in this symphony. Even given these disparities, under a great conductor, certain qualities still surface: a pantheistic vision of the work, a sublimity to the inner-emotional conundrums is realised and all seem able to generate a similar muscularity to orchestral tone colouring. Listen to Rattle’s Viennese ’cellos and basses at the opening of the Presto and there can be no doubt that you are listening to both a great orchestra and a great conductor; the sheer terror of those opening notes, so violently and tragically projected, prefaces Hell itself. A similar, dark world inhabits the opening of the Ninth in this performance with every carefully marked gradation built up to follow on from the previous one until the intensity becomes almost catastrophically destructive (readers who have heard Rattle conduct Bruckner’s mighty Ninth will notice how he achieves similar results with the opening of that work; no conductor today opens that symphony with such mystery as Rattle does).

This is a performance of the Ninth that is as happy in the diverse worlds of the work’s tragedy as well as its satire. It is also, however, a wonderfully melodic and lyrical performance, most notably in Rattle’s exquisite reading of the Adagio. Reflective and tender, with evocative outbursts of tone colour exploding prismatically, it recalls Furtwängler’s heavenly way with this movement in so many ways. And as beautifully played as it is here, it cannot fail to beguile and move the listener.

Rattle is more faithful than Abbado was to Del Mar’s textual revisions in this symphony – and they are extensive. There are changes to the violin part in the Trio section, for example, as well as changes to the horn writing (now written with Beethoven’s original, and somewhat irregular, ties) at the end of the Turkish episode of the Finale before the entry of the chorus. More extraordinary are actual text amendments: in bar 277, for example, the soprano’s 4th word is ‘nur’ not ‘mir’, in bar 834 the alto’s 3rd word is ‘dein’ not ‘den’. How significant these changes are is questionable; a basic German text in a CD booklet is likely to have the German printed correctly, for example (a quick look at a couple confirmed this to be true). But as with much of Del Mar’s invaluable work it is the small changes to note values and dynamics which cumulatively allow us to perceive a familiar work with fresh ears.

Rattle’s performance from the entry of the chorus onwards (bar 216) is indeed impressive. I’ve already mentioned the vocal clarity he attaches to his chorus (perhaps significantly a British one, rather than German one) but he also brings great transparency to his orchestra. The four soloists are a fine quartet – Thomas Hampson is rich of tone and Barbara Bonney and Birgit Remmert are both peachy enough to mark out their contributions with individual feeling for phrasing. Only the tenor, Kurt Streit, is less convincing, his tone perhaps not as rounded as some who have sung the part. One triumph in this performance is the coda: unlike many conductors (and Furtwängler is one of the most obvious perpetrators to get it wrong), Rattle pulls back and slows his basic tempi rather than pushing ahead in stringendo. That small measure of restraint speaks volumes recalling so clearly the opening, tenebrous motives of the symphony.

So, how does this cycle compare with others? My view of Abbado’s has moderated somewhat since I first reviewed it in December 2000. Sir Charles Mackerras’s remains one of the best, irrespective of edition, but Rattle’s is more than its equal. Outstanding performances in Rattle’s include the Third, Fifth and Ninth, but there are also very notable performances of the First, Second, Fourth and especially a monumental Eighth. The edge Rattle has over Mackerras is in his orchestra. The Wiener Philharmoniker play magnificently for Rattle – simple as that. The recording quality (bar the performance of the Seventh) is not a problem – in fact, it is enormously clear allowing much inner detail to rise unexpectedly at times. Although I have not seen a finished copy of the set (this being a limited promotional set), Richard Osborne’s liner notes appear to concentrate on the symphonies themselves (although his habit of embellishing his text with literary allusions hasn’t been curbed). From as far as I can see he makes no reference to Del Mar’s performing version of the scores (but additional essays in the published booklet may correct this). But, this is undoubtedly an important set of the symphonies and one that should be widely heard. It does pay repeated listening and has given this reviewer immense pleasure over the past three weeks.

Marc Bridle

With thanks to Chris Jackson from Bärenreiter for sending me copies of the Jonathan Del Mar scores. Their website is at:

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