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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803)
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807)
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808)
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812)
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
Jean Glennon (soprano), Dalia Schaechter, (alto) Algirdas Janutas, (tenor) and Benno Schollum (bass)
Kaunas State Choir of Lithuania (Choral)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Yehudi Menuhin
Live recordings June 1994 at the Salle Erasme, Palais de Musique, Strasbourg. DDD
5 discs, available as either a set or separately
WARNER APEX 2564 60457-2 [5CDs: 358.12]

 

With one or two exceptions, most of these symphonies of Beethoven were written about ten years earlier than the equivalent set written by his near contemporary, Schubert. Only the two ninths are roughly contemporaneous. What a different sound-world these two sets inhabit. It has been very instructive to hear both of these sets close together for apart from the general level of inventiveness of the composers, there are certain similarities between Apex’s two complete sets played by the Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by Yehudi Menuhin.

The Schubert are studio recordings, whereas the Beethoven set derives from a live cycle given in Strasbourg in June 1994. To be honest, unlike with some ensembles, there is not much difference in the quality of playing and recording between the studio and live performances. There is perhaps a slight improvement in spontaneity at the expense of exact ensemble, but the extent of this is very slight.

I cannot understand the Apex decision to include applause before the start of some of the symphonies, particularly when it dies away before the works start; this is taking live recording too far. There is also evidence of the engineers bringing up the level of ambience before the applause starts – more to prove what a good performance we are in for! This is taking knob twiddling too far.

Once the cycle is underway, things get decidedly better. Menuhin obviously feels this music deeply. This is clear from the performances themselves which have vitality and thrust which is very infectious. First movement repeats are the norm and it is refreshing to hear these intact and played with such gusto. There is a set of very good notes with each disc, partly written by Menuhin himself, giving us his approach to these masterpieces. He looks upon them as a journey of discovery, which he obviously wants to share with the listener. Unlike many other conductors, he does not see the first two symphonies as a development of the symphony of Haydn and Mozart, but a clear statement from the composer starting out on a journey. He even alludes to Indian music as a guide, although how Beethoven would have come under the influence of this music is beyond me. Perhaps Menuhin accompanied Beethoven to Bombay (Mumbai) at some time (in his mind of course).

No. 1 is somewhat dour in its outlook. I suppose that if it is not a successor to Haydn, but at the start of an inspired journey, then some allowances need to be made. Things pick up by the time the scherzo arrives, and the finale really fizzes along. The articulation of the strings is outstanding, and their ability to follow their beloved conductor is clearly evident. Applause is at both the start and finish of this symphony, the end applause lasting almost a minute.

The Eroica, likewise starts off in sombre mood, and again picks up as the movement progresses. The funeral march is deeply felt and makes a subdued follow up to the solid first movement. Light breaks out on the arrival of the scherzo, with suitably rustic-sounding horns really enjoying themselves and ably assisted by some forwardly placed timpani. The finale, taken at a fast tempo, ends the proceedings in great style. Applause at the end.

The second disc in the set starts with applause, followed by a somewhat untidy chord beginning the second symphony, but fear not, things improve considerably. By the time we reach the finale, Beethoven’s landscape is passing by at a relatively fast tempo – the strings of the Sinfonia Varsovia really excelling themselves, followed by another 30 seconds or so of applause.

We then move on to a lovely performance of the Pastoral, which includes the first movement repeat. An exciting rendition of the peasant’s dance and the storm is convincingly violent. The last movement is fairly rapid, but not without a very touching tenderness right at the end of the work, not from the audience I am afraid.

Disc three includes the Overture "Coriolan" with the 4th and 8th Symphonies. No applause at the start this time – a refreshing departure from what has been the norm up until now; even better, no applause on this disc at all! Coriolan starts fairly sedately, but soon picks up speed. This is Hungarian playing at its best, with articulation at speed being first class.

The Fourth Symphony is characterised by extremely beautiful string playing throughout, with the whole orchestra giving of its best. The introduction to the first movement at a suitably sedate rate is exemplary, with the allegro starting off very neatly and the whole orchestra phrasing delicately. The progress of the music is ably supported by some impressive though suitably restrained timpani.

After a beautiful slow movement, the scherzo explodes onto the scene. This is taken at a fast tempo but the playing is also touchingly delicate. After this the finale is similarly fast and furious, although not without the woodwind being allowed to make some interesting contributions which with other conductors are often submerged in the mêlée which sometimes occurs in this movement.

Symphonies 5 and 7 are what you would expect after what has gone before. Regrettably however there is none of the accurate and bitingly direct phrasing one gets with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, nor is the recording as good. However, as part of a cycle, this is good material, and you only need to revert to Kleiber if you are buying these discs separately. It is, by the way, worth every penny of the extra.

The cycle is crowned by a very interesting Choral with relatively unknown soloists and choir, although they acquit themselves very creditably. The notes by Menuhin have him bubbling over in excitement over an instrument used in the E Flat 6/8 variation, presto passage of the finale which is usually played by cymbals and drums. This new instrument is called a Schellenbaum, cinelli, or Jingling Johnny. One of these was found, belonging to the British Army, and evidently played by a British Officer during the actual performance in Strasbourg. In spite of all the fuss, to my ears it doesn’t sound much different from cymbals and drums, so although we are historically correct, I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

The soloists and chorus are both respectable, without being world class and their contributions to the proceedings are far from negligible, apart from a few wobbles here and there.

So to sum up – this Apex set is one of the better budget cycles available today. It does not eclipse the Zinman Arte Nova set, but then it is not trying to compete on a head to head basis. If you are keen on lovely string playing by an enthusiastic band lead by a well respected musician in repertoire which he obviously adores, and not too much put off by completely superfluous applause, then I do urge you to hear this set. At the price it is an absolute snip.


John Phillips

see also review by Gwyn Parry-Jones

 

 



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