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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1-9

includes Norrington lecture CD on interpretation of Beethoven
Camilla Nylund (sop)
Iris Vermillion (alto)
Jonas Kaufmann (ten)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington
Rec. Stuttgart, Germany August/September 2002 DDD
HÄNSSLER CLASSICS 93.089 [6 CDs: 56.57 + 74.53 + 74.15 + 61.28 + 61.36 + 79.50]


There have been many interpretations of Beethoven's symphonies, and of them Harnoncourt is celebrated by me for his originality. Karajan’s applauded contributions in comparison concentrate on energy and power. Against heavy competition how does Norrington fare? This is not his first Beethoven cycle: with his London Classical Players (EMI Classics Reflexe CDS7 49852-2 in 1989) period instruments were used to some acclaim for their new colour. At the time his approach was likened to Toscanini's. But do we need yet another set of symphonies?

Norrington is no native of Germany. He is from Oxford, England. He has been Principal Conductor of the Stuttgart Orchestra since 1998. During his tenure, he has given precedence to German composers, from Viennese Classicism to general Romanticism. He tries to combine historically correct performing practice with the techniques available to a modern symphony orchestra. This style critics have often described as 'the Stuttgart Sound'.

What is of interest is the polish I find Norrington achieves in this Hänssler series of recordings made over a fortnight. True, the orchestra will have played the symphonies many times to allow rehearsals to be kept to a minimum. But these recordings were made of the cycle at live performances, preceded by short lectures by Norrington. He explains how he closely keeps to the metronome markings Beethoven set in his scores. This statement is just as well since the pace seems far too hasty to this listener's ears. One can argue that Beethoven was revolutionary in his approach to composition so why not let a conductor's interpretation be revolutionary too. The ‘lecturettes’, in German, are rightly placed on a separate disc.

These early 19th Century symphonies are marvels of composition with multi-layered texture providing good colour and wide scope for personal expression. This has allowed different conductors to modify the focus to different elements within the score. One memorable reading that comes to mind is that by Harnoncourt in Beethoven's 6th. Likewise, Norrington's overall thumbprint is recognised by a focus on certain underlying elements in the score, encouraging a pulsing rhythm and taking the performances at a fast and lively pace. This approach generally works, but not always, particularly in parts of the majestically powerful 5th Symphony and the tranquil 6th.

In Symphony No. 1 Op. 21 (1800), the orthodox interpretation is enhanced by accented notes that add nicely to the strength of the rhythm in the Adagio molto. The same effect, however, does not work so well in the Menuetto Allegro molto e vivace where, to me, the accented chords severely interrupt the flow. A rise and fall of dynamics by the woodwind is a bonus that adds colour. The reading of the Finale is a joy to listen to.

[Sample: CD1 tk.4 1'12"–2'48"]

A particularly prominent passage in Symphony No. 2 Op. 36 (1801-2) is the reading of the Larghetto where a surging momentum with ebb and flow is provided by shifting dynamics. A light crisp articulation (strings) is delightful. [Sample: CD1 tk.6 2'04"–3'09"]

The epic Symphony No. 3 Op. 55 Eroica (1803) is one of the most frequently recorded in the cycle; consequently the competition of choice is considerable. Karajan's first recording was a disappointment and the early Toscanini is remembered as excitingly powerful. Norrington with his 1987 London Classical Players produced an excellent recording and uses similar skills here, so does not disappoint. The attention is caught immediately by the swift reading of the first movement, punctuated with its powerful chords. Here the orchestra is both alert and responsive.

An apprehensive beginning to Symphony No. 4 Op. 60 (1806) with menacing bass lines in the Adagio gives the right air of gloom to contrast nicely with the brighter theme that follows. A contrast in dynamics is again realised to the full. [Sample: CD2 tk.5 5'58–7'07"]

The marching rhythm of the 2nd movement is engaging under Norrington and is quite stirring in its appeal, the delicate woodwind providing a worthwhile contribution. [Sample: CD2 tk.6 0'33"–1'44"]

Symphony No. 5 Op. 67 (1807-8) exudes the expected power and majesty, but the brisk reading of the Allegro con brio seems ineffective: one isn't allowed to linger on any held notes. During the forte passages the timpani has a metallically harsh attack that is coarse and untuneful while the warmth of the following Andante con moto is refreshingly serene.

For me some parts of Symphony No. 6 Op. 68 Pastoral (1808) are a disappointment while others surpass my expectations. I have to consider whether my feelings are due to heavy conditioning by continuous exposure to other conventional recordings. This work (when regarded as a descriptive tone poem) surely should have a dreamy opening to the Allegro non troppo that gathers strength in the first half-dozen bars. An initial fast pace tends to hit one with a jolt rather than being given time to soak up the enjoyment of an accelerating tempo where the same phrase repeats. Later, other sections also tend to suffer from Norrington's hasty beat and Beethoven's colourful decoration is never savoured. The storm (Allegro) rises to its climax unduly soon and the timpani (like the 5th) is more harsh than mellow.

The warmth of Ashkenazy's performance of Symphony No. 7 Op. 92 (1810-11) with its unrushed speeds is regarded highly. Here Norrington responds with an equal leisurely approach with textures clearly defined. A slightly delayed flute in the Vivace is highly effective and holds one's interest while the hammering timpani again tend to be over-intrusive. Another pleasant effect is later found where the cellos stress groups of notes within a phrase. A strong pulse characterises this symphony. [Sample: CD4 tk.1 3'29"–4'35"]

In Symphony No. 8 Op. 93 (1812) the powerful climax to the 1st movement is both stirring and exciting. A swaying momentum pervades the Tempo di Menuetto and catches the vigorous spirit of the work to good effect. [Sample: CD4 tk.6 0'00"–2'00"] The powerful climax of the first movement is nicely mirrored in the finale.

The great choral Symphony No. 9 Op. 125 (1822-24) has much competition to battle with and as one expects conductors usually attempt to vary their interpretation. To me, Karajan is still currently revered as the master where much spiritual intensity is evident. Norrington chooses a robust approach with his well rehearsed chorus. The opening to the first movement is unusually strong and bounces along with vigour: it is a successful modern approach and the orchestra respond well. This is a strong performance. The 4th movement has no muddiness about it and both choir and orchestra are well-defined throughout, even in the triple forte passages. The ensemble are more than adequate, and the choir is of good voice, the tenors unusually so. (In one place the sopranos waver on a held note, but this is not unduly noticeable and does not mar one's enjoyment.) [Sample: CD4 tk.1 0'00"–1'25"]

The Stuttgart Orchestra is highly responsive in all sessions and always alert to the nuances of the scores. Norrington teases out warm and vibrant harmonies and makes considerable use of subtle dynamic changes. One reservation previously mentioned is the somewhat heavy fortes on the timpani where a harsh attack is evident. A more distant miking with treble cut could have provided a better-blended mellow tone.

Balance is excellent throughout the set although occasionally passages are spoilt by over-close bassoons and cellos. Luckily there are no background distractions apart during from a very quiet passage in Symphony 7 [tk.1 3'30" in] where a creaking chair and multiple page turnings affect the tension.

When library boxed sets are produced, one might expect a more durable and stronger box. The one provided is too flimsy and the discs too tightly fitting to aid regular handling. Notes are provided in German and English. With the lecture CD being spoken in German a written translation should have been considered. For some extraordinary reason the track numbers are blacked out on the inner face of the lecture disc case.

Raymond J Walker

see also review by Colin Clarke


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