thrilling disc of Beethoven overtures garnered considerable
critical praise on its first appearance on Teldec a few years
ago, being chosen as Gramophone disc of the month at the time.
If you know Harnoncourt’s Beethoven symphony cycle with the
same orchestra, you will know what to expect. If you don’t,
you’ll be in for an invigorating experience if you buy this
well filled disc in its new mid-price format.
overtures often appear as fillers for symphony recordings, but
conductors and record companies have, over the years, been wise
to the fact that there is so much good music in these works
that they can easily stand alone in compilations. Thus Harnoncourt
does not have the field to himself by any means. The selections
vary, but the only really ‘complete’ sets (including the later
rarities such as King Stephen or The Consecration
of the House and other fillers) spill over onto two discs,
as with ‘twofers’ from Karajan and Marriner. Even though Harnoncourt
is using a modern orchestra, his chief competition may be with
Roy Goodman’s Hanover Band set on Nimbus (at least in matters
of phrasing and tempos) which interestingly includes those two
late works at the expense of Leonore 1 and 3.
Some might argue this makes for a more interesting selection,
but it is very revealing to hear the three Leonore overtures
in sequence. Harnoncourt’s disc is certainly fuller than Colin
Davis and the Bavarian RSO (Sony) or Jochum and the Bamberg
SO (RCA), and I have to say I’m not sure of the availability
of the Nimbus disc.
playing and conducting really are electrifying here. The opening
item, Coriolan, has tremendous presence, the big orchestral
chords at the start hammered out with real precision and force.
Towards the climax, the momentum builds unerringly with horns
and natural trumpets gloriously blaring out above the texture.
Harnoncourt’s concern for textural clarity is evident at the
start of Prometheus, where we can clearly discern Beethoven’s
harmonic structure. Douglas Boyd’s oboe playing is a delight,
especially in The Ruin of Athens, as is the quality
of the horn section throughout. Tempos are generally quick,
rhythms all well sprung, and everything has the sort of energy
and inner life that we have some to expect from this source.
It’s fascinating to hear the changes Beethoven made in his Leonore
overtures, both in structure and orchestration. Some may miss
the weight of the Berlin Phil in Egmont, but I was just
bowled over by the crispness of attack and superbly judged pacing,
to say nothing of the quality of general ensemble playing.
is Beethoven conducting of a very high order, with an orchestra
prepared to follow every nuance and inflection. Nothing seems
forced or unnatural, and there is an awesome sense of scale
and cumulative power that gets to the very heart of the composer.
All except one item are ‘live’ but with no audience distraction,
and the recording quality is very good indeed, with plenty of
depth and detail. Excellent liner notes complete a very handsome
issue. There’s some great music here, so go and treat yourself.