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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
The Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [26.49]

Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [48.41]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [33.29]
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [33.54]
CD 3
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [35.22]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [39.20]
CD 4
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [38.22]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [26.32]
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [62.15]
Karita Mattila (soprano); Violeta Urmana (mezzo); Thomas Moser (tenor); Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Swedish Radio Choir/Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. Symphonies 1-8, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, February 2001 and Symphony No. 9, Berlin Philharmonie, Grosser Saal, April-May 2000.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4775864 [5 CDs: 75.42 + 67.36 + 74.54 + 65.06 + 62.15]

 

Experience Classicsonline


Fate seems to decree that I am obliged, once in a while, to settle down in a cosy corner for a few evenings, evaluating one or other wonderful cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies. With Claudio Abbado I have the advantage of coming fresh to his approach, having heard more about his recordings by reputation than in reality. I do have his recordings of Beethoven’s overtures with the Vienna Philharmonic so do have an inkling of and in fact quite like his ‘Vienna sound’, but sheer poverty and neglect has so far prevented me from acquainting myself with Abbado’s first set of Berlin Philharmoniker recordings.

The reverse of the box for this set has been loosely covered with a paper sticker which tells us that the recordings in this set are not those which originally appeared on CD in 2000, an issue for which there must have been understandable confusion: “Here is the new complete edition of Claudio Abbado’s Beethoven Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. Nos. 1-8, previously released only on DVD, were recorded live in Rome in 2001, while No.9 is Abbado’s re-edited version of the earlier recording from Berlin. Containing the maestro’s final interpretative wishes, this new cycle replaces his Berlin set issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 2000 – now no longer available.” According to some online sources it still is available, but I’ll have to let that pass. There follows a comment from Abbado, also justifying this new release: “After many performances of the cycle, our interpretative vision had matured, becoming more natural and shared. The concerts in Rome marked significant advances in terms of style, spirit and technique”.

This presents something of a fait accompli for those who already have the original 2000 Berlin recordings. The 9th is certainly derived from the old set, but the rest are most assuredly different. The 2000 Berlin discs are generally acknowledged to be a considerable improvement on Abbado’s Vienna set, and now we have a new further improved CD edition of the Berlin recordings, previously to be purchased on DVDs which are also still available on Euroarts – which I assume to be the same recordings, though these are likely to cost you more as a collection than this CD box. What to do? I suspect fans of the earlier Abbado set will want this one, especially if they haven’t invested in the DVDs. My approach has to be one which compares ‘like with like’, as one who, desiring a complete modern orchestra set of the Beethoven symphonies, sees two such sets at similar price from one of the most respected record labels, those by Claudio Abbado, and the more recently recorded set by Mikhail Pletnev, both on Deutsche Grammophon.

The Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic do have a history of course, and Claudio Abbado’s tenure with this great orchestra came directly after that of Herbert von Karajan, whose three cycles of these works with this orchestra dominated the catalogue for decades. In many ways, Abbado’s conducting seems to have re-invigorated the orchestra, bringing back that energy and vigour which makes von Karajan’s earliest 1960’s Berlin set still the one most admired by many critics. I have a pet theory as to why the glossy sheen, perceived or actual, of the later recordings of these and other works has become so reviled in some quarters. Herbert von Karajan’s quest for orchestral perfection achieved much and there are of course many great recordings for which we can all be grateful. Some of the results however seemed to set the works in aspic or amber – preserved for eternity, and apparently intended as untouchable and perfect examples of orchestral power, beauty and refinement. The human soul rebels against such a concept, seeking avenues of escape, and perhaps even unconsciously looking for imperfections which indicate a sense of organic growth and development. Without this sense of rawness and connectedness to our own un-godlike condition, the music is taken away from us and put upon a pedestal, remote and shielded by an aura of elitism. Listening again to von Karajan with ‘innocent ears’ and I’m convinced that this is partially a side-effect of hype and pre-conceived bias, but with conductors such as Abbado and Pletnev there can be little argument that more of a common ground is regained: we are awed and excited, but there is always the sense that we might have ‘been there’, and that there is room for change: space for both a past and a future to which we can all belong and, in a way, contribute.

Whatever your opinion, if you listen properly to any of Karajan’s recordings you will still find wonderful things, and Abbado certainly didn’t throw the Berliner baby out, with or without the bathwater. The 2000 cycle was considered more taut and ‘classical’ than the grander visions of Herbert von Karajan, even to the extent of some reduction in the size of the orchestra. The sense of scale I find is plenty big enough in this new release, with the rich acoustic of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome contributing to this effect. As has been noted with the first version of this cycle, Abaddo’s tempi are swifter than some, inviting a comparison with ‘historically informed’ performance practice. Those who have an antipathy for historical instruments and the kinds of interpretation proposed by conductors such as Roger Norrington need have no fears with this set – the orchestra sounds as mighty and big-boned as ever, with plenty of expressively warm vibrato texture in the strings, and in many of the wind solos. In a way, Abbado might be criticised for treading the middle ground between old-world convention and early-music authenticism. My feeling is that there is always room for both, and plenty of scope for exciting recordings such as these made with modern instruments. These recordings may occupy some kind of middle ground, but they are certainly not middle-of-the-road.

With regard to the acoustic, Abbado’s Rome set is comparable with that of Pletnev, which was recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow State Conservatory. Neither is overpoweringly resonant, but one can appreciate the sense of air and space around the musicians in both. As far as timings go there are differences, but no real consistency with regard to who is more or less compact. What contrasts can be heard I can at least partially put down to tradition and background. Pletnev’s relatively new band the Russian National Orchestra has no towering history with this music, and with Pletnev’s clear intention to bring Beethoven as far as possible into contemporary relevance he seems freer to play with greater extremes. I never found his pulling and pushing of the music and its inner dynamics to be offensively wilful, but if the personality of the conductor is something you prefer on the sidelines with this music, then Pletnev’s cycle will probably not be your choice – certainly not over Abbado. That said, this set really does make you sit up and listen anew to these old warhorses, so for the palette jaded by years of stodgy old recordings this will give you the kick up the backside you may not even realise you were seeking.

Abbado’s live Rome recordings are of course anything but stodgy. At every point the energy levels are at high pitch, with crispness of rhythm and articulation being very strong points. Clarity over speed has been mentioned as a problem with Abbado’s first DG reading of the Symphony No.4, but I don’t have much sense of there being any issues with either the tempo relationships between movements, or any kind of helter-skelter performance which denies the music space for sufficient detail, or in giving the players any technical problems. Some similar criticism was also levelled at finales of the 7th and 8th symphonies in the original DG set, as being too swift for the music to take proper shape. I don’t feel that in these Rome performances. There’s no sense of the orchestra being held back, but neither is there much lacking in terms of clarity. The faster movements all have plenty of drive, and the excitement of a live performance is very much in evidence, but lack of control or the use of ill-advised tempi are not criticisms I feel I could level at any aspect of this cycle. Looking at John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed Archiv recording and as you might expect, even Abbado’s timings are undercut almost entirely across the board and by quite a large margin in some movements, but those for the Symphony No.2 are in fact strikingly similar.

Are there any imperfections? I’ve played through the whole thing on more than one sound system, and there are very few minor details I might point out as being worth mentioning. I find the balance of the timpani a little too forward at times, giving us a bit of a bumpy ride in, say, some moments in the Symphony No.2. Then again, this is something I noticed more on loudspeakers, and find to be less of a problem on good headphones. Some listeners might find a contradiction in Abbado’s more chamber orchestra readings, and, to my ears, the truly symphonic sound of the orchestra. The funereal march of the Allegretto second movement of the Symphony No.7 for instance pushes forward at quite a pace, depriving the movement of some of its emotional weight. I had a sneaky feeling the Symphony No.6 might turn out to be too sophisticated for its own good, but, wobbly overdone flute aside it has some superb moments, though I wouldn’t place it as one of the strongest in the box. One or two critics of the earlier Berlin recordings commented on the ‘distant’ nature of the recordings, and there is as you might expect some change in perspective between the bulk of these Rome recordings, and the re-issued Symphony No.9. On its own this is a fine ‘Choral’, but as the climax and point of arrival for this new CD release its marginally less full sound and the more woolly lower middle register are a little less than one might have hoped for after all the gorgeousness in the previous symphonies. Abbado’s performance is full of all the same potent drama however, and the choir and singers are all top notch, so I wouldn’t press too hard for this as a reason for looking elsewhere. I do wonder what was wrong with the Rome 9th however – the only difference I can see is Eike Wilm Schulte in the place of Thomas Quasthoff as baritone soloist.

Are there any particular highlights? I don’t want to seem like a cop-out, but, not really. This is a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies which belongs together. Should DG have released these individually I think they might, with the exception of that 9th, convincingly have been accused of presenting us ‘bleeding chunks’ of a set which has its own inner dynamic and organic sense of unity. I suspect most listeners will become as addicted to these recordings in the same way as the reader of a good novel will find it hard to put the book down without finding out how the story continues, relishing what happens next, and being reluctant to finish. Abbado’s attention to detail, his clear affection for the phrasing and shape in the music at both micro and macro levels and his connection to the freshness of Beethoven’s ideas are all aspects which make this set a highlight in its own right. Abbado is at home as much in the sensitively intimate as the overtly heroic, something which is encapsulated in excellent symphonies No.3 and No.5. 

There is something of a challenge about re-creating and re-discovering the essence of music which is both overly-familiar but, in marvellous recordings such as these, keeps bringing us back for more. I’m lucky – Abbado and Pletnev look very nice side-by-side on my shelf, and I look forward to bouncing them off each other for a long time to come. There are of course many other cycles that introduce what we have learned from the authentic movement into the modern orchestra. That with Sir Charles Mackerras seems to make a strong case for consideration, and David Zinman’s cycle has some comparable qualities to Abbado in terms of interpretation while having if anything more of a shock factor in terms of balance and tempo in some areas. The Berlin Philharmonic has its own unique power however, and this will be something which will bring in plenty of buyers, though standards in orchestral playing today give them by no means an exclusively pre-eminent position in this market. If however you’re on the lookout for a fine, modern instrument set of the Beethoven Symphonies, Abbado will excite, stimulate and satisfy – guaranteed.

Dominy Clements


 


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