> Beethoven 7,8 Abbado 4714902 [PQ]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies no.7 in A major op.92
Symphony no.8 in F major op.93
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Recorded in the Philharmonie, Berlin, December 1999 (no.7) and March 2000 (no.8)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 490-2 [63’22"]


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Apparently ‘the flourishing tradition of period performance’ is one of the influences on Abbado’s ‘approach to this new Beethoven cycle’. This is nowadays commonly said of many conductors performing Beethoven with traditional symphony orchestras. What is almost never asked or offered as a concomitant reply is precisely how this ‘tradition’ (20 years old) affects the tradition of Beethoven performance (in the case of the Berlin Philharmonic, 120 years old). Some say observance of Beethoven’s tempo markings: of course, they are wrong, as listening to (for instance) Arturo Toscanini’s and Erich Kleiber’s recordings will quickly demonstrate. Others will point to matters of articulation, a reduction of legato phrases and domination of string sound. They too are wrong, as can be shown by recordings of Felix Weingartner.

Certainly, these qualities can be found in Abbado’s performances of nos.7 and 8, at least irregularly so. Furthermore, they are rendered in sound so upfront that DG has, at least for me, created a new kind of home listening experience, though not one I particularly enjoy. By removing all the perspective which is a normal element of the standard stage arrangement of an orchestra, DG has painted a sound picture in which every instrument or section appears to be fixed to an aural wall instead of decorously arranged on a terrace. I’m not talking about crude spotlighting of the kind you find on Melodiya recordings, but a bizarre sense of two-dimensionality which appears to find a close and disturbing correlative in what Abbado does with these works.

I say ‘appears’ because Abbado live and Abbado on disc are two different creatures and I can well believe that the symphony cycles he gave in Berlin, Vienna and Rome around the time of these recordings (stitched together from concerts, rehearsals and patching sessions: DG has done well not to call them ‘live’, for all that word implies) merited the praise they drew. The enormous care he takes to balance textures and coax the best from an orchestra with an inspiring rather than insistent conducting technique is often overshadowed on record by a nagging feeling that he has pinned the butterfly down just a bit too carefully.

So it proves here. Both symphonies boast a staggering degree of orchestral virtuosity. Almost no one (Nielsen?) works orchestras harder than Beethoven and yet nothing in this recording sounds tired. Beethoven’s varied accent and held note markings are scrupulously observed in no.7's Allegretto. The woodwind chuckle their way through the Scherzo with genuine humour, providing one of the few moments of charm on the whole disc. The strings stand up to Abbado’s fearsome speed for the ensuing finale admirably, though at a marginally slower tempo (closer to Beethoven’s marking) Carlos Kleiber gets much more bounce and lift from the Vienna Philharmonic as well as revealing moments like the bassoon and pizzicato cello exchanges in bars 67ff with effortless clarity. But then, Kleiber has sensed a design behind the notes, a formal scheme that is set in motion by the barely restrained formality of the first movement’s introduction and is resolved to ultimate satisfaction in the Presto’s race to the finish. Of such a scheme in Abbado’s hands there is not a trace.

The Eighth is less successful. His decision to use reduced forces is nowhere justified: I can see no good reason for it. Although the woodwind come into even starker prominence, overall clarity is not increased. The second violin and viola semiquavers against the rushing upward main theme are inaudible, where in Toscanini’s last recording, their presence gives a perceptive and exciting instability to that theme: and this from a mono recording 50 years old. Any hint of interpretative character has been airbrushed away even more successfully than in the Seventh. Abbado even manages to rob all tension from the tightening harmonic screws of the first movement’s development, which is plain criminal: the reappearance of the exposition loses all its longed-for release. After refusing to make a ritenuto or rallentando at the end of almost every other movement in the four symphonies I’ve heard, he then chooses to do so at the end of this one, where it is most out of place and spoils Beethoven’s joke.

The hole at the centre of these recordings where personality should be isn’t a matter of tempo, articulation or dynamics: it is indeed about ‘approach’. It’s all rather puzzling, for in the booklet note with the complete set Abbado discusses his admiration for Furtwangler and reservations about the plain-speaking rigour of Toscanini despite the opposing attitude of his teacher, Hermann Scherchen. Yet Furtwängler’s ‘visionary’ style of Beethoven performance is as far removed from what you hear here as you could imagine: Toscanini is a far closer analogue. Scherchen himself, however, showed that taking Beethoven’s markings seriously could produce riveting performances, and ones full of individual character. Some will say that they want their Beethoven to display only Beethoven’s character. I invite them to listen to this recording, and to see if they can find it.

Peter Quantrill

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