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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


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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 major Op.55 "Eroica" (1804)
Symphony No.4 in B flat major Op.60 (1806)
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)
Symphony No.6 in F major Op. 68 "Pastoral"(1808)
Symphony No.7 in A major Op. 92 (1812)
Symphony No.8 in F major Op.93 (1812)
Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125 "Choral" (1824)
Staatskapelle Dresden,
Rundfunkchor Leipzig,
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Recorded 1975-1980, Lukaskirche, Dresden.
(Licensed from Edel Classics)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99927/1-5 [5CDs: 76.52+72.25+78.55+69.06+72.18]

This is a five CD box set housed in slimline card sleeves with minimal information about the music and not much about the performers, recording dates and venues etc. However, it can be obtained at ultra/super bargain price (as little as £10 from some sources!) and contains some exquisite performances. If the absence of sleevenotes, the analogue source and the fact that the cycle is performed on modern rather than period instruments present you with no problems then its purchase is more or less self-recommending.

Personally speaking, I haven’t listened to a great deal of Beethoven recently, especially the symphonies, and memories of original LP issues by conductors such as Karajan, Klemperer, Jochum and Sanderling, acquired in my teens, were not entirely banished by this set. However, I have listened a lot to Herbert Blomstedt, in the intervening years, especially his two brilliant Nielsen cycles, the first with the DNRSO on HMV/EMI and the more recent one recorded for Decca in San Francisco. Here, as on those recordings, Blomstedt emphasises the rhythmicity and musicality rather than going in for any bombastic heroics. In fact the idea, as put forward by Robert Simpson (among others), that Nielsen is a central figure in the evolution of the great European symphonic tradition (with Haydn, Beethoven and Bruckner as progenitors and maybe people like Holmboe, Rubbra (?) and Simpson himself as heirs), fits well with these particular Beethoven performances.

The first CD accommodates symphonies 1 and 3; the former is well executed but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is that of the "Eroica" that remains longest in the memory, Blomstedt’s way with it certainly allows it to live up to its name but without ever resorting to empty rhetoric. It is, to these ears at least, a marvellously well-paced version and has a vision that goes well beyond that of the other recording I own (Vienna/Solti).

The second disc couples the second and the fourth. These are both given excellent, rhythmically buoyant but highly lyrical performances, albeit ones, along with that of the first, that period-instrument purists may balk at (the sound has a fullness that may be slightly at odds with the early symphonies’ temporal proximity to classical, as opposed to romantic, models).

From this point onwards, the set begins to rank even higher in my estimation; the disc containing the fifth and sixth is a wonderful listen. After a first movement lacking some of the (melo?)drama of many versions (not necessarily a bad thing), its momentum builds to a relentless (in the best sense of the word) third movement and a breathtaking finale. The sixth is a version which places a clear emphasis on its rustic inspirations; the musical portrayals of birdsong, dancing, merrymaking and thanksgiving are all underpinned by some lovely string and woodwind textures and the whole piece begs the question (and not for the first time) of what and where are the musical (and spiritual) heirs to this piece? For such a well-loved and well-exposed symphony, it seems to me that it has engendered very few direct inspirations (please comment on the bulletin board if you disagree or you can suggest any heirs to the piece!).

Wagner called the seventh symphony "the apotheosis of the dance" and Blomstedt’s response to this music fully justifies that description – his approach here very much brings to mind his Nielsen fourth and, like that piece, it reminds us, quite uncategorically, that "music is the sound of life". The tempi adopted are ideal (or sound it) and the performance in general, for which the brass section in particular deserves special credit, displays a genuine joyfulness, although it can plumb the emotional depths in the second movement when required.

The eighth is an apt coupling for the seventh, in terms of it being written at more or less the same time and by the fact that it both complements and contrasts with the character of its predecessor. By this, I mean that it shares many of the rhythmic nuances but is somewhat lighter and less intense in its overall demeanour. Needless to say, Blomstedt’s efforts here show a keen awareness of this, and once again the (individual) disc, as a self-contained listening experience, is enriched as a result.

Maybe the best of all was saved until last. The ninth was the final instalment of the cycle to be recorded and, among other qualities, it has some truly memorable solo and choral singing in the glorious "An die Freude" finale. The preceding movements are also incredibly well done and comparison with a (generally highly regarded) Karajan performance of similar vintage does leave one wondering if Dresden and not Berlin is/was the German orchestra, par excellence. This may sound like heresy to some but this recording really is so good that it demands and deserves comparison with the very best. At the risk of repetition, the word momentum again springs to mind but Blomstedt's cycle, taken as a whole, is characterised by the very qualities that also define, to my mind, Beethoven's unique genius - the pure musicality, the rhythmic awareness, the universal spirituality even.

So, overall, the playing is of the very highest standard and additionally Blomstedt manages to produce performances which are often searingly intense yet never over- romanticised. The recordings have been transferred very well and no-one buying this set, particularly at the price it is offered, could be disappointed with it. An immensely enjoyable listening experience; if you don’t like this then you probably don’t like classical music (or, for that matter, any music as we understand the term)!

N.B. these discs may also still be available (at mid-price), presumably with more detailed notes, either separately or as a full set on Berlin Classics but considering this release and the Barshai/Shostakovich set, whoever is charged with selecting the material for Brilliant Classics to license is doing a brilliant job.

Neil Horner

 


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