A conductor facing the Beethoven symphonies must feel
a little like the great Irish pop band A House, whose credo ranted
"I wish I was born before all the great ideas were used up. While
I work around this the most annoying thing is to see other people succeed
through stealing them." How to approach recording the Beethoven
symphonies when all the good ideas have been used up? True, the nine
symphonies are an endless treasure, but a recording always only captures
a limited aspect of them. Now that there are so many well performed,
well recorded sets available how to hit upon a Unique Selling Point
after the great Karajan recordings, the period instrument movement and
Rafael Kubilik’s recording each symphony with a different orchestra
to foster world peace?
Recent years have seen two major cycles, those of Abbado
with the Berlin Phil and Barenboim with the Staaskapelle, orchestra
of the Berlin Staatsoper. The comparisons to Toscanni and Furtwängler
seem obvious – the Italian Abbado taking a sleeker, quicker approach
than the more Germanic Barenboim – but they only reinforce the feeling
of it all having been done before.
To his credit though, Barenboim has a couple of distinctive
virtues that make this a very satisfying and individual achievement.
Most impressive is the magnificent Berlin orchestra. I cannot think
of a more magnificently upholstered set of the Beethoven symphonies.
The playing is simply stunning, from the magnificent solo winds (all
are stupendous, but the gorgeous creamy tone of the oboe is the pick
of the lot – each solo is a joy to behold), to the roundness of the
brass and strings. Credit for this must go to Barenboim – it is not
a coincidence that the two orchestras he heads, in Chicago and Berlin
– are the most sonically satisfying in the world. Perhaps the pre-eminent
Wagner conductor today, he loves sound and knows how to develop it.
Most of the recent Beethoven sets –from Mackerras, Zinman and Abbado
- have cultivated a more lithe texture, but Barenboim’s weighty but
unponderous sound seems to me much more distinguished. And despite the
wonderful blending of the instruments, nobody could reasonably say that
there is a lack of clarity, or that detail is smothered.
As Barenboim knows, the question of sound leads directly
on to those of tempo, which I suspect will be the aspect of these performances
that draws most criticism. Barenboim derives his tempi from the harmony
at a given point, and the tempo is a function of how long this takes
to establish. This leads to a certain fluctuation, but without the great
seamlessness of Barenboim’s hero Furtwängler. This has lead here
to tempi that are generally slower than most other versions on disc.
For those that cannot stomach tempi slower than Beethoven’s metronome
markings, this set isn’t first choice. I direct these people towards
my favourite set of all – that of Charles Mackerras. There is one other
annoying peccadillo – his propensity (less apparent here than in his
Wagner) to make large rallentandos into climaxes. There is one shocker
in the maggiore section of the Eroica funeral march. These notwithstanding,
the tempos make sense in their own terms, and there is a great deal
of personality (including a lot of Beethoven’s) in these versions, and
intelligent music making.
The other caveat that applies to these discs is their
availability singly. For me the great virtue of these recordings is
as a set – a single sound that has something distinctive to say about
the symphonies as a whole. As much as I like these performances, I cannot
say that any of them, with the possible exception of the Pastoral, outshine
the competition on an individual level. Classics like Carlos Kleiber’s
5 or Furtwängler’s 9 are not surpassed.
The first two symphonies are delightful. Despite its
classical dimensions, the period instrument regime have not scared the
big bands off from number one, as they unfortunately have with Haydn.
This version proves that there is room for both approaches. Rounded
as the sound is, there is a wonderful buoyancy about the performance.
The bassoons burble in the first movement, and the violins take off
in the last. Pretty much perfect in my book. The second is outstanding,
the warmth and conviction of the playing showing the work in its best
The Eroica, for me, is the one where the broadness
of tempo is the biggest drawback. The huge range of Beethoven’s harmonic
thinking makes it, for me (and I don’t discount that it is my listening
that is the deficiency here) it more difficult to appreciate in the
drawn out manner here. And while the sound is majestic, my favourite
moment of all – the chorale for oboe, clarinets and bassoon in the finale
– is too oboe dominated for me to really enjoy this version.
The fourth and fifth symphonies are the most disappointing
of the nine. These two have so much panache and forward momentum that
Barenboim’s approach seems to hold these two back. The fourth sounds
leaden besides other, more fleet of foot version, especially in the
first movement, where he allows the dark, slow introduction to dominate
the movement. My favourite versions, such as Mackerras, are the ones
that throw it off and have a bit of fun. The fifth is one of the few
on disc to be rhythmically perfect in the opening quavers and fermata
(Barenboim must have read Gunther Schuller’s rant in "The Compleat
Conductor"!), but overall this version seems didactic. The blaze
of glory in the transition from the Scherzo to the finale is magnificent,
but the version falls short of Kleiber’s benchmark version.
The Pastoral is the pick of the bunch. The wonderful
roundness of the strings and the stylish wind solos lend themselves
perfectly to the more rustic elements of the piece, and the storm is
absolutely exceptional, with real violence in the string figures and
the timpani. More importantly Barenboim has a perfect feeling for the
ebb and flow of the work, and his approach is perfect.
The seventh is a constant joy. Broad in tempo it may
be in the opening movement, but the playing is sufficiently majestic
to pull it off, with insistent timpani and thrilling control of dynamics
making this a very successful performance in the grand style of Beethoven
interpretation. The second movement is stunning, dark in timbre, and
in the vexed question of tempo for this movement, it seems to me exactly
right. The eighth is suitably ebullient, making the most of the many
contrasts in the score.
The culmination of the nine is more problematical.
Not in doubt is the quality of the soloists, including the great German
baritone Rene Pape. It should go without saying by now that the playing
is luxuriously good. I personally love this version, with its intensity
and complete commitment. However, with its ebb and flow, many will feel
this performance closer to Wagner’s conception of the ninth than Beethoven’s.
By this stage in history, however, I think that this music belongs to
all of us, and a version as distinctive, as honest, as joyful and as
magnificently played as this has its place in our affections. A judgement,
in fact, that I would like to stand for the whole set, which I enjoyed