> Beethoven - Complete Symphonies [AT]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Complete Symphonies

Symphony No.1 (1800)[26.54]
Symphony No.2 (1803)[34.40]
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83062-2 [61.34]

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Symphony No.3 (1805, 55.54)
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83062-2 [55.54]

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Symphony No.4 (1806)[36.01]
Symphony No.5 (1808)[35.56]
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83062-2 [71.57]

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Symphony No.6 (1808)[44.38]
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83062-2 [44.38]

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Symphony No.7 (1812)[41.26]
Symphony No.8 (1812)[25.08]
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83062-2 [67.27]

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Symphony No.9 (1824,76.24)
TELDEC CLASSICS 8573-83063-2 [76.24]

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Berliner Staatskapelle
Daniel Barenboim
Rec Studio One at the former GDR Radio Studios, Nalepastraße, Berlin, May – July 1999

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 light.

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 immensely.

Aidan Twomey

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