> Beethoven - Symphonies No. 1 & 2 [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 1 in C major op.21
Symphony no. 2 in D major op.36
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Recorded in the Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie, Berlin, March 2000
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 487-2 [57’30"]


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Rarely can a CD cover have reflected its contents so cleverly or accurately. Abbado’s hands are clasped in mono relief while his face is hidden: surely a conscious retort to the Berlin Philharmonic’s last DG Beethoven cycle, the frontispiece of which boasts a side profile of the aged Herbert von Karajan, gold and silver beams radiating from the maestro’s head. Without trying to stretch the photographic metaphor, this faceless cover says: ‘Forget about me. Listen to Beethoven’. Of course, the image is as carefully placed and manipulated as its earlier correspondent, but at least Karajan showed a sort of brazen honesty about the management of his image.

For what we have here is not Abbado as audiences have known him up until the last two or three years, nor indeed the Abbado of the grand, rich cycle he recorded in the ’80s with the Vienna Phil (from which the 6th, 7th and 9th are still well worth pulling from the shelves). For whatever reason, tempi are fleeter than before, textures lighter, accents more marked and phrasing less legato, more piquant. Add to this some staggeringly disciplined playing from members of the Berlin Philharmonic, who stretch even their reputation for collective virtuosity (a nasty moment for the strings in the bars just prior to the recapitulation of no.2’s first movement being excepted). Oboe and flute lines in particular give constant joy in the intelligence of their phrasing and dynamic shading.

These readings are entirely literal, in the best and worst senses of that word. Everything that could be gleaned from the score is there; and very little else is. If you resent an interpreter’s character as intrusive interpolation, then this is the Beethoven for you. But what is the point of being able to hear every chugging semiquaver in the Introduction to the Second’s opening allegro if they do not, by their repetition, build up tension to be released by the allegro’s soaring main theme? Where is the abandon which belongs to the trumpet peroration in the coda of that movement, which Harnoncourt unleashes so gloriously? Just as surely as joy belongs to the finale of the Ninth, so should manic high spirits infuse that of the Second: what I hear is slightly ill-tempered precision. Paradoxically, Abbado has paid conspicuous homage to the traditional idea of the Second as descended from the Mozartian symphonic ideal in its first three movements; just where this is most obvious, in its opera buffo-like repartee between winds and strings, he refuses to let them sing or tip knowing phrasal winks in true Mozartian fashion. All the dotted phrases of the slow movement die away with perfect period manners while lacking the elegance and delicacy usually associated with the device. If this and others like it have been appropriated from historically informed performance practice of recent years (as the booklet baldly asserts: if you’re interested in why I believe this to be fallacious, please refer to the review of this cycle’s nos.7 and 8) then they do not yet sit entirely comfortably within the orchestra’s own distinguished ‘performance practice’.

Just as the Second has gained a Mozartian template, so the First is generally reckoned to show Beethoven taking his cue from the ‘Father of the Symphony’ and indeed I can’t remember having heard a more Haydnesque performance of it. The plain-spoken slow introduction conveys no sense of the musical confusion which pervades its key structure (the music asks ‘Am I in C major? Really?’) and when it unobtrusively arrives, the allegro bounces along charmingly. Abbado exploits the music’s possibilities for Rossinian fun (as well he might, given his talent in this direction) as did Ferenc Fricsay in another Berlin Phil recording. The comparison lets Abbado down at the climax, where Fricsay points the bass answers to the orchestral chords – as answers, not as detached notes.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the overall effect of Abbado’s scrupulous care over Jonathan del Mar’s new editions. For in the process of weighting each chord and rehearsing every string skirl, he seems to have lost sight of each symphony’s character. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned concept, the canon of Beethoven symphonies each with their own expressive world; Abbado clearly doesn’t have much time for it. Plenty of other modern conductors, likewise self-consciously unencumbered by the weight of tradition, do; you might not expect the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to offer serious competition to their colleagues in Berlin but only hear them under Sir Charles Mackerras on EMI and you will encounter a lithe young Beethoven with wit and profundity in equal measure.

Peter Quantrill

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