> Beethoven Symphonies Mackerras [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

The Nine Symphonies
CD1 – Symphony no.1 in C op.21 (1800)
Symphony no.3 in Eb, op.55 (Eroica) (1805)
CD2 - Symphony no.2 in D op.36
Symphony no.8 in F op.93
CD3 - Symphony no.4 in Bb op.60
Symphony no.6 in F op.68 (Pastoral)
CD4 - Symphony no.5 in C minor op.67
Symphony no.7 in A op.92
CD5 - Symphony no.9 in D minor op.125 (Choral)
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Della Jones (alto), Peter Bronder (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 9-10 Sept. 1994 (CD1), 25th, 26th and 28th Nov. 1997 (CD2), 26th-27th Nov. 1994 (CD3), 25th-26th June 1992 (CD4), 3rd-5th Jan. 1991 (CD5)
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75751 2 6 [5CDs: 69:42+57:01+70:33+67:50+61:00]


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Sir Charles Mackerras and the RLPO have been putting together their Beethoven cycle for EMI CfP for over ten years now, and it is satisfying finally to have the complete set in one box, albeit a rather unwieldy one (the hinges came apart on my copy the first time I opened it, and although I managed to reassemble it, it remains somewhat ramshackle!). It comes complete with a well illustrated booklet, including interesting notes by Jonathan del Mar on his new editions used here, and a performance note by Mackerras himself, mainly concentrating on the thorny issue of tempo in the Choral Symphony. It’s fair to say that the speeds throughout all of the symphonies tend to be very much on the fast side, but Mackerras has clearly thought this through carefully, and most of them work well, being in keeping with the character of the music.

This is invigorating and no-nonsense Beethoven, which has undeniable advantages. By the time I had finished listening, however, I felt that Mackerras’s approach was more successful in some symphonies than others. Those you could describe as the ‘lighter’ pieces – basically 1, 2, 4 and 8 – work superbly. I’ll come clean and say that these are also among my personal favourites among the symphonies. The First sounds here as fresh and compelling as I’ve ever heard it, and many of the details of articulation, dynamics and phrasing which have been adjusted in del Mar’s edition help to enhance this impression. The unfettered brass tone gives a dramatic edge to the sound in tuttis, and Mackerras, learning from his experience with ‘period’ ensembles, has encouraged his timpanist to use appropriately hard sticks. The extraordinary Menuetto (really a prototype Scherzo) benefits particularly well from this treatment.

The Second Symphony, too, succeeds particularly well, though the climax of the first movement’s coda doesn’t quite work. There is a thrilling build up, capped by the chain of suspensions in the trumpets. Mackerras loses the tension, though, and allows the entry of the trumpets to be a sudden burst of sound rather than a true culmination – disappointing. The Larghetto which follows, on the other hand, is wholly delightful, with expressive and stylish solos from the RLPO’s very fine woodwind and horns.

Symphony no.4 is similarly entertaining, though Mackerras chooses to ignore the ma non troppo (i.e. ‘not too much’) qualification of the final Allegro, and lets it rather run away. Not surprisingly, the bassoon and clarinet versions of the main theme are just an unhappy blur – no criticism of the players, this, just of the tempo. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about exactly when and why Beethoven added that ‘ma non troppo’ but if your tempo doesn’t allow the players to articulate clearly, then it’s the wrong tempo.

The Eighth – small in scale but weighty in imagination – gets a truly brilliant performance, emphasising its quirkiness and outrageous humour. Now and again, though, there are balance problems; listen to the beginning (CD 2, track 5), for example, where the tutti is bright and integrated, and the following wind phrases come over attractively. But when the violins take up the theme again, they sound thin and under-powered. I sense that this may be the fault of the recording rather than the musicians, resulting from the desire to create a bright sound in which all the detail in the wind can be clearly heard. It’s a tough call, because this really does have huge advantages. Beethoven was sometimes inclined to be optimistic about the chances of internal orchestral detail coming across to the listener (he wasn’t the only one!), and in these recordings very little is lost, though there is no feeling of artificial ‘spotlighting’. Nevertheless, the violins in particular sometimes lose out, as they do here.

All of the above performances, then, are sparkling, and I have, as you can see, very few reservations. But what of the other symphonies? The Pastoral responds particularly well to the Mackerras treatment, and By the Brook receives one of the loveliest performances I have heard. The del Mar edition has the strings muted throughout, which imparts a whole new tone-colour to the movement, giving it a hazy, summer afternoon feel to it that is very beautiful to hear. The Storm gets the full treatment, building up to a really massive outburst, after which the tranquillity of the Shepherds’ Hymn is that much more affecting.

The Eroica on the other hand, seemed less satisfactory. The feeling of ‘hurry, hurry, hurry’ invades the music in the broad spaces of the first movement, and although it gains in structural tightness, it loses some of the epic quality that the music surely needs. The Funeral March, too, seems lacking in space, so that the full drama of its later outbursts feel underplayed and lacking in their full significance. For my money, Abbado’s recent BPO recording, for one, captures both the energy and the breadth of this work more completely. I have similar feelings about the first two movements of number seven, though the finale is undeniably thrilling.

But it is the Choral which, annoyingly, is the least satisfactory performance in the set. The first movement is great – powerful, full of sensational contrasts, and very dramatic. The Scherzo, too, is very fine, and I was delighted to hear the famous high Fs from bass trombone (CD5, track 2, 6:50), which Berlioz loved so much, so very clearly. The slower tempo for the Trio, which took some getting used to, works very well, makes great musical sense, allowing awkward bassoon, horn and oboe solos to be played with grace and style as they surely should be.

The slow movement and finale, though, are a different story. The sublime Adagio molto cantabile never achieves the kind of inwardness it must have if it is to be the spiritual core of the work – though I fully acknowledge that Mackerras may not conceive of it as such – and always sounds hurried. The players are clearly having to consciously resist their urge to phrase more spaciously, with the result that the music doesn’t breathe in the way that I feel it should. Similarly with the finale; passing over the sad fact that the RLPO ‘cellos and basses are not heard at their best in the recitativo sections at the start of the movement, there is still a feeling that Mackerras is relentlessly pushing forward, determined never to allow the music to relax or ‘spread’. This is most painfully evident in the B major quartet for his otherwise impressive group of soloists (CD5, track 9 1:19), who sound here deeply uncomfortable (though Terfel is, as ever, magnificent throughout the movement). The recording is not kind, either, to the RLP Choir, who struggle at times to project their tone convincingly through the orchestral textures.

Despite these reservations, this is a superb set. In fact, I would argue that the chances of any conductor producing a set of all nine symphonies that any one fully conscious listener will find totally convincing are about Zero! I loved listening to all of these performances, and it left me, once again, in awe of the achievement represented by these stupendous works.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 


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