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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
The Symphonies
Disc 1: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1797); Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op.55 (1803)
Disc 2: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1802); Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1808)
Disc 3: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op.60 (1806) and Symphony No. 6 in F Major "Pastoral", Op.68 (1808)
Disc 4: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op.92 (1812) and Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op.93 (1812)
Disc 5: Symphony No. 9 (1824)
Barbara Bonney (sop), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Kurt Streit (ten), Thomas Hampson (bar), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live, April - May 2002, Vienna
Full Price
EMI CLASSICS 557 445 2 [5CDs: 75’13+64’03+78’29+65’53+69’55]


Reviewing from a promotional set bereft of notes (and recording information) is actually a blessing. If there’s an interview with Sir Simon to read, I haven’t! Thus these recordings are approached free of influence. This is an important release, without doubt, because of Rattle’s high-profile position, his quest to go beyond music’s surface and, perhaps too consciously, put his mark on whatever he is conducting. His partnership with the Vienna Philharmonic in music that it knows intimately and innately, and historically, is undoubtedly the sort of thing that publicists salivate over.

The end results though, viewed overall, do not match the promise. There’s only one place to start – the Fifth Symphony. EMI has previously released this work with the VPO and Rattle [5571652, the coupling being the Brahms violin concerto with Kyung-Wha Chung]. The version in the set is different (and was always meant to be), yet I know not from when this dates in relation to the earlier issue, which was recorded in December 2000. There is little difference between them – more so in noises-off than interpretation, in fact – for the movements’ timings are virtually identical. Such facts mean nothing though, for Rattle’s measure of the music, second time round, is that little more assured and imposing. Yet his symbiosis of seeing the score ‘for today’ and charting it from its inception in terms of performance style is a distracting mix. That said, the slow movement is more fluid, less studied than before, while the Finale is a tad more majestic – same cloth, slightly better finished (see piccolo comments later). Comparing the famous Morse opening of the Fifth finds the ‘new’ version with even dryer-sounding middle and bass frequencies – enough to remind me of Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players.

Reservations about Rattle’s symbiotic address to this music dog one’s listening. That three of the symphonies are in top-ranking renditions is in itself a conundrum when six are not. In a nutshell, Rattle is prissy with dynamics, and amidst the classical cut and thrust there are also romantic leanings; one can mitigate the other. Questions about vibrato or non-vibrato (or somewhere between the two) and expressive ‘swelling’ – matters of authenticity in other words – are not really answered. Rattle picks and mixes. There’s also no end of point-making and, at times, one wonders what it is Rattle is trying to say, especially when he underlines partials within phrases. This is before the heady subjects of tempo and repeats are raised.

Repeats are all in place (nearly), doubly so with the scherzo da capos in the first two symphonies. Yet Rattle doesn’t take them in the Eighth, despite the scheme being the same; the work’s ‘nostalgic’ stance, the Scherzo is cast as a minuet, surely warrants the same rule being applied. With the Scherzo of No. 5 there remains the doubt as to if Beethoven’s copyist simply failed to put the requisite instruction in … yet the return of the Scherzo in the Finale suggests that a once-through approach is all that is needed; that’s what Rattle does unlike, say, Abbado whose Berlin Philharmonic DG set is surprisingly disappointing in shrinking the worlds that each symphony occupies, the first two aside. Anyone familiar with Boulez’s Klemperer-like Fifth (New Philharmonia/Sony) will know that he repeats the Scherzo but not the Finale’s exposition, which seems to make the last movement the interloper. As for tempo – Rattle is fast, very fast and too fast. Yet sometimes he’s under, which is very agreeable, and shows a healthy disregard for slavish following – but if only he’d drawn back in some movements.

There are so many Beethoven symphony cycles out there. I’ve just been glorying in Eugen Jochum’s 1950/1960s traversals, newly restored on DG. Give me a choice between him and Rattle, and I’ll take Jochum. Fortunately one can have as many recordings of Beethoven symphonies as can be afforded, stored and listened to. Rattle’s versions do not sweep the board, and if there is more dismay than illumination, there’s no doubting the individuality and personality of the music-making (certainly in comparison with Abbado). Yet Beethoven’s inspiration seems less momentous than the so-called traditional view of Jochum – the Eroica being a prime example: Jochum is magnificent, while Rattle just spins through it.

With Symphony No.1, Rattle’s ‘historical awareness’ is immediately established in the way short notes are treated, with little decay of the note itself allowed, which in itself doesn’t entirely square with the resonant acoustic of, I assume, Vienna’s Musikverein, which proves too cavernous; albeit the recording team play a significant part in ensuring detail is heard – natural recording this ain’t. No.1 is lithe and ebullient; the second movement ‘walks’ convincingly. The formula is in place – swift, over-fussy, with the ear too often tweaked with interpretative possibilities so as to deviate the message. Similarly numbers 2 and 4. There’s no lack of eagerness in the former, or radiance in the latter, yet both Finales are so fast. While one can admire the remarkable VPO flying as a totally unanimous unit, statement of intent is lost to the metronome; there’s no room for wit – the double basses’ pick-up as the Fourth’s Finale development begins is without humour (try Paul Kletzki and the Czech Philharmonic, Supraphon, at this point for a chuckle). With Rattle, the Fourth’s Finale is rather akin to a Conlon Nancarrow player-piano study, the bassoon’s interjection near the computer-generated.

The Eroica begins with hefty and energising chords – which Zubin Mehta once cited as a Webernesque solution to the slow introduction – with the exposition fiery if a little precipitated; all rather hasty and I now think the exposition is best non-repeated. Yet the whole movement fails to engage in this hasty traversal. The Eroica’s funeral march opens darkly and then skips disconcertingly. The gap between Scherzo and Finale is frustratingly too long for movements that really need to be indivisible.

No. 7 opens broadly and expressively, a faster pace then jolts, dynamic diversion and note selecting remaining part of the Rattle agenda. If the exposition has its punches slightly pulled, Rattle’s tracing of lines and the flecks of sound he elicits from the second violins (seated on the right) make for a gloriously untrammelled Seventh. The Scherzo goes like the wind with an incisiveness that is exhilarating; the Trio keeps moving too in a wholly convincing way – no false rhetoric here. Rattle notes the Scherzo should be faster than the Finale – so too Bernstein – which means he doesn’t push the last movement and allows it to grow to an inebriated conclusion.

The Pastoral is also a great success. Here Rattle perceives beyond the metronome for a gloriously spacious account (Harnoncourt offers a similar ploy), quite sentimental in fact – more a remembrance of happy days in the country – and especially so in the ‘thanksgiving’ finale, which I find very moving. The Scene by the Brook entwines relaxation and motion perfectly; how articulate the trills (with ‘historical’ upper notes) are and how eloquent the whole movement is, the VPO feeding-in lines of communication that is second nature, and proving to be balm to the ear and soul. The peasants’ ensuing merry-making is surprisingly genteel – cucumber sandwiches and doilies – although Rattle introduces more drive to round things off for something less garden-party and altogether earthier.

I could have bracketed the 8th with symphonies 1, 2 and 4 – a perhaps-perceived ‘little’ work; it is anything but of course (ditto the other so-grouped symphonies) for although the 8th’s demeanour is concentrated there is great force of purpose in its economical design. Rattle’s breadth for the opening movement is as surprising as it is welcome – rather noble, and enlivened by twinkles of subsidiary detail. Rattle joins a select club of conductors who place no ritardando on the closing bar – it’s so much funnier, and Rattle really gets the joke across. Actually, this is a pretty superb No.8, characterised and detailed in the most pertinent way, not least in the ‘metronomic’ second and ebullient fourth, the latter’s important timpani writing beautifully clear.

But I’m afraid the Ninth, the Choral, is maybe the set’s big letdown. Earthbound! What are the asides that Rattle introduces from 2’35" in the opening movement all about? They’re intrusive enough to go back several times to see if one can understand why Rattle should make delectable this moment. Haven’t worked it out yet. When faced with Solti’s first Chicago recording (Decca) or the magnificent live Klemperer on Testament, Rattle is curiously circumspect. The subito accelerando at 4’07" makes little sense, and the tempestuous outburst in the development may indeed be hair-raising … but how did we reach this temperature? The played-down opening doesn’t signal anything like this. There’s a difference between step-by-step arrival (Rattle’s way) and getting somewhere on an upward sliding scale.

The Scherzo finds Rattle not repeating the (to my mind) vital second section. While plenty of conductors do not take this repeat (the majority probably), Rattle’s decision is extraordinary in context. Just as well, perhaps, given the movement, although resounding to chatter, doesn’t have much to say; it’s muscle-bound rather than energised, timpani dominating, with the Trio having an Elysian air, save nothing framing it to so justify. And the tempo relation between the two sections, while artlessly achieved, reminds that Celibidache (also EMI) in his written note expounds a mathematical equation for Scherzo and Trio, arrives at speeds that are unique, and claims he is right. He may be, but that means every other conductor is wrong, including Rattle.

The slow movement, genuinely slow too, and taking 17 minutes (the average is about 14; Abbado is 12’48"), is affecting if reaching no particular lofty heights. Come the choral Finale – again, the pause before its launch is too long and thus tension-losing – the dissonant onslaught (and, once more, before the baritone requests a change of direction) is perfunctory, too analysed. The ‘ode’ theme itself grows to become a big hug from an old mate – very nice in itself if not exactly universal, and curiously disengaging.

‘Phone a friend’ (remember, I have no info) – but, please, no comments on Rattle’s conducting – to identify the soloists: Barbara Bonney, Birgit Remmert, Kurt Streit and Thomas Hampson, and the CBSO Chorus (the local choir must have been a bit put out!). Mr Hampson is from afar, then he joins the quartet of singers, just a couple of minutes later, rather closer. The choir’s close too; somehow this telescoping of the image makes the performance more small-scale than it might otherwise have been. The perspective throughout this movement is something of a moveable feast and really puts the seal on the overall disappointment this Choral registers. But then I have reservations about the sound throughout. A close (for the most part) orchestra in a big acoustic with an echo-overhang at odds with the orchestral placement becomes wearing at times. In the Ninth, piccolo fanciers should listen from 16’28" in the Finale (track 5), and the choral ‘shout’ at 16’31" brought with it the visuals of a Nazi salute! Such is the dichotomy of Rattle’s overall view, one that is contemporary and personal, and one that plants ‘historical awareness’ onto whichever bit of the hill seems to warrant it – the twain rarely meet.

The piccolo – the Finale of the Fifth was the symphony first to employ this instrument (trombones also). The impudent piccolo tends to be hidden in Rattle’s first Fifth, and is altogether clearer second time round, maybe too clear. In the Pastoral’s Storm, it shrieks very effectively, again perhaps too much. And the few bars of 'piccolo concerto' in the Choral suggest an editorial fancy rather than interpretation. I must assume, again, that Rattle uses Bärenreiter as prepared by Jonathan Del Mar. In direct competition with Abbado, then, Rattle would come out on top – for being more interesting, if not necessarily convincing.

In entering the melting-pot that is Beethoven interpretation, Rattle brings distinction, imagination and has, with integrity, waited to set his thoughts down. No doubt he will record this cycle again. In ten years, say, one wonders what his approach will be, particularly as the stepping-stone aspects of his current view do not, and could not, make this set the one to have above or instead of others. If I skated over the Eroica, it’s because I think Rattle does too – no grandeur (Giulini), no triumph (Szell), nothing egalitarian (Fournet) and not fully grieving in the funereal Adagio (Colin Davis). Rattle is no better or worse than other attempts to reconcile the music’s history and its relevance. Harnoncourt is perhaps the leading-light here, and while one can list Rattle’s ‘pros and cons’, there’s no doubting his engrossment with the music. While symphonies 6, 7 and 8 are very fine, and much looked-forward to playing again, the others are littered with enough doubts of translation to place this set in the ‘interesting’ and ‘for reference’ category.

Colin Anderson


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