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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies (complete)

Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1800)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36 (1802)
ABC CLASSICS 461917-2 [53.56]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, "Eroica" (1803)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806)
ABC CLASSICS 461918-2 [76.27]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808)
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, "Pastoral" (1808)
ABC CLASSICS 461919-2 [69.22]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1812)
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812)
ABC CLASSICS 461920-2 [60.38]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral" (1824)
ABC CLASSICS 461921-2 [59.25]
Sharon Prero, soprano; Elizabeth Campbell, mezzo-soprano; Keith Lewis, tenor; Bruce Martin, baritone; Opera Australia Chorus (Symphony 9)
Fortepiano continuo: Geoffrey Lancaster
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Porcelijn
Recorded between April 1999 and October 2000 at the Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania; City Recital Hall, Sydney, Australia; Llewellyn Hall, Canberra School of Music, Australia; Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne, Australia; Adelaide Town Hall, Australia; Newcastle Conservatorium, New South Wales, Australia.
ABC CLASSICS 461917-21-2


This is certainly a most handsome looking and beautifully presented set of the nine Beethoven symphonies. At mid-price these discs are available either separately or in a handsome slipcase. Each disc is contained in its own jewel case with a beautiful photograph of Tasmanian scenes by the late Peter Dombrovskis. The symphonies are presented in numerical order, two to a disc apart from the Ninth which has a disc to itself: no unwanted overtures or extra fillers. And the discs are superbly annotated.

The booklet tells us that the conductor David Porcelijn is Dutch and "Öhas a notable career in Europe and Australia." This may be so, but I must confess I had never heard of him and suspect the same may be true for other collectors too. So would it be reasonable to hand over our hard-earned cash for a set of Beethoven symphonies from the present team when so many others, far better known, are jostling for attention?

Among the hundreds of choices available the sets by Mackerras, recently issued on Classics for Pleasure, and Zinman, on Arte Nova, seem particularly interesting and inexpensive. I havenít heard all of these, but those I have heard are outstanding. Béla Drahos conducts the series on Naxos and the results are never less than satisfactory, and often, as in the case of the Ninth, much more than that. Set apart even from all these are Klempererís classic performances from the late 1950s, an astonishing bargain on nine EMI discs which also include the young Daniel Barenboimís marvellous set of the piano concertos with the same conductor.

The feature of the present performances which is not shared by any of the competitors is the presence of a fortepiano continuo. There is a short but interesting article by David Garrett explaining the reasoning behind this, and this is not the place to argue the pros and cons in detail, even if I felt sufficiently historically informed to do so. All the same the argument for using the fortepiano seems to be no more than the fact that this was often the case into the early 1840s, and even Mr. Garrett admits that there is evidence that it was not used in the earliest performances of the last symphonies. Itís an interesting idea, though, and certainly gives rise to some surprises beginning with the introduction to the First Symphony. In fact the instrument doesnít play Ė or is inaudible Ė for much of the time, but there are occasions, particularly in the later symphonies, where it takes some getting used to. The meadows scene in the Pastoral is one example, and especially in the Fifth, in the opening bars first of all, and then in the rapid quaver section of the scherzo where the effect is frankly odd. Whether or not the employment of the instrument disturbs the listener it seems to me unarguable that it is not strictly necessary. The textures are complete, even in the earlier works, and in those places where it has been decided that the continuo will play a prominent role, one has never before been aware of anything missing in the musical texture. Now this may be because we are simply used to hearing it like that, but I donít think so: hearing it with the continuo in place does not, in the last analysis, cause us to exclaim "Of course! Why has nobody ever done it like this before!"

So Iím afraid the use of the fortepiano continuo as the Unique Selling Point of this set wonít quite do, and itís just as well that the set boasts many other interesting features. First of all there is the quite outstanding accompanying material: each disc features an interesting article by Anthony Cane entitled "Beethoven and the Age of Revolt" Ė the same article with each disc Ė but where the set really scores is the analytical notes introducing each symphony, which are clear, lucid and extremely informative.

Like the conductor, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra was new to me, but it is an excellent group in every way. To judge from the sound on these discs the strings were relatively few in number for these performances, and if the result seems sometimes lacking in weight this is not always a disadvantage, and is in any case all of a piece with the interpretations. There is a clear gain from the point of view of articulation and ensemble, which is almost always outstanding. Listen to the strings in the finale of the First Symphony, both the fast solo passages from the violins and the rapid accompanying figures and you will hear what I mean. There are clearly many very fine players indeed in the wind sections too, and though this is a modern instrument ensemble, the playing is tempered by attention to period playing style, and the result is extremely satisfying. The timpani are prominent throughout which also contributes to a sense of drama not always found in other interpretations. The editions used are cited in detail, and for the most part are the new Bärenreiter editions edited by Jonathan del Mar, which are also used by David Zinman in his Arte Nova set.

David Porcelijnís view of the Beethoven symphonies is more or less consistent throughout the set. Tempi are on the rapid side, especially of the slow movements where he rarely allows the music to linger. He avoids any suspicion of slower tempi in the trio sections of the scherzi, but there is a certain amount of rubato, in the horn-dominated trio of the Eroica scherzo, for example. All marked repeats are respected. He is perhaps more interested in clarity and articulation than in massiveness and weight, which is as valid a way of seeing this music as any other, and you will respond to it more or less according to your own view of these works. All these features are evident in the First Symphony, whose finale positively fizzes with life. It is in such movements that for all his granite-like strength, the limitations of Klempererís approach are most evident. Much the same may be said of the finale of the Second Symphony, where even more, as well as in the first movement, the virtuosity of the strings is much in evidence, both in melodic passages and in rapid accompanying figures.

The Third Symphony receives an excellent performance which manages very well to combine the twin virtues of clarity and strength. The heavy, syncopated chords at the end of the first movement exposition are as weighty as you could wish for, with accents superbly incisive, and if the level of tension drops slightly at certain points in the development section the conductor whips up his orchestra to make a fearsome noise towards the end. Itís all very convincing, though you wonít hear the sheer wildness of Bernstein in his celebrated New York version on Sony (originally CBS). I donít think Iíve ever heard the double basses make quite such an eerie noise at the beginning of the slow movement as I did here, though the movement as a whole is perhaps not quite funereal enough, with some accompanying figures jaunty rather than sombre. The scherzo and finale are both excellent, though here again there is perhaps a slight lack of abandon compared to the very finest readings, and I find the Porcelijn doesnít quite find the way of integrating the slower passage of the finale into the movement as a whole, and the coda lacks a sense of finality and inevitability as a result.

The most successful passages in the reading of the Fourth Symphony are undoubtedly those which are most rapid and robust. The slow introduction to the first movement is rather literal and lacking in mystery, but from the beginning of the main allegro the conductor sets a cracking pace which never lets up, and the rest of the movement is quite extraordinarily dramatic and successful. The conductorís refusal to linger brings its own problems in the slow movement, but the main reason why this movement seems less successful is the difficulty the group have sometimes in making something significant out of the accompanying figures in the strings. Solo instruments are always most eloquent and well shaped, but the underlying rapid, short note scale passages are ordinary and lacking in character and purpose. Purpose returns with a vengeance in the scherzo, though the trio could have been more lilting. The finale is a riot of good nature and exciting high spirits, quite brilliantly played by the Tasmanian ensemble, their string section demonstrating once again an excellent unanimity of attack and articulation.

The Fifth Symphony is seen and played as a logical continuation of the earlier symphonies rather than as a sudden and quite separate revolutionary gesture. There is thus a certain lightness of touch which many will find unconvincing, though it is important to stress that this does not mean that the drama, nor even the power of the piece is absent. The scherzo is very rapid and the quaver passage for cellos and basses, difficult to make convincing at the best of times, sounds somewhat grotesque at this speed, an impression not helped by the presence of the fortepiano. There isnít much mystery about in the passage leading into the finale and we therefore note a consequent lack of triumph in the finaleís opening notes. The edition used here will surprise listeners who have never heard it, as the repeats in the scherzo are not at all what we are used to.

The Pastoral is a delight throughout, always in keeping with the overall view of the series, providing a storm, for instance, where bite and accent are favoured over weight and power. The dancing and singing is beautifully done.

One of the earliest LPs I ever bought was of Beethovenís Seventh Symphony. It was on the Wing label and Paul Paray conducted (I think) the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately my entire collection was stolen from a London student flat in 1971 and I havenít heard that performance since, but I have memories of a view of Beethoven perhaps compatible with the conductorís Gallic origins. I remember in particular how the first flute positively sang the first subject of the first movement allegro without for one moment sacrificing the rhythmic drive which is so important in that melody and, of course, in the whole symphony. The principal flute of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra doesnít quite achieve that, but the playing shares a sense of style with the version I wore out so many years ago. That said, the reading of the Seventh Symphony is one of the less successful of the present series. Where elsewhere the conductorís refusal to tarry may be seen as a strength, here, especially in the opening slow introduction, the playing seems finally to lack weight and import. Neither is he totally successful in maintaining the excruciatingly difficult dotted rhythm in the first movement allegro. The second movement is taken relatively quickly Ė though the booklet notes suggest that "Beethoven showed himself anxious [it] should not be taken too fast Ė and the conductor does not allow himself even a little affectionate ritenuto on the four rising notes with which the movement ends. The trio of the third movement, again all of a piece with the conductorís view, slows very little from the basic tempo, but much more important than that is a shortage of strength, of muscle in the sound. Much the same may be said of the finale, excellent though the playing is. Everything is in place, but the team donít seem to be able to inject much meaning into those repeated rhythmic figures, and the result is a reading of the Seventh where the clarity of texture we have by now come to expect brings with it a serious lack of power.

Just as Porcelijn seems to see the Eroica in the context of the first two, more classically oriented symphonies, so he places the Eighth Symphony squarely in the final series of three. His reading runs for twenty-four minutes, but the result is anything but small. Through a careful control of forte and accent the reading is sharply dramatic in the first movement, with superbly incisive horns. The finale too, is very driven and the string articulation in rapid passages is for once less than impeccable. The conductor is clearly so convinced of what he is doing that the listener comes to respect his point of view, but I miss the charm to be heard in many other readings, and when even the second and third movements, as here, lack humour and lightness of touch, I prefer to listen to Abbado, who seems to find more variety of expression in the music without for a moment sacrificing the muscle and the drama.

I suppose any set of Beethoven symphonies stands or falls by the quality of its "Choral", so Iím sad to report that this reading of the Ninth Symphony gave me little pleasure. Timings alone are no indication of quality nor of the relative profundity of different readings, but it is instructive, all the same, to note that whilst both Klemperer and Kurt Masur (in his 1974 reading on Philips) take just over seventeen minutes for the first movement, Porcelijn dispatches it in fourteen, and even Harnoncourt adds a whole minute to the Dutchmanís timing. To stay with Harnoncourt, who is no slouch, he adds a minute and a half to the twelve minutes Porcelijn passes on the slow movement, and he needs twenty four and a half minutes for the choral finale, against Porcelijnís twenty-one. The result of this, almost everywhere, is a fatal lack of breadth and grandeur, though it really isnít only a matter of tempo. The opening of the symphony, for example doesnít feel too fast, but there is not a trace of mystery here, and as the movement progresses you realise that the lack of variety and flexibility of pulse is robbing the music of its significance leading to whole passages which seem to pass for little. The scherzo sets off at a cracking tempo, but there is no variety of articulation and hence no power, no sense at all of inexorable drive. Itís here, too, that the limitations of the recording are first noticeable. This is the only symphony of the nine to be recorded in what I imagine is the orchestraís base in Hobart, but the sound is curiously cavernous and short on physical impact. The fortissimo passages in the scherzo are frankly feeble, though I fear this is not only the fault of the recording. The slow movement suffers from the weakness noted earlier, namely an inability to inject subsidiary voices with significance, transforming quaver and semi quaver accompanying passages into mere "knitting" (as French orchestral players often say.) The big fanfares near the end of the movement are terribly disappointing. After this any hopes that the finale will redeem the performance are unfounded. The opening gesture, whether through the playing or the recording, is feeble, and the conductorís dogged determination to have his cellos and basses play the recitatives in the opening pages in strict time leads to an effect which is faintly comic. Neither does he want to wait at all at the ends of important sections: thus the main theme is already well under way when the reverberation from the previous cadence has died away, and march begins so promptly after the chorusís blazing F major chord, and with the bassoons, double bassoons and bass drum making such a strange noise that I thought the first note was an offstage incident. The poor tenor does as well as he can with the tempo set for him, and the same goes for the other members of the solo quartet. They are recorded forward, however, and often obscure orchestral detail. The chorus works hard too, but this is such a difficult and sometimes unsatisfying work to sing, and I wonder how much pleasure they got from this performance, so unyielding is the rhythm, and so often are they instructed to sing in a dry, very staccato manner.

There are many good things in this set. The first disc, coupling the first two symphonies, is a clear winner and I enjoyed the disc coupling the Eroica and the Fourth also. If the Fifth might strike some listeners as too lightweight Iím sure few would be disappointed by the Pastoral. Want of strength and power compromises the reading of the Seventh Symphony, and I donít myself respond very favourably to the conductorís view of the Eighth. The Ninth is, to my ears, a disaster. For the earlier symphonies, then, the only reason to hesitate is the embarrassing richness of choice available. And of course there are a number of "maverick" Beethoven symphonies that should be in every collection. Only a fool would pass over Bernstein in the Eroica, Karl Böhm in the Fifth, Carlos Kleiber conducting the Fifth and Seventh or Colin Davis in the Seventh on a 1971 EMI recording. A real outsider I very much admire is the Ninth on a bargain price RCA disc conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and enterprisingly coupled with Schoenbergís A Survivor from Warsaw.

William Hedley

The Paray recording of Beethoven's 7th was with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Mercury Wing. It is now available on the Rediscovery label which also has LP transfers of other Paray-Detroit recordings that never made it to Mercury CDs (e.g. Franck's Psyche, Roussel's Spider's Feast, etc.). If you would look at their site, I think you'd be impressed with the industry of these

Eduard Perrone

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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