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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Nine Symphonies

Symphony no.1 in C op.21 (1800)
Symphony no.3 in Eb, op.55 Eroica (1805)
Symphony no.5 in C minor op.67 (1808)
Symphony no.7 in A op.92 (1813)
Symphony no.2 in D op.36 (1803)
Symphony no.6 in F op.68 Pastoral (1808)
Overture: Coriolan op.62(1807)
Symphony no.4 in Bb op.60 (1807)
Symphony no.8 in F op.93 (1814)
Symphony no.9 in D minor op.125 Choral (1824)
Jean Glennon, soprano, Dalia Schaeter, contralto, Algirdas Janutas, tenor, Benno Schollum, bass
Kaunas State Choir of Lithuania
Sinfonia Varsovia/Menuhin
Recorded at the Salle Erasme, Palais de Musique, Strasbourg, June 1994
WARNER APEX 2564 60457 2 [5CDs: 77:08+72:06+76:17+66:15+66:26]

These CDs contain recordings of live performances of the complete Beethoven symphonies which Menuhin gave with the Polish chamber orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia in Strasbourg in the summer of 1994. The set really is great value at around £20 for the 5 discs, though you will have to put up with introductory applause and a certain amount of ‘ambient noise’ from the audience – very little, though; Strasbourgers (if they call themselves such) in June seem to be blessedly free of chest ailments! The performances fizz with life, yet have few of the rough edges and other deficiencies that one sometimes finds in recordings of live concerts. There are occasional uncomfortable moments – a tentative, half-fluffed oboe entry in the Andante of no.1, a little untidiness in the first movement exposition of the Pastoral, some less than ideally beautiful clarinet tone in the Adagio of no.9. But these are small things, and the playing of the Sinfonia Varsovia is generally of an extremely high standard.

The performances themselves have been meticulously prepared by Menuhin and his musicians. There is nothing routine here, and, though the great man’s view of the music could, I suppose, be described as relatively ‘traditional’, yet there is a constant awareness of his lively, searching musical mind re-discovering the music. As you might expect, he is particularly alert to the possibilities of string textures, often the accompanying tremolando or repeated notes in the inner parts, which can so easily be ignored or thought of as ‘padding’. To give just one example, the stormy passage that disrupts the serenity of the glorious Adagio of Symphony no.4 (CD 4, track 3, after 4:30) is driven by repeated semiquavers in the strings, which Menuhin gets his players to push hard right up to the sudden diminuendo. It’s small touches like this – of which there are many – that bring the often familiar textures of this music brilliantly to life.

Tempi, too, are interesting. They tend to be on the brisk side, sometimes quite surprisingly so. The first movement of the Eroica moves along with great gusto, and this symphony benefits as a whole from Menuhin’s energetic projection. I far prefer his treatment to the broader approach on show when, for example, Barenboim brought his East/West Divan Orchestra to the Proms recently (though there was plenty to admire on that wonderful occasion). The finale of the Choral has an equal dynamism, Menuhin pressing the music forward urgently. Even the final tender choral repetition of the word ‘Elysium’ is not allowed to hold up the headlong career of the music up to the final bar.

The lighter symphonies – 1,2 , 4 and 8 – get wonderfully sparkling performances, full of fun and humour. OK, the finale of the 4th is marked Allegro moderato, instead of which we get a hectic moto perpetuo. But if it’s the spirit that matters more than the letter, then Menuhin has got his priorities 100% right. And, despite its general good humour, the first movement of Symphony no.8 is allowed to build considerable tension as the climax of the development is reached. Another interesting aspect of Menuhin’s concept of these works arises at this point too. The ’cellos, basses and bassoons announce the recapitulation of the first theme, and orchestral balance is a notoriously tricky issue here (CD4, track 6 after 5:30). Beethoven doesn’t help by marking the whole orchestra fff, one of the very rare occasions on which he used this dynamic. Most conductors get the other instruments to play softer so that the theme can be heard. But Menuhin’s instinct is not to adjust balance in this way, rather to present the music ‘warts and all’ as it were. There are other moments when Beethoven’s judgement may not have been spot on (though it could have at least something to do with the heavier sound of modern instruments), notably in the first movements of the Choral and Eroica, and again, Menuhin plays them as they are. This is an honest, not an insensitive, approach which I understand and applaud. And there are plenty of other instances where details not always easily caught come over clear as a bell.

The only movement where I wasn’t convinced by Menuhin’s approach was the first of the Fifth. His article on this supremely famous work (well the first five bars anyway) in the accompanying booklet is mainly concerned with issues of phrasing, and very interesting it is. However, that wasn’t the issue for me. Instead of the usual emphatic, detached playing of the three quavers in the famous opening phrase, Menuhin asks his string players to keep their bows on the string, resulting in a very different, smoother sound from that which we are used to. That in itself is of course no bad thing, but … I remain to be convinced by the result!

Menuhin includes all repeats in these performances, which, given the quality of the music-making, is a great commendation. It not only means that we get some substantial chunks of music that we don’t usually hear (e.g. the ‘first-time bar’ in the exposition of the Eroica, often omitted), but restores the correct proportions to movements that are often unintentionally stunted. Oddly enough, it’s the finales that benefit most, in particular those of the 7th and 8th symphonies, both of which have huge codas. These second development sections, which is what they effectively are, can seem over-extended, but with the repeat of the movements’ expositions, they fall into place perfectly.

The recordings are excellent, though the finale of the 9th is the least satisfactory – it sounds a bit cramped, as though the microphones were placed a little too close to the vocal soloists. But generally the sound is clear, well-balanced and atmospheric, and, as mentioned above, largely unspoilt by audience noise These bargain discs are another wonderful tribute to one of the most thoughtful and sensitive musicians of the 20th century.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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