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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 4 in B flat
Symphony no. 5 in C minor
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Rec. 1999 DDD
ELATUS (WARNER CLASSICS) 2564-600012-2 [79.48]


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This is a very disappointing disc on many counts.

First, the sound is dry. Second, the performances are wayward and often dull and third, Sir Roger Norrington's recent performances put these performances to shame.

The Symphony no. 4 is a sunny sparkling work but not so here. It opens well with a real sense of mystery but perhaps a little too polished and clinical but the eerieness is certainly there. It plods a bit, particularly when the pizzicato accompaniment is introduced. The first powerful entry is somewhat raw and the sound is both dry and clipped and this unsatisfactory sound pervades the whole disc. The main allegro lacks the attack and energy that Norrington gives it (Hänssler CD93.085) and the striding bass line is lost with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. In fact, the recording favours the treble sound at the expense of the bass and one can be forgiven in believing that the double basses are on strike and the timpanist is in another room. To add to the frustration my copy was damaged at 4 and a half minutes in. The performance is too clinical and lacking in the vibrancy and energy that Norrington gives to it. At times Harnoncourt makes the music muddy and there is a definite lack of clarity. The balance is wrong and the tempo too slow. There is a lack of drive and the sunny disposition of the music is completely lost. In some respects the performance is so highly polished that the drama and joy is lost. The section of quiet foreboding drags and lacks tension. Even in the glorious moments exuberance and joy simply is not there. This Teutonic style of playing Beethoven is always unsatisfactory and, in any event, weren't Beethoven's antecedents Dutch? This movement is too leisurely and anaemic.

The slow movement is a truly lovely movement but, as with the previous movement, details do not come through. They do in the Norrington version. Here the music is too refined or cautious. I was troubled by the balance which again favours the top register. There is cold emotion here and it does not convince or communicate. The horn playing is immaculate.

The scherzo is a little tacky reminding me of a cheap fairground. The excessive refinement of the earlier movements now does a U-turn. The trio is nondescript and sterile.

The finale fares better at times although the high register is too strong. The oboist is very good but the music is cluttered. It does not have the clarity of line one is entitled to expect. The music lacks the sparkle and freshness.

I will not listen to this performance again.

The Symphony no. 5 is famous but if I were listening to it for the first time in this performance I would hate it. The opening phrase is almost right. Few conductors get it right. It is a quaver rest followed by three quavers, bar line and a minim. Most conductors play the first bar as three equal notes as three crotchets in a triplet and emphasise the first note as if were the first beat of the bar. Others hang on the first note making it a crotchet followed by two quavers. How can professionals make such ghastly mistakes? It probably stems from the abuse of this phrase during the war when it was used as a sort of victory theme.

Some of the playing is smudgy and the horns sometimes sound like klaxons and quite ludicrous. The performance is somewhat raucous and there are terrible lapses of control (5. 10 and 6 35, for example).

The slow movement begins with a sound like a bee in a matchbox but Harnoncourt brilliantly captures the Alla marcia material. What I cannot abide is the sudden and unauthorised sforzandos which Rattle also indulges in so that the music becomes a caricature. The movement does not hang together but is like a patchwork quilt and a tatty one at that.

The scherzo is a strange movement. Again there is a lack of control. The music does not gel and when the quiet music arrives there is an evident lack of purpose and direction in this performance. I listened to Reiner's performance to see and hear how it was done and marvelled at this older version.

The finale lacks power and excitement. It is not triumphant or exultant. At times it is positively limp and at 5.45 Beethoven reverts to his bad habit of a slowing down process which eventually leads to a race to the finishing post and all those crashing chords which are tedious.

The Egmont overture is a fine piece but here we have another heavy performance. The brass is often raucous and vulgar. The quick section is muddy and madly out of control with wayward tempi and that ghastly dry sound. All the music sounds stale. And it is not real Beethoven!

Totally unacceptable if you love your Beethoven!

David C F Wright

David Wright's essay on Beethoven on this website



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