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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68 (1808)
Overture: Leonore No. 1, Opus 138 (1807)
Overture: Leonore No. 2, Opus 72 (1805)
Overture: Leonore No. 3, Opus 72a (1806)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Rec 21-24 May 2001 (Symphony), 3-7 June 2002 (Overtures), Örebro Concert Hall
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Here is another interesting Beethoven issue from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard. The coupling of the Pastoral Symphony with the three Leonore Overtures is imaginative enough, though a logical addition would have been the Fidelio Overture. However, since this plays for six or seven minutes it might have been a tight fit on a single CD. Still a pity and a missed opportunity.

To take the Overtures first: these are dramatic performances, as Dausgaard’s previous issues in his Beethoven series have been. The music sounds best when it is moving full tilt at a genuine Allegro tempo, and in this sense the more aggressive aspects of the Second and Third Overtures are particularly exciting. With a smaller ensemble performing the music, it might have seemed likely that the slighter Leonore No. 1 would fare best. In fact it does not, since the opening paragraph of the piece suffers from scrawny violin sound. In all the music, the symphony included, the lack of bloom in the violin sound is something of a problem, as though the addition of an extra desk of violins might have given the ensemble more body. On the other hand, perhaps the recording does not capture the sound to best advantage.

Beauty of sound is always one of the options in performances of the Pastoral Symphony; and while not every conductor will put this at the top of the priorities list, the lack of body from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s violins does detract from the music’s lyrical qualities. Accordingly those aspects of the work that rely on rhythmic precision and vitality, such as the scherzo of the Peasants’ Merrymaking and the intensity of the Storm, are the high points of this performance. That said, the somewhat underpowered timpani could have made more impact in the latter.

The various solos are particularly well taken. The imitations of birdsong in the second movement are a good example, and the horn leading the way towards the Shepherds’ Thanksgiving is another. This is fine playing and does great credit to all concerned. But as the music moves towards its affirmative conclusion, with the profound message of ‘man at one with nature’, there is room for more warmth in the orchestral sound. This is true also at the very beginning of the symphony, ‘the awakening of happy feelings upon arrival in the country’, which seems somehow to be matter-of-fact.

Of course, there is always more than one way to approach and perform a masterpiece of the symphonic literature, and Dausgaard and his orchestra bring freshness and commitment to every bar. Therefore each listener must decide whether this chamber orchestra approach suits the music better than the larger scale performances, such as the famous one by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm (DG), that remain at the head of the list of recommended recordings.

Terry Barfoot

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