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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 Eroica (1803) [49:54]
Symphony no. 8 in F major, op. 93 (1813) [25:25]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Všnskš
rec. June 2005, January 2006, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
BIS SACD-1516 [76:16]
 

We live in interesting times.† Major record labels have abandoned major American orchestras.† Some have resorted to starting their own record label, as is the case with the San Francisco Symphony.† Others are being rescued by Ö the Scandinavians!† The Philadelphia Orchestra is being recorded on Ondine.† Now, Swedish label BIS is recording the Minnesota Orchestra in that seemingly unlikeliest of ventures in a purportedly glutted record market: another Beethoven symphony cycle.
 
So, do we need a Beethoven cycle from Minnesota?† Well, one important consideration is that this is recorded in (hybrid, meaning you can play it on a regular CD player as well) SACD.† It is not unique in this regard.† Thereís a cycle conducted by Masur from Leipzig (Pentatone 5186159) and yet another reissue of Karajanís 1963 Berlin cycle (DG 000165536).† But Všnskš and BIS are getting in at the beginning of this game, especially if, like me, you are not so fond of the Germanic school of conducting.
 
However, I havenít yet made the jump to SACD.† If you have, and you like your Beethoven in the small-modern-orchestra, HIP-aware style of Harnoncourt, this release is likely to be self-recommending.† (Included with this CD is a little brochure, dated April 2006, of SACD releases to date by BIS.† There are 42 of them, including a complete set of Bachís organ works that has been miraculously shrunk to five discs.† How many LPs was Hurfordís set?† But I digress, as technology marches onÖ)† For those of us still augmenting our conventional CD collection, however, it may be a harder sell.† It is best described as good, but variable, Beethoven at premium price.†
 
It is probably indicative of my becoming interested in and educated about classical music in the 1990s that for the Beethoven symphonies I imprinted on the then-new recordings with Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the bargain-priced Szell/Cleveland Orchestra recordings on Sony Essential Classics which were even available for a while at the local convenience store.† Listening to Szellís version of the third and eighth symphonies (Sony SBK 46328) in comparison to Všnskšís show the former to be quite aged in sonic terms.† Yet Szellís performance of the Eroica is superior.† He sustains an ever-present sense of tension and drama, a sense that something important is at issue, that is comparatively lacking in the better-sounding version.†
 
The difference between the two performances of the eighth symphony is more marked.† Všnskšís approaches the level of a run-through: it never really catches fire, or dances in the way that this symphony must.
 
Harnoncourtís recordings of these symphonies (the set was available as Teldec 0225401, I cannot imagine they will be out of the catalogue for long) combine Všnskšís architectural virtues, and Szellís with the drama and dance of the music, to a wonderful feeling for orchestral color and a perfectly-timed sense of when to dig into a phrase.† These remain my favorite recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies.
 
The liner notes for the BIS issue, written by Barry Cooper, provide useful and interesting material regarding the history and musical genesis of each symphony.† They are also remarkably clearly written.
 
I hope that, in choosing to record music as mainstream as Beethovenís symphonies, that Všnskš does not abandon the valuable work that he has done so well, that of championing Nordic composers who deserve to be better known.

Brian Burtt
 

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