This is the second instalment of the first
cycle of Beethoven symphonies begun on SACD in DDD recordings.
The first volume, comprising Symphonies 4 and 5, appeared in
Vänskä treats the famous opening two chords of the Eroica
as a gruff knock on the door but is thereafter elegant in the
opening theme, with the sforzandos, the sudden strong accents,
lightly pointed yet a robust fortissimo to round it off. The
first element of the second theme (tr. 1 0:56) is self effacingly
winsome in Vänskä’s creamy presentation, the second element
(1:19) more alert and the third (1:41) persuasively comely before
a bouncy fourth and final element (2:13). But that chord repeated
five times from 2:36, though piquant, isn’t particularly tense.
Vänskä’s pacy presentation smoothes over its impact, though
he could rightly point out that Beethoven’s marking is ‘Allegro
So Vänskä’s approach, carefully crafted and finely detailed,
is fundamentally smiling. A happy hero who can sail through
challenges. The soft grained, smooth ambience of the surround
sound aids this. Three features are especially notable. First,
the magical pianissimos, the first at 2:02. Second, the vertical
clarity, as when the first theme in the violas, cellos and basses
is presented at the same time as the second theme in the violins
(6:49). Third, the finesse from 9:51 with which Vänskä brings
impetus to the striding bass and grades the crescendo and diminuendo
to a truly soft horn call at 10:59 to usher in the recapitulation.
You’ll never have heard it as soft as that before but it’s marked
pianissimo. Vänskä’s chivalrous style comes to its own in the
coda with those soft string decorations of the first theme.
It’s all fundamentally light and genial. This hero is something
of a dandy.
Vänskä’s slow movement could hardly be a greater contrast.
A very soft, veiled opening but, from the jar of the sforzando
(tr. 2 0:23) towards the end of the strings’ first theme, formality
rules. The issue with a sforzando is always how strong in context
and here I’d say too strong. The second theme at 1:03 wants
to be more humane but there are too many obstacles. The clipped
dash up the scale. The peremptory loud flourish midway. Vänskä
scrupulously observes the score markings but the overall effect
is rather stiffly self-conscious. A funeral in which all are
doing their duty rather than remembering with pride.
So the section in the major (4:23) is a grandiose assertion
without any real hope or consolation. The fugue (7:09) is stern
and rigorous, the climax from the cellos and basses’ fortissimo
entry quite grippingly stark with the trumpets thereafter sounding
like the Last Judgement. Intriguingly Vänskä allows the recapitulation
(10:28) a little more freedom to the advantage of its expressiveness.
The new theme on the first violins at 12:48 in the coda brings
an unexpected touch of tenderness and pathos.
Vänskä seems much more in his element in the Scherzo. Spring
has come. A deft, stealthy opening infused with sheer joy at
being alive and soon burgeoning. A Trio of splendid, really
blooming horns and the whole swings along.
Vänskä’s finale is also splendid. It has a party feel as he
relishes the contrasts. In variation 1 (tr. 4 0:47) it’s suave
versus pert. In variation 2 (1:22) the lower strings’ running
quavers are delightfully articulated. The fugue of variation
4 (2:37) is clearly revealed, yet has a touch of impishness.
The idyllic Poco Andante variation 8 (6:19) is so gorgeously
serene I’m looking forward to Vänskä’s Pastoral Symphony.
I compared the second
DDD recording to appear in surround sound, the London Symphony
Orchestra/Bernard Haitink recorded live in 2005 (LSO Live LSO
0580, coupled with Leonora Overture 2). Both conductors make
the first movement exposition repeat. Here are the comparative
The opening chords have crisper impact in Haitink’s hands.
This might be because the recording is more sharply etched,
partly owing to the drier ambience of the Barbican and I presume
closer miking of a concert performance. Whatever the reason,
Haitink’s recording has less dynamic contrast than Vänskä’s
but more verve in the loudest passages. So Haitink’s first movement
development climax is more exciting, the close of his coda more
He catches well the 18th century smoothness of the
work. In this his approach is comparable with Vänskä’s, though
his second theme is sunnier, less dreamy. But he counterpoises
this with 19th century dynamism. His sforzandos are
more telling. On the other hand Vänskä has a stimulating nervous
energy from the outset in the inner string parts’ rhythm and
he presents more hauntingly the new theme in the development
first heard on the oboes at 8:47.
Haitink’s slightly faster tempo for the Funeral March makes
for a more flowing sense of procession and more satisfyingly
coherent architecture, phrasing and melody. Haitink’s dynamic
contrasts, though not as intense as Vänskä’s, seem more naturally
emotive responses. For instance, the sforzando in the first
statement of the first theme is perceptible but not jolting.
There’s an inherent warmth as well as stateliness about the
proceedings. And still plenty of contrast. Haitink’s section
in C major is blithe, of a tripping nature, full of life and
with an ebullient climax before the return to present reality.
His fugal section is of imposing gravitas and dignity. On the
other hand Vänskä finely realizes the ‘sotto voce’ marked
at the start and briefly at the end of the movement. Much in
between, however, seems too craftedly dramatic and haltingly
deliberate in pulse.
Though the overall timings are virtually identical Haitink’s
Scherzo appears more eager and has more zip, though it’s less
feathery and has less finesse in dynamics than Vänskä’s. To
put it crudely, Haitink is better at the louder passages, Vänskä
at the quieter. In the Trio Vänskä’s horns take the prize for
fruitiness. Indeed the Minnesota Orchestra’s ensemble throughout
Haitink’s slightly faster finale has a cracking spontaneity.
The fugue in his fourth variation is notable for its light and
nifty, clean texture. The finely burnished first horn lead in
variation 9 blending beautifully with the rest of the orchestra
is another highlight. His coda is also more energized than Vänskä’s,
with a better articulated timpani solo. On the other hand Vänskä’s
slightly more measured approach gives the first presentation
of the theme, just its bass, an attractive stealthy quality.
He brings more character and nuance to the early variations.
The transitional passage (9:17) before the coda which looks
back to the Funeral March is more thoughtful than Haitink’s
if also more calculated.
To turn now to the Eighth Symphony. This is a more genial and
jocular work yet has a similar underlying tremendous energy
which often bursts through. It’s Haydnesque, not least in its
sophisticated structure. And it’s quite a challenge in interpretation
to balance all these elements. Vänskä, again with his faithful
observation of Beethoven’s wide dynamic contrasts, conveys the
sophistication well and also the energy. But I feel the geniality
Vänskä’s first movement starts athletically with spirited rhythmic
drive and a contrastedly nonchalant second theme (tr. 5 0:43).
Its later brief ritardandos (0:49, 0:57) pass hardly noticed
but the second violins and violas’ tremolando accompaniment,
both from 1:13, is stylishly revealed. The mettlesome development
is enhanced by the clear separation of first violins left and
seconds right while the cellos, basses and bassoons just about
make the recapitulation of the theme audible against the rest
of the orchestra at 5:33. The superb discipline of this performance
is impressive rather than the humour.
The scherzando second movement is pertly articulated
and quite engaging, mainly light but occasionally stinging.
Just a little driven for charm. And again in the Minuet sophistication
is emphasised more than enjoyment. The Trio, on the other hand,
is more flowing and glowing: a fine blend of horn and clarinet
with nifty solo cello backcloth.
Vänskä’s finale begins well with the uproarious contrast of
very soft then very loud as the main theme works itself into
its boisterous gallop, given tremendous bounce here. Suddenly
the playing seems to have more freedom. But the firm presentation
of the first (tr. 8 1:20) and second development (3:51) returns
the performance to discipline mode.
Again I compared
Haitink, his performance of the Eighth recorded live in 2006
(LSO Live LSO 0587, coupled with Symphony 4). With this recording,
incidentally, Haitink became the first to complete a Beethoven
cycle on SACD in pure digital sound. Both conductors again observe
the first movement exposition repeat. Here are the comparative
Haitink’s first movement is notably more jovial than Vänskä’s
and thereby more enjoyable. He brings more zest to the loud
passages and more smile to the soft. His second theme is more
open and his skilful observation of the ritardandos provides
a nuance Vänskä lacks. Indeed in comparison Vänskä seems rather
aloof. Again Haitink’s recording, made more closely and at a
slightly higher level, has more impact so you can even hear
details like the first flute’s contribution to the fortissimo
chords. With Vänskä the effect is more genteel, from his first
violins in particular, spiced by firm wind accents. But Haitink’s
is a real firecracker of a performance, tremendously stimulating
and invigorating, while he’s content that those bass instruments’
recap of the theme is even more of a shadow than Vänskä’s.
Haitink’s scherzando is jolly, sunny, dainty and robust
by turns and always humorous. Vänskä meticulously allows the
mechanistic rhythms more prominence. Haitink’s slightly pacier
Minuet is more rounded, flowing yet celebratory, his Trio smooth
though the horns are arguably too soft focus. Vänskä’s Minuet
makes more of the dynamic contrasts and has more of the formality
of the dance about it. A foundation which paradoxically gives
it more freedom of expression and an endearingly old-fashioned
quality as Beethoven revisits tradition in the old third movement
form for the only time in his symphonies. Vänskä’s ensemble
in the Trio is more suave and more satisfying. Especially enjoy
the floating horns.
Haitink’s finale begins in restless excitement and continues
with irrepressible fizz, the first theme’s returns gleeful somersaults.
And you feel the whole has a coherent sweep. In comparison Vänskä
lacks Haitink’s sheer élan. His loud passages seem gruffer and
of the juggernaut type. Even the second theme (0:42), though
silver-tongued, isn’t as happily at ease as Haitink’s.
To sum up, Vänskä offers a fresh look at Beethoven based on
highly cultivated playing and fidelity to his dynamic markings.
This provides mixed blessings. The Eroica Symphony is
a more polished than thrilling account which is more urbane
than urgent. For me the Funeral March is too romantic and overwrought.
This might, however, be just right for you. In the Eighth Symphony
the concentration on disciplined playing produces stunning ensemble
but in the process the work’s humour and gusto is somehow blunted.
This brought home to me that with Beethoven, in the final analysis,
the spirit of a performance is more important than its execution.
see also Review
by Brian Burtt