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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 Vänskä
rec. June 2005, January 2006, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
BIS SACD-1516 [76:16]
 

 

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 2004.

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 con brio’.

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 timings:

Timings   

I

 II   

III

IV     

tt

Vänskä

16:58

15:07 

5:56

11:38

49:54

Haitink

17:49

14:22

5:54

11:06

48:11

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 fiery.

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 is admirable.

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 gets short-changed.

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 timings:

Timings   

I

 II   

III

IV     

tt

Vänskä

9:06

4:08 

4:48

7:17

25:25

Haitink

9:07

3:54

4:23

7:24

24:48

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.

Michael Greenhalgh

see also Review by Brian Burtt

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