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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
The Nine Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [26.56]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [49.34]
CD 2
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [31.10]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [38.55]
CD 3
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [31.02]
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [33.05]
CD 4
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [36.57]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [25.39]
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [65.45]
Angela Denoke (soprano); Marianna Tarasova (mezzo); Endrik Wottrich (tenor); Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Moscow State Chamber Choir
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. Moscow, State Conservatory, June-July 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6409 [5 CDs: 76.37 + 70.16 + 64.15 + 62.47 + 62.27]


Pletnev’s foundation of the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the first independent orchestra in Russia’s history, has thanks to his visionary zeal and untiring efforts become a great success. I won’t say that they’ve ‘arrived’ with this set of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, but with so many versions of Beethoven’s symphonies in the catalogue these days it was always going to have to be something a bit special to have DG invest in such a production. It’s also not surprising that these new recordings have to come with some kind of unique selling point. Deutsche Grammophon is of course famous for the sets conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it was the 1977 edition, bought via mail order on cassettes over what seemed like months of endless toil working as a teenage slave on a milk-round, that I made my first real acquaintance with Beethoven’s symphonies. This new set comes into the world with the advantage of a reasonable value ‘Special Price’ tag, which will go a long way towards compensating for the lack of overture fillers. I don’t personally mind the lack of musical extras – at least the mind is concentrated on the symphonies and nothing else.

Our minds are also being teased with DG’s own promotional language. It takes some nerve to set out one’s stall with the line “The present set of Beethoven symphonies is bound to shake up the established image of the composer.” Indeed – but what is the established image? Even in the 1970’s Beethoven was more than most the ‘rock ‘n roll’ bad boy of classical music – I know this because, of all composers, my mother complained she didn’t like him ‘shouting’ at her. Mauricio Kagel’s Ludwig van, while perhaps an art film of limited distribution, at the very least shows an avant-garde composer demonstrating how ubiquitous a figure Beethoven is, how obsessively iconic the shadow he casts on all music since his own time – and that was made back in 1969.

Sales puff aside, one thing Kagel and Pletnev agree upon is the improvisatory nature of Beethoven’s musical expression. After making them play the music as if they’ve seen it for the first time and are having a hard time making head or tail of what the composer wants, Kagel has his musicians improvise on Beethoven’s notes plastered like wallpaper on every surface of a room. Pletnev the keyboard virtuoso knows something of Beethoven’s own performing style, not only through inhabiting the concertos and sonatas, but in studying Carl Czerny’s first-hand reports of Beethoven’s own playing. Pletnev’s interpretations are fed by this sense of spontaneous invention: “He was after one objective above all: to surprise… and he was a great improviser; so improvising with the notated score is an important consideration when you’re dealing with his music.”

Pletnev’s own words are clearly printed on the back of the box you may find yourself holding in the shop: “every phrase, scream, and moment of joy lived though as intensely as in our real lives. The music must have an immediate emotional effect.” The whole idea is “the perpetual revitalisation of earlier scores in a present day context” but without relying on ideas about historical performance practice or authentic instruments to achieve these effects. In the past, Pletnev has sometimes been criticised for being over-fussy in his conducting, and on occasion ‘perverse’ in his pianistic interpretations. The DG website holds that he “strongly believes in interpretative freedom and an artist’s obligation not to deliver a “mausoleum-like performance” but rather to make classical music come to life by using it to communicate his own emotions to the audience. As Pletnev puts it, “It should go from heart to heart.”

How does this come through on these recordings? There are some genuinely intriguing and affecting associations which are thrown up by Pletnev. The massively sustained Marcia funebre second movement of the ‘Eroica’ symphony brought the connection to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen back as strongly as I’ve ever heard, which must be about as far as you can get when talking about emotion in music. Further on in the symphony, the horn calls are spotlit to the extent that we have the impression that some kind of pastoral programme is on the go – with romantic running around in the woods creating a mini-operatic drama.

Pletnev pushes the envelope as far as possible whenever he can, revelling in his excellent orchestra’s ability to make Allegros really, vivace, molto and con brio, and in being able to manipulate the tempi in sometimes extravagant but rarely tasteless ways – taste of course being on the tongue of the beholder. There is also an intensity about this set which must have something to do with the fever-pitch pace at which the whole this was recorded – in 11 days; the return and rewards from which DG should be very pleased indeed.

Readers will have noticed that the symphonies in this set are grouped into odd numbers for the first two discs, even for the second two, and No.9 as the fifth. It might seem a bit of a leap to be into the Symphony No. 5 straight after No.3, but who says you can’t shuffle things around. Some critics have mentioned that Pletnev’s ‘5th’ in this set lacks some of the inventive drive of the others, but my feeling is that, working with what some see as the ‘perfect’ symphony, he is less inclined to impose upon the music, something which in fact more frequently crops up than the promotional texts would suggest, and something which comes back most particularly in the 9th. There are some moments in the 5th where time seems suspended – the instrumental solos in the first movement for instance, and Pletnev does seem inclined to slow things down a little while emphasising the more chamber-music moments in the symphony. This he and his players do very nicely, but you may feel inclined to mutter ‘get on with it’ after the umpteenth time this occurs.

As the heroic finale of ‘The Fifth’ emerges triumphantly from the previous Allegro it’s time to talk a little about sound quality. The big scale of the great hall in the Moscow State Conservatory suits Pletnev’s readings down to the ground. His Beethoven requires a great deal of elbow room, and I admire the sound engineer’s balance between exquisite detail, atmosphere and sheer impact. The weight of the brass and timpani in this movement is a physical force, and while the vast acoustic is tamed enough to make every note count, you can feel the music bringing the space to life. It’s not all brash bluster however, and the moments of softness have a delicate touch which gives the tuttis all the more power.

Many points one can make apply to all of the symphonies, but another aspect of Pletnev’s recordings I admire is the sense of architecture you find in the music. It’s a well worn clichť perhaps, but with Pletnev there is both the detail and the grand sweep or gesture of each movement, which unfolds to become more the sum of its parts: look after the shape of each phrase of musical sentence and the rest will follow quite naturally. Like the detail in a beautiful or striking building you can examine its design and craftsmanship closely, or stand back and swallow it as a breathtaking whole – allowing you eye to follow the flow of space and unwittingly allowing the element of time to enter the equation. Other conductors have achieved this before of course, but I love Pletnev’s sense of playfulness or empathy with the mood of each moment – where Beethoven writes a gallop it really rollicks along, and if we are being shown a funereal procession we are shown one which is mournful, but which has unstoppable purpose – a weighty tread on every odd-numbered beat. I’m talking of course about the Symphony No.7, which has always been a big favourite of mine. The third movement Presto has an initial impression of something more superficial than one might at first have hoped for, but Pletnev is in fact being more consistent with the tempo in this movement than some, refusing the many opportunities for extra depth by maintaining forward momentum. Only just before the final section of the rondo form does he wind everything down to silence, before propelling the movement to the edge and over; where it drops into the maelstrom of a vastly energetic Allegro con brio with full ‘wow!’ factor.

The third CD in this set brings us back to the Symphony No.2, and the now familiar ‘house’ pattern of dramatically quick tempi coupled with extremes of dynamic and accent which drive the rhythmic pulse with captivating energy. The strings certainly have admirable facility around the virtuosic figurations in the Allegro con brio of the first movement and Allegro molto of the finale, and maintain clarity through the variety of articulation required in both. The second movement’s fragrant Larghetto is taken at a non-sentimental no-nonsense tempo, but Pletnev’s way with subtle rubati and phrasing mean that the romantic aspects of this movement are laid bare, rather than covered in four-square classical traditionalism.

The Symphony No.4 is in a different league of course, and Pletnev’s opening is suitably searching, drawing on the ambiguities of Haydn’s Creation and to a certain extent looking forward to the sustained mysticism of Bruckner. He revels in the sheer impact of the Allegro vivace, drawing back with ritenuti where Beethoven ends musical phrases with changes in instrumentation, emphasising the little wind choruses and the descending string figures which seem to want to run straight into the 6th symphony. This all works surprisingly well in my opinion, and the flexible development is invigorating at all times – no such thing as boring old transition here, with a sense that Beethoven might have come to visit Carl Nielsen in a creative dream, or had a hand in the invention of minimalism; just by way of a gift – ‘you can have this for free, while we wait for the next really good bit…’ Pletnev almost seems to want to allow his strings some portamento in the opening of the second Adagio movement, but the winds soon come in and show how things should be done properly. The string tunes later on are however still juicy with vibrato, which maintains a kind of gentle intensity even in the more relaxed passages. The vibrato even affects the horn in this movement, giving the solo a gorgeous Czech quality. Pletnev picks up and runs with the syncopated accents of the third movement, giving it a nicely swinging groove, or slightly mannered over-emphasis, depending on how you feel about such things. First prize goes to the bassoon in the final Allegro… of which Pletnev seems to have conveniently forgotten the ma non troppo in order to create another astounding performance.

Written over, by my standards, an extended period, I’ve been coming back to this set every evening for what seems like weeks already, and it’s become a ritual which I’ve come to look forward to, and will miss when the task is completed. If that’s not a recommendation then I don’t know what is. The Symphony No.6 is always one which creates a sense of anticipation, and with Pletnev’s almost wilful opening I was a little concerned that things might finally have got out of hand. The heartstrings soon began to soar however, and the resonance with which the orchestra throws out some of those pastoral passages makes up for anything suspect in the massaging of the tempo. The ideas end up tumbling over each other in such a way that they loose any of the static sense of repetition which I hear in some versions, but serve the double function of always introducing the next idea rather than having to survive in a kind of precious isolation. The smiling fantastique image of Berlioz pops out here quite distinctly, but you might have guessed that already. Any vulnerability in the strings comes out with the exposed opening and figurations of the Szene am Bach, and the first violins just about get away with it, even though their presence has a chamber-music like feel here and at several places throughout this set – the individuals not always quite gelling into sectional unity. The second violins are placed antiphonally on the right by the way, which makes for a glorious spread of string sound. The Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute is if anything a more noble and sober affair than I might have expected, if rousing enough when the central dance gets going. Donner: Sturm has genuine menace, and those timpani really engineer some chaos and trembling. The poor piccolo player makes the most of the only notes they have in the entire symphony – yes, I have been that soldier – and the sense of wild storm is contrasted by the calm and rousing/awakening feel engendered by the opening of the thanksgiving. Pletnev rightly doesn’t mess with Beethoven’s ‘big tune’, but gives it full expression through all its variations, and propels us towards an anti-heroic finale which is the equal of any in its disarming simplicity.

The Symphony No.8 opens in more of a stately fashion than some of the more rousing and overtly sunny versions we’ve come to know and love. Pletnev maintains this sense of sustained elegance, and uses the extra space to give shape and emphasis to Beethoven’s vertical accents and lines of counterpoint. The wider spaces also inject a feeling of suspense and anticipation I don’t remember hearing much in other versions, and in any case he somehow avoids making the first movement lumber and linger – swinging along with sturdy refinement. The Allegretto scherzando has few surprises in store, but is presented with superb poise and wit. Restraint and elegance are also features of the waltzing Tempo di Menuetto, which has a Mozartean lightness of touch under Pletnev’s baton – the tympani for once adding orchestral colour rather than thundery thwacks. The orchestra is finally let rip on the Allegro vivace of the finale, which restores the balance of tightly spectacular playing with the transparency of beautifully well controlled balance and dynamics.

Dramatic and exciting as it is, there are also few real departures from tradition when it comes to the Symphony No.9. It’s all very well executed and exciting as you’d expect, but the realisation is probably more one of Beethoven’s fait a compli when it comes to a work like this. You could sail far from the score as written, but anything beyond slight shifts in emphasis or tempi end up sounding wilful and artificially imposed, and Pletnev is intelligent enough to know this. The only big difference you might notice in this version is in the sound of the choir, which has occasionally has something more in common with the more impassioned symphonic cries of Shostakovich than the more reserved tones of most west European choirs. Good, strong vibrato is the order of the day here, with the men sounding particularly effective. There is one funny moment at 13.11 where an apparent late arrival in the sopranos takes an upward glissando of at least a major second to find their note, but otherwise the choral discipline is very good indeed. The soloists are generally good as well, the only wobbly moment being the Angela Denoke’s line over the quartet from 13.41 which is a bit wild and uncontrolled. She redeems herself however at the crucially sensitive moment at 15.18, where her high note is spot on.

What I love about Pletnev’s readings is that, in the final reckoning, he really does pretty much what DG says he does on the tin. I’ve lived with and enjoyed David Zinman’s bargain set on Arte Nova, John Eliot Gardiner’s excellent period performances on Archiv, and the glossy perfection of both analogue and digital Karajan, but the sheer wealth of associations Pletnev conjures from these pieces makes this new set something of an extra delight. My sense is that, unlike most PC conductors, he’s not afraid to shine Beethoven’s light through the ears of composers who have come after him. Little fragments that sound a little like Tchaikovsky, Saint-SaŽns, Smetana, any or all of the Strausses just to name a few; raunchy or subtle tweaks in the balance which momentarily bring out notes which might be considered the staples of composers like Charles Ives or Leonard Bernstein do enough to make this Beethoven more of a stimulating companion than a gruff and challenging enigma. Listeners may disagree, it might just be chance or I may just be imagining things, but to my mind this is a valid approach. Accepting and subtly incorporating more recent developments which have extended and paid respect to the Beethovenian tradition may or may not have nothing to do with Pletnev’s intentions, but if this is a way of re-invigorating the old dead master then let’s have more – as long as interpreters are true to the spirit of the composer and respectful to the spirit of his scores then why ever not. Before we get any e-mails in angry green ink I am not advocating performances of Bach in the style of Brahms, and I most certainly do not mean that Pletnev’s Beethoven sounds anything other than like Beethoven. Nor am I in any way critical of those seeking to find authentic period sound, an approach which has its own sense of discovery and excitement. However, I’ve learned more about Beethoven’s symphonies through these recordings just by listening than with any other complete sets I can think of, Harnoncourt and Abbado included. Love it or hate it, with Pletnev’s imaginative approach our imaginations are set to work as well, and with that effect these recordings are more likely to live on in your mind and draw you back than many others than I can think of.

Dominy Clements



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