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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [23:13]
König Stephan, Op.117 (1811): Overture [6:24], Siegesmarch [3:01], Geistlicher marsch [1:21]
Ruins of Athens, Op. 113 (1811): Overture [4:17], Turkish March [1:52]
Fidelio Overture, Op. 72b (1814) [5:58]
Tarpeja, WoO2 (1813): Introduction to Act 2 [1:56], Triumphal March [2:20]
Namensfeier Overture, Op. 115 (1814-15) [6:27]
Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91 (1813) [14:55]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Örebro Concert Hall, October 2002, September 2003, September 2004, September 2005. DDD
SIMAX PSC 1282 [71:44]

 


This is volume 9 of a series of Beethoven’s complete orchestral works.

First up is the Eighth Symphony and you won’t find a performance anywhere with more clarity and bite. Dausgaard really takes to heart Beethoven’s first movement tempo directions of quick, lively and fiery. The crisp accents throughout and freshness of the strings is a joy. Yet the second theme (tr. 1 0:40) still has an assured nonchalance about it, though the ritardando, the gradual slackening in speed, towards its close (0:46-0:47) is so subtly done it’s almost imperceptible. The contrasting woodwind passages marked ‘sweet’, for example at 0:49 and 1:17 could perhaps be just a touch smoother but the whole has a scrubbed clean feel. The dynamic contrasts of the keen development (3:36) are finely savoured from the soft string passages to the very loud full orchestra ones. The recapitulation of the theme in bassoons, cellos and basses against the rest of the orchestra also fff (5:06) is hardly audible but that might well be Beethoven’s jocular intention because he soon repeats it (5:15) on flute and clarinet without any distractions. The soft, sweet clarinet solo at the beginning of the coda (7:03) is as beautifully realized as the momentum brought to Beethoven’s extension of the coda after the first performance (7:34 to 8:04) is adept, with a really ringing fff.

To the second movement Allegretto scherzando (tr. 2) Dausgaard brings an elegant deftness. He has clearly decided the movement needs no special pleading and plays it straight. So it starts light, soft, dainty and petite with the first of many such surprises when it suddenly gets loud at 0:24, with clear but not overdone dynamic contrasts. The second theme (0:53) is firmer, its second section (1:05) has a playfully toying poise to which its third (1:20) provides a genteel response.

Dausgaard’s treatment of the third movement Minuet (tr. 3) is even more of a revelation. I’ve seen it described as grand or stately and considered somewhat quaint. Not here. Dausgaard keeps it flowing, with just light application of the sforzandi, those sudden accented chords, at the very opening and generally something of a swing. By the second section (0:29) there’s a bounce in the sforzandi, then a smiling bassoon solo (0:48) and buoyant trumpets and horns’ eruption (1:05) towards the end. The Trio (2:04) has the intimacy of chamber music and individuality of expression, so you get involved in the developing dialogue between horns and clarinet set off by the busy but lightly articulated cellos’ backcloth.

A sense of bold experiment pervades Dausgaard’s finale (tr. 4), of pushing both music and mood beyond expected bounds. The very soft opening is feathery but also eager and pacy. So there’s both finesse and animation. When the music suddenly turns loud (0:14) with the incongruous appearance of an alien C sharp which haunts the movement, the outcome is effervescent bolting. The second theme (0:38) offers a brief relief of balmy relaxation with a particularly graceful oboe. The first development (1:11) is mysterious then rigorous, the second (3:27) still more with an unsettling weight given the pauses (3:38 and 3:42). Yet the coda (5:45) brings a shiningly emphatic close. Overall Dausgaard reveals here a good deal of the wild and unexpected elements of the seventh symphony finale.

I compared the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded live in 1990 (Elatus 0927496202). Here are the comparative timings:


Timings   

I

 II   

III

IV     

Total

Dausgaard

8:22

3:51

4:13

6:47

23:13

Harnoncourt

9:25

3:49

5:54 (4:45)

7:22

26:47 (25:38)

Harnoncourt’s slower first movement makes for a more rounded contrasting of the second theme, treated more gracefully and dreamily, a more pointed ritardando and more lovingly moulded woodwind passages and delicacy of the relationship between woodwind and violins. There’s more of a feeling here of looking back to the 18th century as well as embracing the vigour of the 19th. With Dausgaard you’re more aware of the keen momentum. Both Harnoncourt and Dausgaard make the exposition repeat a little more fiery, anticipating the development and both provide an equally exciting development. But with Dausgaard there’s more sinew and guts evident and the movement as a whole is more compelling as a progressive argument.

Harnoncourt’s second movement is dainty and charming, the melodies are caressed with stylish phrasing yet the accents are also firmly pointed. Everything is satisfyingly in balance, the third section especially suave. In comparison Dausgaard lets the melodies look after themselves and emphasises dynamic contrasts and rhythm. From this emerges in turn great delicacy and resilience and throughout more playfulness.

Harnoncourt’s Minuet is quite bouncy, full of firm thrusts and counter thrusts but with still a feeling for its melodic shape. The Trio is, however, slower, ambling along melodiously and poetically. But Harnoncourt’s overall timing isn’t as markedly slow in relation to Dausgaard as it looks because he makes both Minuet repeats in the da capo which Dausgaard, following standard practice, omits. I add the direct comparative timing in brackets in the table above. Dausgaard still swings the Minuet. His application is lighter but there’s more momentum about his performance which applies consistently to the Trio.

Harnoncourt’s finale engages in stark contrasts, with snarling brass in the loud passages, a rather pensive second theme which doesn’t relax until its second recapitulation, an angular first development with searing climax before a second development with a sense of formal peroration. This honours the innovation of the movement but it’s a bit serious. I prefer the sense of fun, of unbuttoned celebration Dausgaard conveys from his bustling opening, smoother second theme with a hint of relaxation immediately in its oboe repeat and contrasting gentleness its reappearances provide. I also like the clarity of argument of Dausgaard’s first development, again a greater lightness of articulation than Harnoncourt and then a starker, more climactic second development.

Dausgaard maintains the mood of celebration with the Overture to the incidental music Beethoven wrote for King Stephen, a play in honour of Hungary’s first ruler. It begins with a trumpet summons answered by horns, then 2 further chords of thickening orchestration as a kind of motto. But this is immediately contrasted with flute jollity (tr. 5 0:13) in relaxed, miniaturist chamber style. The contrast is repeated with clarinet leading the miniaturist material second time before the appearance of the very fast main theme with vigorously syncopated thrust (1:00). Its repeat (1:25) explodes ff but it now develops in light hearted fashion before working itself into a more heroic closing statement (2:13) more characteristic of Beethoven. The overall effect is somewhat episodic but irrepressibly high spirited and Dausgaard throws his orchestra into the proceedings with considerable gusto. He also gives us the Victory March which has a buoyant, quite soft start on horns and drums before strings and woodwind join in for a repeat resplendent and swaggering as is the high profile rest. Last comes the Sacred March, a brief, veiled, cloistered and contemplative piece for strings and very soft solo horn.

The celebrations continue with The Ruins of Athens. The Overture’s stark introduction with stabbing sforzandi in the strings (tr. 8 0:20) soon gives way to a benign march introduced by the oboe (0:39), with a flourish in its tail that the strings can take up (1:10). This has heroic free flight of imagination and gulping gasps of freedom about it which make this overture more attractive than that of King Stephen. It’s crisper too, despite finding time for an amicable conversation between oboe and bassoon (2:45).

Dausgaard also gives us the only other purely orchestral item, the Turkish March. He gets the carnival atmosphere across well, with soft opening, gradually getting louder like an approaching procession and then receding. He doesn’t overdo the dynamic contrasts within the presentation of the theme itself. The Turkish element is catered for by ubiquitous triangle, punctuated by cymbals and bass drum though I’d have liked the latter more prominent.

You may know the famous 1957 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham recording (EMI 5865042). This has more magic, with more of a feel for the melody and sorrow mixed in with the Overture’s sforzandi, the oboe’s conversation with bassoon more like that of a free spirit and generally a more swashbuckling manner, especially in the scything strings of the Turkish March. Dausgaard gets Beethoven’s intentions and effects clearly across. Beecham just makes him seem a bit po-faced.

The Fidelio overture is well known and effective owing to the terse alternation of the bright and decisive action of its Allegro with the pondering Adagio (tr. 10 0:07) which seems to find beauty in less happy circumstances. So when the horn has the opening theme (1:33) it’s hopeful but less brazen and the strings’ retort (1:46) skips cheerily in gratitude rather than with bluster. Dausgaard catches well the momentum and eagerness with which this all unfolds so the very fast coda (4:59) seems inevitable. I compared the 1999 Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (Warner 2564 618902). This is slower, 6:56 against 5:58, weightier with more marked contrasts between the two tempi and moods but thereby lacks Dausgaard’s sense of the significance of pulse in creating an overall momentum. I also missed Dausgaard’s lightness of articulation.

Next, the designated Introduction to Act 2 of the tragedy Tarpeja, is also associated with Fidelio. I think Barry Cooper’s view in his book on Beethoven published in 2000, that it was in its precursor, the 1805 version of Leonore, more likely than George Hall’s suggestion in this CD’s booklet that it was in a Fidelio revival. Cooper points out it signals the entrance of Pizarro and the music’s “disconcertingly abrupt modulations” indicate his dubious character. Certainly the sforzandi appear especially stark, eg. at tr. 11 0:42 and elements of instability increase from 1:22. The Triumphal March (tr. 12) which is in Tarpeja is altogether jollier yet also has a degree of headiness in its climaxes, e.g. from 0:52. Schubertian but with a more manic quality.

The Nameday Overture (tr. 13) Dausgaard reveals to be an effervescent piece pushing the boundaries of expression, Beethoven approaching Berlioz. A work of inventive progression but stronger in its rhythmic interest and cohesion than in its memorable melodic content. The flexibility of the urbane strings’ theme (0:39) after the grand opening flourish of the introduction is, nevertheless, an effective contrast and finds its counterpart in the graceful second theme of the main body (2:21) before this launches from 2:38 into increasingly boisterous abandon. A piece pulsating with energy and Dausgaard doesn’t compromise on its rawness either.

Finally comes Beethoven’s most populist work, Wellington’s Victory. First (tr. 14) we hear the English drums arriving from the left distance so you can imagine the phalanx coming into view, a trumpet call and then a cheerful wind band play Rule Britannia. The French drums (tr. 15) enter similarly from the right and Malbrouk s’en va-t’en guerre, in English For he’s a jolly good fellow, is heard. When battle is joined (tr. 16) what’s appreciable is Beethoven’s cueing of activity, cannon and musket volleys, right across the sound spectrum and in realistically irregular patterns. From 3:42 we hear a crestfallen Malbrouk in the minor and no more shots from the left. The victory celebrations (tr. 17) don’t lack in exuberance but of more interest I feel is Beethoven’s varying treatment of God save the King. First time (1:44) expressively refined in the woodwind. Second time (3:47) punctuated by raucous full orchestra interjections, like hoorahs. Finally (5:36) it appears at double speed in association with an ingenious fugato. As ever Dausgaard performs with clarity and verve. I compared the famous 1960 London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati recording (Mercury 4343602). He has the advantage in the battle of real muskets and cannons added from West Point, more explosive, but Dausgaard’s trilling rattles and bass drums are clear and the music, whipped up in emotive sequences, is allowed to generate more excitement. Dorati’s opening drums and trumpet calls are more realistically aggressive but Dausgaard’s forlorn Malbrouk more evocative. Dorati takes the victory slightly faster, 6:33 against Dausgaard’s 6:54, and thereby makes more whoopee but Dausgaard’s fugato is deliciously done.

An enlightening CD of fresh performances and stimulating contrasts, through which you discover an unexpected masterpiece, the Eighth Symphony.

Michael Greenhalgh


 


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