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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [26:12]
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [33:16]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [47:04]
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [31:36]
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [31:28]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [40:05]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [38:20]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [26:20]
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [61:34] *
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Janice Watson (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Detlef Roth (bass)/Philharmonia Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus/Charles Mackerras *
rec. live, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, BBC Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival, August and September 2006
HYPERION CDS44301/05 [5 CDs: 59:28 + 78:40 + 71:33 + 64:40 + 61:34]
Experience Classicsonline


Mackerras’s Beethoven cycle was recorded live in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, during August and September 2006. As one would expect of him musicological insights are wedded to questions of appropriate sonority, balance, tempo relationships and orchestral size, to produce performances of consistent intelligence and perception. The chamber orchestra approach of the first eight symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is followed by a performance of the Ninth with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
 
This is Mackerras’s second symphonic cycle; the earlier set, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is available on Classics for Pleasure – a five disc set [CD BOXLVB1]. The performances are not dissimilar; in fact the Edinburgh cycle is on balance just a trifle steadier in terms of absolute tempos, though there is one case, the opening movement of the Seventh, where Mackerras has somewhat rethought things. To forestall my conclusion regarding the conductor’s two cycles I doubt that there is a compelling case to be made for acquiring both, unless you’re a fanatical devotee, but this latest cycle must stand as his final thoughts on the matter, ones set down over a decade later than that earlier cycle, which was recorded piecemeal throughout the 1990s.
 
In the First Symphony he is trenchant but not unyielding. The slow movement is warmly phrased and the Scherzo’s trio is felicitously moulded. There are some splendidly bucolic, almost buffo-like moments in a virile and athletic finale.  The Second Symphony is propelled by crisp brass and “hard stick” percussion. The conclusion of the opening movement is exceptionally kinetic and exciting, securely balanced by an equally driving but clarity-conscious finale. The Eroica receives a reading of unmannered authority, tensile, purposeful, textually aerated but unstinting of the nervous energy and fissures inherent in the music. It’s a reading once again very similar to his earlier Liverpool recording, though obviously the chamber scale of the Edinburgh reading grants it a different kind of weight. The Fourth opens with intense, brooding introspection – very finely balanced strings and winds add stature to the reading - in a performance of remarkably persuasive force. If I were to be asked to recommend just one example of Mackerras’ way with the cycle I think – perverse though it may sound – I would point to the Fourth. It enshrines his greatest virtues – intensity of expression, clarity of texture, great attention to choir separation, and beyond these things a purposeful excitement that meets the score head on.
 
The Fifth opens weightily – it’s tensile with observed commas that don’t slow the symphonic argument. The chamber orchestra’s relatively discreet use of vibrato pays dividends throughout. Some may find the finale a shade underpowered but I found it naturally expressed and quite powerful enough for my tastes. The Pastoral is taken at a basically fast tempo though as ever Mackerras ensures that nothing seems rushed so natural is the phrasing, so purposeful the accents. The lyric passages of the first movement sound utterly, naturally integrated, the light chamber textures of the second movement flow richly. The scherzo’s trio is passionately lithe and the finale is bathed in simplicity and pliant warmth.
 
No.7 is a real winner, vying with No.4 for the honour of the most outstanding recording in the cycle. The joyous dynamism of the opening – rhythmically etched, propulsive – sets a cracking pace and sense of momentum.  This is properly maintained by the second movement, one that never seeks any kind of marmoreal independence, and is strongly correlated to the zest and wit of the scherzo. The directional surety of the finale seals a performance of vitality, blazing drama and absolute conviction. The Eighth is charmingly pointed and adeptly balanced. Mackerras’ sense of characterisation is given full rein here and the crisp ensemble, its deft exchanges, the vitality of the inner part writing, all disclose the elevation of the conception. Finally to crown the series there’s the Ninth with the Philharmonia, some excellent soloists and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Mackerras marries intensity of expression with a fast, forward-moving tempo. The Adagio moves in an arc, each moment of its potentially discursive rhetoric having been thoroughly absorbed – compare and contrast with such as, say, Beecham (Somm), also from Edinburgh, and far too short-breathed, and Pletnev’s recent jumpily unconvincing DG attempt. Mackerras has the movement’s full measure; indeed as the symphony progresses it gathers in momentum and energy toward an overwhelming climax.   
 
The performances were all recorded by BBC Scotland with warmth and detail. This invigorating box contains performances of vitality and life enhancing verve. The audiences are pretty well silent throughout and no applause has been included. For a contemporary set recorded on modern instruments, chamber sized except for the Choral, but fully aware of historical practice, you really can’t do much better.
 
Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Owen Walton
(May 2008 Recording of the Month)
 



 


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