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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [25:51]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral (1808) [41:36]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. June 2007, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, DDD.
BIS BISSACD1716 [68:22]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the fourth instalment of Vänskä’s Beethoven cycle. He treats the introduction of the first movement of Symphony 1 in benign, airy fashion, with a sense of opening out in those three sequences of chords at the outset, rather than tensing to resolve. The following graceful line from violins, oboes and clarinets is carefully marked. The Allegro is lightly articulated by the strings; the woodwind and brass are sufficiently sonorous to add impetus. The cheery second theme (tr. 1 2:01) has more momentum and a chamber-like, deft exchange of strings and woodwind while the exposition codetta (2:42) is kept sheeny. The development (4:58) has stimulating fp chords circled by light strings’ tracery and its ff passages appear only mock stern. Vänskä’s approach then is fundamentally light and smooth but not lacking in verve either, as in the ff recapitulation, though the timpani could be more prominent in the closing bars. This is Beethoven honouring Haydn yet also introducing his own personality.
Vänskä’s slow movement begins with a touch of mystery but above all grace and a lilt. The second theme (tr. 2 0:49) is consistently light, dainty and winsome. In the exposition the passages designated forte are a touch firmer rather than really loud but come the development (3:55), after energizing sfps, they are more marked. The added counterpoint in the recapitulation is made delectably clear without detriment to the overall mood.
The Minuet is treated more purposefully by Vänskä yet remains measured enough to retain a vein of urbanity while the wind sonorities are well displayed. It’s as if Vänskä is acknowledging Beethoven titling it minuet though in rhythmic drive it’s a scherzo. The Trio is a marvel. For most of the time there is a shimmering haze of contented glowing wind and fluttering violins’ tracery. Late on and suddenly it switches seamlessly to the Minuet’s decisive manner.
Vänskä gives us an imposing yet teasing finale introduction before a smiling, frisky Allegro. This is, however, differentiated from the first movement in having more bounce and resilience, yet with a second theme (tr. 4 1:05) which brings back the lilt and grace of the slow movement. Vänskä achieves a good blend of spirit and charm underpinned by sensitive dynamic shading. The coda (4:43) is bracingly forthright.
I compared the most recent recording to appear in surround sound, the London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink recorded live in 2006 (LSO Live LSO 0590). Here are the comparative timings:


The steadier pace of Haitink’s first movement makes for more formality than Vänskä’s. The latter simply has more joie de vivre: his violins’ tremolandi are more exhilarating and there’s a delight about the interchange between instruments that eludes Haitink. Vänskä gives us Beethoven as a young man with spirit. Haitink’s faster slow movement presses forward humorously yet without Vänskä’s charm and substance which comes from fine melodic shaping and a sense of due weight and proportion. Haitink’s Minuet is livelier, in pace and dynamics fully fledged - later Beethoven barnstorming. Even in the Trio the violins remain edgy. Vänskä’s steadier pulse is more dance-like. The Trio’s early delicate violins offer more contrast, with the second strain transformation thereby more surprising and effective. Haitink’s finale delightfully combines grace, with very nifty string articulation, and the grand manner. Vänskä brings more humour to the introduction and development. He points up the orchestration more, while taking a more refined, less rumbustious view of the louder material. Vänskä’s acceptance of the work’s smiling, youthful nature makes for a more engaging performance while Haitink provides clearer glimpses of later Beethoven.
How do you like to experience the Pastoral symphony? If you favour a benign, stylishly manicured environment Vänskä is your man. I’ll quote the authentic Beethoven headings for the movements. These Barry Cooper supplies in his booklet note. Vänskä’s first movement, ‘Pleasant, cheerful feelings which awaken in people on arrival in the country’, steals on the ear in a beguiling combination of relaxation yet also momentum. The first tutti has a warm density. The second theme (tr. 5 1:13) is lightly articulated but its two simultaneous elements, the smoothly falling melody in the first violins and doggedly rising one in the cellos, are beautifully balanced. A similar equipoise comes when the chief motif of the development in the violins is matched with sustained chords from clarinets, bassoons and horns from 5:06. Yet Vänskä’s dynamic shaping is firm so that when loud passages occur they are suitably climactic and compelling. His attention to shape and contour and revealing of Beethoven’s texture and musical strategy is superlative. The overall effect is of wonderful finesse and clarity, but is this enough for you? For me, the ‘feelings’ seem a little too distanced. Again I compared the London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink, this symphony recorded live in 2005 (LSO Live LSO 0582). Here are the comparative timings
Haitink’s first movement, though marginally slower, is more bracing and rustic; rougher hewn if you like but with a more heady joyousness about it. Where Vänskä’s first violins’ skipping passage just before the second theme dances demurely Haitink’s has more character, even cheekiness. Haitink’s second theme is more affectionate and warm. His development has more natural energy and zest.
In appreciably fusing all the elements of ‘Scene by the brook’ Vänskä makes clear the rippling pulse while all around is sultry, basking, appreciative. Together this creates an active serenity. The tender, winsome second theme (tr. 6 2:56) is exquisitely balanced between bassoon, violas and solo cello across which the second violins flutter delicate trills. In this movement Haitink has a little more momentum, is more freshly direct and blithe. Vänskä is more tranquil with something of a state of reverie.
Vänskä’s ‘Merry gathering of the country folk’ is cheery, excited yet precise with a ‘Trio’ (tr. 7 0:58) of agile soloists before a country dance (1:42) of more gusto, terminated by a fruity pause on the trumpet, as marked. Haitink provides even more pace and pep, to more racy effect where Vänskä generally emphasises deftness of articulation, more like a fantasy whirl than vivid rusticity. Vänskä’s ‘Thunder Storm’ begins with creepily soft foreboding. Its power and the first appearance of trombones, timpani and piccolo make their mark, though Vänskä still seems to retain a touch of classical restraint, with Haitink’s timpani having more shattering impact.
Vänskä’s ‘Shepherds’ song: ‘beneficent feelings combined with thanks to the Godhead after the storm’ starts in soft and saintly fashion. It soon acquires a rounded density of orchestral involvement and fine detail like that of a congregation with a sense of purposeful progression. To give one example of this: very satisfying multi-layering revealed, the sudden clarity (from tr. 9, 4:01) of a gentle, hardly moving tune in the inner texture in the violas between first violins’ arabesques and cellos’ pizzicato. Vänskä finds an air of joyful celebration in this finale which has an engaging homeliness as well as fervour. He doesn’t forget that these are shepherds singing. That said, Haitink’s tutti have more fervour and excitement of affirmation. There again Vänskä’s main theme is more tender.  
To sum up, Vänskä’s approach remains consistent with that I noted in his SACD of symphonies 3 and 8 (see review). The distinguishing characteristics are highly cultivated playing and fidelity to Beethoven’s dynamic markings. The surround sound is luxuriant, cushioned. The resultant emphasis on the polished and urbane aspects of Beethoven works better in the first symphony than the Pastoral. For me the comparison with Haitink reveals that there can be, for all its generally sunny disposition, more excitement in the Pastoral, more inner fire, than Vänskä expresses. But the sheer quality of the Minnesota Orchestra’s playing and the detail that Vänskä reveals nevertheless make this SACD a very rewarding experience.
Michael Greenhalgh


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