Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1806-8) [31:58]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (Pastoral) (1808) [44:40]
Vienna Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, April-May 2002
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 31769 2 6 [76:38]

The perceived homogenizing of orchestral style over the last decades notwithstanding, the Vienna Philharmonic retains a strong collective personality, one which can exert a strong influence on its conductors. When Sir Georg Solti conducted, the ensemble's rich sonority and bent for lyrical phrasing tempered the conductor's hyper-intensity, as their recorded collaborations attest. Solti's Vienna Bruckner Seventh, for example, is far more sympathetic and beautiful than his wound-up Chicago account. Sometimes the influence was synergistic, with Solti's intensity, in turn, eliciting a taut, alert response from the players - compare the orchestra's roughly contemporaneous recordings of Ein Heldenleben under Solti, on Decca, and Karl Böhm, on DG, for a ready illustration.

In Beethoven's C minor symphony, at least, the orchestra exercises an opposite pull on Sir Simon Rattle, who in the past has favored smudgy, soft-edged textures and under-energized rhythmic projection, a situation again amply documented on recording. This 2003 concert performance instead boasts a forwardly shaped sonority, balancing a sturdy "Germanic" harmonic grounding with fire and rhythmic thrust, from all of which this score only benefits.

The basically no-nonsense first movement does incorporate a number of possibly exceptionable details. Some, like the slight speeding up in the first movement's second theme, are clearly the sort of thing that can happen on the spur of the moment in performance; others, like the markedly tenuto treatment of the paired chords at 3:40 in the same movement, have obviously been carefully planned and rehearsed. The conductor also opts to leave the "fanfare" at 5:09 to the bassoons as per the score, minus the expected horn reinforcement. None of these details are deal-breakers, but any or all of them could prove distractions rather than enhancements for some listeners.

Some might also question Rattle's unusually flowing Andante con moto, but the tempo as such isn't unduly fast, and there's sufficient gravitas. The clarinet "subtone" at 4:41 is perhaps too arty a piano, especially for a short-term dynamic; credit is due, however, to the bassoonist who matches this tone, on an instrument that doesn't so easily manage the effect. The other two movements go well: the conductor can't resist a slight dynamic pullback and acceleration in the finale's coda, but he projects the seemingly redundant closing series of C major chords with purpose and direction, for a positive finish.

The Pastoral is an up-and-down affair, mostly up. Rattle's sculpting of the articulations in the opening phrase, while finicky, heralds a performance marked by trim, delicate playing, with the development, conversely, bringing a full measure of hearty cheer. Unfortunately, the conductor allows the tempo to slow markedly at the recap's start and again in the coda, the latter producing some confused rhythmic scansion. In the scene by the brook, Rattle reverts to some of his early-career mannerisms. The subdued, blunted triplets at the start enhance the pictorial effect, but later such smudging produces mere heaviness. The fussy unmarked ritard at the end of the fourth bar is perhaps musically defensible, but did it need to accompany every recurrence of that same phrase?

The latter part of the symphony recovers. In the scherzo, the strings play with plenty of vigor and thrust, particularly in the Trio's peasant dance. The trumpet, coming out of the second Trio, sounds slightly under pitch, but Rattle relaxes the subsequent passage, another nice descriptive touch. There's plenty of presence and color in the storm movement; the conductor's tenuto style produces a few softish landings, but actually lends emphasis to the coda's chordal punctuations. The finale runs smoothly, though the textures sound a bit thick and cluttered, and soggy execution renders the "traditional" agogic accent at 5:29 more than usually meretricious.

These performances won't disappoint Sir Simon's fans, and they're frankly better than I expected from him. Sound quality, by the way, is excellent, with crisp definition and plenty of impact.

Stephen Francis Vasta

These performances won't disappoint Sir Simon's fans, and they're frankly better than I expected from him.