Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica [50:03]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67* [32:59]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph Von Dohnányi
rec. live, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, 26 October 2008 and *17 April 2008
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 169 [50:03 + 32:59]

How times change! If, ten years ago, these artists had recorded either of these symphonies the recording would probably have been made under studio conditions and, most likely, would have been issued by one of the major labels - probably Decca, for whom Christoph Von Dohnányi was an exclusive artist for many years. Nowadays the once-major labels such as Decca have seemingly retreated into endless re-cyclings from the back catalogues, making just a small number of new recordings with a handful of artists. It is the small, independent labels who are bravely and successfully issuing the majority of new recordings. Furthermore, over the last few years, and driven in no small measure by the need to watch costs, record companies have captured more and more recordings live under concert conditions, often with very stimulating results.

Against that background, Signum Classics continue their partnership with the Philharmonia, which has already produced live recordings of works by Brahms (SIGCD132) and Richard Strauss (SIGCD148) under Christoph Von Dohnányi’s baton. These Beethoven recordings were made right at the end of his term as the orchestra’s Principal Conductor (1997-2008) and they evidence an experienced partnership. I mean it as a compliment when I report that not a great deal need be said about these performances. Unless you have an aversion to Beethoven played on modern instruments then it seems to me that these performances have a great deal to commend them.

Apart from anything else Dohnányi obtains excellent playing from the orchestra. The winds are consistently excellent; the brass supply just enough power and grandeur without ever dominating unduly - the horns excel in the trio of the scherzo movement in the ‘Eroica’; the timpani playing is dynamic and exciting; and the strings are splendid, with the cellos and basses supplying a satisfyingly solid foundation to the sound of the entire orchestra.

The performance of ‘Eroica’ is a conspicuous success. Dohnányi’s pacing of I - in which he takes the exposition repeat - is ideal. This is a robust, dramatic reading, propelled by strongly articulated rhythms. The funeral march is patrician and dignified but lacks no weight and Dohnányi leads an energetic account of the finale, which culminates in blazing triumph. This is an ‘Eroica’ right out of the mainstream European tradition, led by a highly experienced and sensible conductor, and it’s one which I enjoyed very much indeed.

I was equally impressed with the reading of the Fifth. The first movement is full of life and energy and the rhythms are kept satisfyingly taut throughout. Dohnányi paces the slow movement intelligently, allowing it to be, for the most part, a few minutes of welcome repose but ensuring that the music is kept on the move. The scherzo is suitably bustling at times and the spectral, quiet bass passages are well articulated but have a fine sense of atmosphere. The transition to the finale is managed very well indeed with a suspenseful tension built most convincingly before the finale blazes forth con brio. This closing movement is strong and exultant, bringing a fine account of this symphony to a very satisfying conclusion.

Both recordings were taken from concerts in the presence of an audience but even on the occasions that I listened through headphones I couldn’t detect any distracting audience noise - though after both symphonies the public are keen to show their appreciation - and rightly so.

The recorded sound is clear and present and even if the acoustic of the Festival Hall isn’t the most flattering in the world I doubt any collectors will find the sound anything less than fully satisfactory.

These are fine, intelligent and very well played live performances and both are very welcome additions to the catalogue.

John Quinn