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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [25.51]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [41.36]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [33.19]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [41.36]
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [49.54]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [25.25]
CD 4
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [33.37]
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [32.36]
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [65.12]
Helena Juntunen (soprano); Katarina Karnéus (mezzo); Daniel Norman (tenor); Neal Davies (bass-baritone)
Minnesota Chorale
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2004-2008
BIS BISSACD1825/26 [5 CDs: 68.22 + 75.49 + 76.16 + 67.03 + 65.46]

Experience Classicsonline

I happen to know that competition was fierce amongst us reviewers to get hold of this box, so I feel honoured to have been blessed with the task by the avuncular and indefatigable Len. Reviews of the single disc releases of this cycle can be found for Symphonies 3 & 8, 4 & 5, and 2 & 7, which I looked at in 2008. Bill Kenny’s interview with Osmo Vänskä is also worth a read, for while it introduces the conductor in the earlier days of his tenure with the Minnesota orchestra it also gives some of the reasons as to why this cycle of the Beethoven symphonies promised to be and has become something rather special.

Looking around for the general response to this cycle as a complete set I came across a new term; ‘historically unprejudiced’. I for one refuse to look upon recordings made using authentic instruments and attempting to re-create what might have been heard in the composer’s own time as ‘prejudiced’, even if the results can sometimes fall short of ideal. Whether you like it or not, all musical performance is historically informed in one way or another, and is or should be a kind of research and experimentation. You can see a score as a kind of recipe book, but any professional conductor or chef worth their salt will tell you that such a document is a guide rather than a guarantee. You might well regard an Italian chef as ‘garlic and olive oil unprejudiced’, but if his Spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino takes you to seventh heaven then you’ll also know his food is the result of long tradition, years of experience and a constant search for the finest ingredients. Like kitchen utensils, musical instruments are mere implements without the mind and hand of a master to wield them, and Osmo Vänskä brings the very best out of his Minnesota ingredients on the evidence of this box of goodies.

Enough tortuous simile. No cycle of Beethoven symphonies is beyond criticism, but to make a long story short, this set is a hard one to find fault with. To start with, the BIS recordings portray the orchestra in sumptuous sonics, filled with the kind of detail which suits Vänskä’s attitude to accuracy, bringing the solos and individual sections to life as well as giving us the grander canvas of the entire orchestra. Only the tympani might sound a bit boomy here and there on some systems, but this is a minor and subjective point. None of this quality would mean anything if Osmo Vänskä hadn’t prepared these performances without what sounds like an entire overhaul of the mechanics of each symphony - taking every aspect of the music apart, examining it closely for its contribution to the whole, and then bringing everything together to create something sparkling and new. This is not to say the results are in any way mechanical sounding: more to indicate that, to all appearances, Vänskä has refused to gloss over any interpretative points as ‘given’. Each texture is intonated, chords weighed for balance and emphasis, voicing given just the right level, melodic lines shaped, each event cast in its role - great or small - within the arc of each symphony. If you want a quick example of this, listen to the Symphony No.6 from the start. Critics have sometimes observed this Allegro ma non troppo as repetitious, but Vänskä listens to Beethoven rather than to critics, and you can hear how each line and inner voice is given its own life; the ear given a fascinating tapestry of constantly undulating movement and colour. Here and throughout the entire cycle I found myself discovering new things - little inflections and variations which, while no doubt observed in other recordings, just didn’t communicate in quite the same way as in this case. Maybe it is Vänskä’s approach which makes one listen more in this kind of analytical way. This might give rise to warning lights in terms of the bigger picture and that elusive communication of emotional content, but to my ears Beethoven is a composer whose symphonic work can take a great deal when it comes to looking deeper. Like fractal shapes, the impression is of a world whose potential for discovery is as good as infinite, and anyone who can take us further down this path as well as keeping the character and substance of the music intact is doing a good job indeed.

The last three years have been punctuated for me by some stunning Beethoven symphonic cycles. 2007 was Pletnev’s, 2008 Abbado, and now in 2009 Vänskä. Much as I admire the qualities of the aforementioned and indeed many other sets, Vänskä’s can in many ways be seen as a kind of summit of these three. I’ve been using Abbado as a principal comparison being a little closer in cost, though the BIS set undercuts most in its remarkable five discs for the price of two pricing, especially when you take its SACD technology into consideration. My main reason for putting Vänskä against Abbado is in a way to remove the controversy Pletnev seems to arouse. Despite the Abbado set being live as compared to Vänskä’s ‘studio’ setting, Pletnev’s speedily recorded cycle also has that quality. The sense on discovery I hear in Pletnev’s set has to do with interpretative decisions which people seem to love or hate, so this will always be likely to be something of a supplementary choice rather than your definitive Beethoven box. In the pantheon of these cycles I happen to like the idea of someone trying something a bit different, and not for nothing did I have Pletnev as one of my ‘discs of the year’ in 2007. The grand figure of Herbert von Karajan also looms in the background, but I’ll come back to him later.

Either way I don’t intend an all-symphony blow-by blow comparison, but with all the excitement of the opening Adagio molto - Allegro con brio first movement of the Symphony No.1 I was intrigued to hear how the different conductors each generate their own sense of power and energy. Abbado sounds quicker and more urgent, but Vänskä is in fact fleeter of foot by a whisker, joining an inexorable forward momentum with wide dynamics and a sense of transparency. Vänskä’s sound passes through a finer mesh of net than Abbado’s more physical touch, but this suits his orchestra’s clean and lithe abilities. The Berliner Philharmoniker is that much heavier and, dare I say it, Teutonic. This is an aspect which makes their Andante in this symphony perhaps more traditionally dance-like, but Vänskä’s bringing out more of the cantabile marked on the score. He is also rather swifter and lighter in the Menuetto, undercutting Abbado by almost a whole minute, but with the strings never missing a step in the complex little counter figurations in the central section. Vänskä’s wit comes through in the questioning little introduction to the finale: just listen to how he brings a little smile to those restrained final notes of the opening statements, joining them to the lightness of the entry of the Allegro molto. Abbado is fine here too, though the opening chord is less impressive, and those little scales in between more of an intermezzo than an integrated part of the opening as a whole. Vänskä’s treatment of the contrapuntal development section later on is a sheer delight, and if his performance is marginally less of an exciting roller-coaster ride than Abbado then it certainly has its own grip on the visceral nature of the music - perhaps more of a water-flume in its smoothness of drive.

Looking at what I said in my own review of the Symphony No.2 and its pairing of No.7 I stand by what I wrote, but also find it fascinating to see how my response has been coloured by seeing the context of these works in that of an entire cycle. I’ll be coming back to No.7 later, having decided to go though the symphonies numerically rather than as coupled per disc, but I have found myself listening to both works with new ears. What I particularly like about these performances in general, and what leaps out in particular in the opening Adagio introduction to the Symphony No.2 is the way in which Vänskä brings out the extremes in perspective which Beethoven writes into his orchestration, from full tutti to a minimum of chamber-music means. This has to do with the space which is left for soloists and individual lines, allowing them to speak from within accompanying textures while still playing with the subtleties of very light dynamics and articulation. Take that descending flute duet which precedes the second ‘tadaaaa’. With Vänskä the flutes barely touch the notes, maximising contrast between the worlds of soft winds and full wallop. Abbado’s flutes are again fine, but seem set to compete, armed and ready to take on the orchestra when it kicks in. Later on - at around the first minute and a half, hear how the instruments attack and withdraw almost to nothing, throwing notes around the orchestra, calling and replying with identical weight. Abbado is heavier here, the sustain and attack of the instruments heard as more idiomatic to their kind, rather than controlled so that they identify with each other musically: key fits lock, rather than set of identical keys with different colours. These are all very small points, but you can imagine how all of these details add up to create something which represents something of a fresh book of newly discovered wonders, even to grizzled old reviewers who’ve heard these pieces hundreds of times before. 

Short of writing volumes on every aspect of the playing and musical direction of this set I think we should move on a little. Are there criticisms? Yes of course, but these are ones of mood and nuance rather than negative aspects. There are moments when you might feel some more energy and excitement might help contrast some movements against others. The Scherzo of the Symphony No.2 is a case in point where, setting Vänskä’s genteel approach against Abbado’s more urgent and hard hitting orchestral sound, one might prefer the latter. It depends if you are looking for the sunnier youthful Beethoven, or the more familiar gruff frown of those later portraits. The Symphony No.3 also begins in a more smiling, jovial mood than we’ve come to expect from some quarters, but this allows Vänskä to cast us down the more when minor key moods take over. He can certainly kick plenty of dust up when it comes to the more dramatic elements in that first Allegro con brio, and arguments over this as a more lightweight series of readings to my mind always falter and are refuted at such stormy moments. Points regarding a lack of emotional content due to an over-refined and perhaps overly homogenised orchestral sound also fall by the wayside at the second movement, the Marcia funebre. Vänskä isn’t wringing his hands over this one, but allows the music to convey its eloquent message in well balanced and rather reflective understatement, the accents and dynamic rise and fall being given their full, telling value. He also somehow manages to integrate and maintain this mood more in the lighter section which follows, where Abbado seems more keen to have us move beyond the funeral into the ballroom. Vänskä, having only opened the window to let in a few shafts of light, throws down the gauntlet in the magnificently operatic Adagio assai, where Beethoven seems to be reaching out, grasping at the heels of composers yet unborn. The sheer clarity and coherence of this recording keeps you gripped - Beethoven understood and fully articulated; a voice you can’t ignore.

The disc with both the 4th and 5th symphonies was the first of this set to be released as a single disc, but even with 5 years between the earliest and last of these recordings the quality in performance is invariably of the highest, Vänskä and his new orchestra taking to each other from the outset. Herbert von Karajan is pretty iconic in these pieces, and for collectors it would seem that the first 1960s outing with the Berlin Philharmonic still gets the pulses racing the most. Comparing these with Vänskä today is another fascinating exercise, with Karajan’s wide sweep over these magnificent symphonic canvasses embracing them like a magician’s cloak. Karajan is more legato and sustained, Vänskä lighter in articulation and more transparent. Take the separation and shape of the notes in the Adagio second movement of the Symphony No.4 as an example, Karajan stressing and pushing the notes, Vänskä allowing them to breathe more, always seeking to allow his solo instruments maximum air without relaxing the harmonic direction of each moment. He produces a remarkable atmosphere and keeps us enthralled, very much the equal of Karajan but competing on an almost entirely different terrain. Probably the most famous symphonic opening of all time, the Symphony No.5 in Karajan’s 1960s set is certainly a highlight of all recordings of the work. Sheer grit and fierce defiance keep us on the edge of our seats in this elderly recording, and Vänskä, while pulling no punches, is again avoiding a confrontation with such monuments of the past. He finds more lyricism in the imitative sequences between those ‘fate’ moments, shaping these so that the cadence in each is more clearly defined: ta-ta-ta-taaa to Karajan’s more compact and urgent tatatatáááá. Vänskä invariably articulates shorter, with more taken away from the ends of notes to create greater clarity and a different kind of energy. Where he is absolute king is in the construction of this incredible movement into a form which builds tension almost to fever pitch, promising but withholding its climax like an alpine summit, always keeping it visible and seemingly accessible, but always making it so difficult, perhaps even impossible to reach. Comparing the two it is the more remarkable that Karajan doesn’t sound in any way muddy and heavy-footed, generating electricity and potency which belongs to a different generation, but one we are fortunate in being able still to appreciate today.

Vänskä’s Symphony No.6 is one which opens with plenty of welcoming warmth, and all of the playful character of Beethoven’s rather utopian view of the countryside. I’ve mentioned the first movement already, and would extend this to the rest of the symphony, one which responds magnificently to Vänskä’s sense of pace and regard for detail. I would also point to the healthily robust string sound in the dances of the Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute. You can just see the radiant glow in those breathless faces, and no doubt some other energetic goings on behind the haystack. All of this joyful living is cut short by a spectacular storm; the piccolo’s few notes singing out heartily and all the dust shaken out of your woofers by the end of it all. The Symphony No.7 I had reviewed before, and find myself listening with more understanding of Osmo Vänskä’s approach. The business of ‘sticking’ in repetitions is one I have found him evading in the other symphonies, but in the seventh I do find myself wanting just than nth more abandon which would allow me to retract this observation. Again, superbly played and filled unarguably wonderful things, I hear the opening movement as just a bit more Vivace; Vänskä’s restraint making it marginally less breathtakingly exciting than I know it can be. I do love his way with the Allegretto, whose dynamics threaten to vanish altogether at some points, but avoiding too funereal a tread. Any reservations about the pace of the opening movement are blown away by a cracking final Allegro con brio, where impact and balance are still very much linked, the artillery of the brass not being allowed to blaze through everything and cut down the strings like foot soldiers.

The sunny Symphony No.8 is another very fine recording which with Vänskä’s lightness of touch he very much makes his own. The mighty Symphony No.9 can be a problematic beast, but I don’t have any interpretative problems with the way this vast and sprawling piece is held together by Vänskä. I have to admit being somewhat pre-programmed in my youth with Herbert von Karajan’s 1977 recording and a few other European examples, but my initial impression of the choir as being somewhat Hollywood has largely been dispelled on returning to this performance and listening properly. Vänskä presents the opening movements well as always in this set, but I have to say Karajan is more involving and dramatic. I have the impression that Karajan is more on the ball to those vocal entries possessing an element of grand surprise, rather than the rest of the symphony being a build-up; waiting for the great moment to happen. This is not to say Vänskä is weak here: the music is convincing in its own terms. It’s just that others have gathered more intensity and projected more powerfully; or perhaps forcefully is the correct term. The soloists are very good, bass-baritone Neal Davies not quite as resonantly impressive as Walter Berry in Karajan’s 1963 recording, but at least not sliding around the notes quite as much. The female voices are a little over-wobbly-operatic for my taste but the ensemble sections are good enough, and tenor Daniel Norman acquits himself well. All in all this is a fine ninth, but up until the final choruses not quite the grand finale we might have expected from such a glorious cycle. Where this recording ultimately wins is in the balance between chorus and orchestra. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t have a good recording without a good performance, but this one shows where Karajan’s fall down, the choral voices more often than not struggling to be understood from behind his great orchestra. Here we can follow the text - given in full and translated in the booklet - and get a sense of the impact of the words. “Diesen Kuss der ganzen welt!” - “This kiss is for the entire world!” gives a thrill here which I hadn’t experienced in quite the same way on any other recording. Sixteen minutes in and the contrapuntal detail is also usefully clear and well separated in the aural picture. That quiet section, “Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt/Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen” in the 18th minute is quite magical, and after that final soloists contribution I like that little extended accelerando Vänskä gives before hitting the final fanfares.

With such a magnificent and reasonably priced set following quite hard on the heels of its final disc release, my only twinge of sympathy goes out to those who have collected each single disc on its release and already paid top dollar. It becomes something of a question mark about the CD market when it seems likely to pay to avoid the original discs of such a set and just wait a while for the budget box, and I also feel for shops who are still stocking those individual releases and will end up having to put ‘Sale’ stickers on them. You’ll read plenty of opinions on this BIS set from all over the place, and some opinions can be seen as having some truth on their side. Vänskä’s Beethoven may not be the most passionate ever recorded, but neither is it coldly analytical. It may also be seen as treading that line between modern orchestral playing and historically informed interpretation, but that’s where we are at the moment, so you either accept this or hang on to old favourites or seek alternatives from the early music scene. That line may be a step back from big-boned Berliner tradition, but neither does it have to be a narrowing, insipid interloper, and I would propose this cycle to be an artefact which proves this point. I’m as big a sucker for succulently recorded orchestras as anyone else, but I hope I would be able to identify a duff performance even if it was presented in state of the art SACD sound. Not one of the symphonies in this set is duff by any standard, and with a chunky booklet and excellent notes by Barry Cooper neither is this bargain box in any way low budget in presentation. History will tell us whether this cycle stands above those of other conductors and orchestras, but for now I’m placing my copy at the top of an already rather distinguished pile of references. 

Dominy Clements



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