Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799-1800) [27:38]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-2) [36:23]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [55:21]
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [34:55]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807-8) [35:56]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral (1808) [46:04]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) [44:25]
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [27:39]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 123 Choral (1823-4) [71:41]
Overture to Goethe’s Egmont Op. 84 [9:07]
Overture, Leonore No. 3 Op. 72b [14:41]
Sharon Sweet (soprano);Jadwiga Rappé (contralto); Paul Frey (tenor); Franz Grundlheber (bass)
Chor des Staatsoper Dresden
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden. February 1991 (No. 3, Egmont); September 1992 (Nos. 2, 5, 6, 7); July 1993 (No. 9); September 1993 (Nos. 1, 4, 8); November 1993 (Leonore). DDD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802077 [6 CDs: 72:03 + 63:02 + 64:28 + 70: 51 + 60:45 + 71:41]
Sir Colin Davis has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Staatskapelle Dresden. In 1990 the orchestra made him their Honorary Conductor; the first time, I believe, that they had bestowed such a title. These Beethoven recordings were made for Philips and it’s good that they’ve now been licensed to Newton Classics. Like so many others that this label has released, these recordings were, perhaps, unlikely to be reissued by the original label but they’re too good to lie undisturbed in the vaults.
I think I’d describe Davis’s Beethoven readings as “central”. They’re not likely to challenge the listener’s view of these symphonies in the way that, for example, the likes of David Zinman or Sir Charles Mackerras do, still less the performances by period instrument ensembles. I don’t believe that’s Sir Colin’s purpose. Instead, what we have here is a set of deeply considered readings, which are the fruit of long practical experience of these works in the concert hall. One might not agree with every single aspect of the readings but, nonetheless, they are very satisfying.
Sir Colin has worked extensively with some of the finest orchestras in the world and he could have recorded a Beethoven cycle with several of them - not least with the London Symphony Orchestra. However, in the Staatskapelle Dresden I think he has the ideal vehicle for his view of these symphonies. The sound that this orchestra produces seems entirely at one with Davis’s conception. From a firm, satisfying string bass, through burnished horns and brass - powerful, when needed, but never overbearing - through articulate and eloquent woodwind right the way up to upper strings that have just the right amount of sheen on their tone, this orchestra brings Davis’s interpretations to life in a way that must have pleased him greatly.
Given Davis’s approach and the fine, full - but not fat - sound of the Dresden orchestra this is primarily a strong and often quite spacious traversal of the Beethoven symphonies. In certain movements Sir Colin adopts a brisk pace - the first movement of the Fourth, after a tense introduction, is one such example, as is the nimble scherzo of the Ninth. However, for the most part Davis eschews extremes of tempo and is steady in his pacing. Sometimes I wished he’d adopted a speed a couple of notches faster - for example, both the third and fourth movements of the Second might have sparkled more at a faster pace; again, the trio of the Fourth’s third movement is significantly slower than the pace adopted for the main body of the movement and it seems to me that the conductor has, perhaps, not observed fully the first part of the tempo indication Un poco meno allegro. And I’ve heard more dynamic accounts of the finale of the Eighth.
However, there are many times when Sir Colin’s spaciousness pays dividends and where his ability to let the music breathe is wholly to its advantage. The slow movement of the Ninth, for example, is gloriously sung - the orchestra’s playing is glowing. The slow movement of the Eroica is taken more broadly than many conductors take it these days but Davis has noticed that the tempo marking is ‘Adagio assai’ [my italics]. His reading of this movement is slow, intense and patrician and, with the orchestra’s depth of tone a great advantage, he offers a memorable account of the music.

I enjoyed his reading of the Pastoral very much. In I the pace adopted gives the music quite a relaxed gait. This is a pleasant rural excursion; we’re not rushed and we can admire the landscape. Perhaps in II the brook flows in a little too leisurely a manner. However, the movement is beautifully played - a source of pleasure in itself - and one feels the music is at ease with itself. Some might feel the tempo for III is a bit too steady; however, my view would be that this pace is one at which you can easily imagine a rustic knees-up - it wouldn’t leave dancers out of breath. The approach of the storm - tense and distant at first - is well handled while the tempest itself is powerful. The concluding Shepherds’ song is warmly phrased and easeful.
Davis leads strong, purposeful readings of both the Eroica and the Fifth and in the first two symphonies I like the graceful treatment of the second movements - a Menuetto in the First and a Scherzo in the Second. Both reflect the legacy of Haydn and these performances reminded me of Sir Colin’s excellent set of the London symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. His way with the first movement of the Ninth is deliberate and patient - he doesn’t peak too soon - and I’ve already mentioned his fine reading of that symphony’s Adagio. In the finale the soloists do well - the tenor leads a good account of the martial episode - though Franz Grundlheber’s way with the imposing first solo sounded as if he was trying a bit too hard and his tone in this passage was not really to my taste. But in general the soloists and the very good choir cope well with Beethoven’s often unreasonable demands.
This Beethoven symphony cycle is a good, sound proposition. If I say it’s a safe choice I don’t mean that as disparaging in any way. What I mean is that anyone buying this set will acquire a sensible, thoughtful and thoroughly musical cycle of the symphonies. Sir Colin’s isn’t the only way with Beethoven, a description that would apply to all conductors, and almost anyone will want to supplement a core cycle with individual symphonies by other conductors - Carlos Kleiber in numbers 5, 6 and 7 springs immediately to mind, for one. However, Davis is a reliable, experienced and discerning guide to the Beethoven canon and I doubt if anyone investing in this well considered and excellently played set will be disappointed.
The Philips engineers achieved good and consistent results throughout this cycle. There are serviceable booklet notes by Anthony Burton but no texts for the finale of the Choral.
John Quinn
Sensible, thoughtful and thoroughly musical … a good, sound proposition.