Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [27.30]
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [34.48]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [46.50]
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [32.10]
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) [35.13]
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [40.37]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [40.28]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [25.00]
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [65.46]
Eiddwen Harrhy (soprano); Jean Bailey (contralto); Andrew Murgatroyd (tenor); Michael George (bass)
Oslo Cathedral Choir/Terje Kvam
The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman, Monica Huggett
rec. 1982-83, St. Giles, Cripplegate, London (Symphonies 1 & 2), and 1983-1988, All Saints, Tooting, London.
NIMBUS NI 5144/8 [5 CDs: 62.28 + 79.06 + 76.00 + 65.38 + 65.46]
At what point does a recording become ‘historic’? Anyone remembering some of the very earliest and sometimes highly dodgy period instrument recordings with young Harnoncourt and others in the 1960s and 1970s might approach this kind of early authentic instrument project with some trepidation. The 1980s was a boom period for period performance recordings, and the symphonies of Beethoven were and still are something of a pinnacle for any orchestra. The Hanover Band was one of if not the earliest to record a complete cycle on authentic instruments, alongside Roger Norrington’s Beethoven cycle with the London Classical Players originally on EMI Classics Reflexe from 1987-1989 and now available on Virgin Classics (see review). Also from the 1980s comes Christopher Hogwood with The Academy of Ancient Music on Decca’s L’Oiseau Lyre label. In fact, the experience with these and Roy Goodman’s Hanover Band is by no means the hair-shirt one you might expect. We’ve come a long way since 1983, but this pioneering bunch of musicians can still speak to us even from all those years back in the 20th century.
Criticism has been levelled at these recordings in the past for their excess of resonance, and indeed the church acoustic used is a major feature in each. The Nimbus label used ‘ambisonic’ recording techniques, and these CDs are labelled as being UHJ encoded. I’ve become something of a fan of SACD of late, but have seldom heard any of the Nimbus releases actually de-coded and presumably heard as they were originally intended. The stereo effect is always good enough, and I must admit to having a soft spot for the old Nimbus releases with their single ‘soundfield’ microphone technique. These Beethoven symphonies are quite a rich listening experience, but the first disc with Symphonies 1 and 2 suffers most from acoustic ‘smoke’ around the sound, and the timpani are also rather boomy compared to the rest of the recordings, which were made in All Saints Tooting rather than St. Giles, Cripplegate. What you do notice almost immediately is the relative softness of the winds against the strings. True, period winds are softer than modern instruments where string instruments are still almost exactly the same, metal as opposed to gut strings aside. The beginning of the Symphony No. 1 does immediately show up this contrast though, the needle sharp daring of Beethoven’s pizzicato opening in the strings accompanied by a mellow band of woodwinds and horns who are somewhere ‘way over there’.
The quirky qualities in the recording are something you can get used to, and one has to accept that you just won’t hear absolutely everything. Having tried to get used to John Eliot Gardiner’s Archiv recording from the 1990s with the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique I can also report that being able to hear absolutely everything is not necessarily always the Holy Grail when it comes to Beethoven symphonies. Gardiner is pretty much the reference in these works when it comes to period instrument recordings, but these can also be something of a rough ride as well – rather uncompromising in some ways, to the extent that I’ve not played them much, and certainly haven’t trawled them out when referencing modern instrument recordings. Goodman’s Hanover Band is a little softer edged, not so much in the performances but certainly in recordings which you can listen to for longer periods without feeling you are constantly having to feel ‘impressed’. I’m afraid the first two symphonies are a bit too ‘far out’ as recordings to be regarded as truly successful, Listen to those upward scales in the winds in the final section of the last movement of the Symphony No. 1 and you have to strain sometimes to make out what’s going on. The opening of the Symphony No. 2 also reveals some strain in intonation in some wind sections, and the strings can be shown to be a bit scrappy when exposed. There is a great deal of verve and excitement in the performances and I can find much to enjoy in them, but in isolation they wouldn’t receive much of a recommendation.
A few years later, a different location, and everything snaps into crisper focus with the Symphony No. 3. The drums are played with harder sticks and are much better in proportion, the winds and brass are still backed up a bit, but cut through the strings more effectively and have a better definition. This is the kind of recording which brought the value of period instruments to the fore, with lither textures, a more chamber-music footprint on the score when compared to the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, and a set of timbres which revealed the music in unexpected and refreshing ways. Not everything is perfect, but the sense of expectancy and discovery outweigh occasional weaknesses and the mild foibles of the recording. There are delights everywhere, from the weight of the Marcia funebre to the squirty natural horns in the Scherzo and massive tumult mixed with big holes of Haydnesque strangeness of the Finale, you can imagine something of what the crowds must made of it all the first time it was played. An attack of newness had indeed broken out, and the Symphony No. 3 is magnificent and extraordinary in this recording. The Symphony No. 4 is more neo-classical and optimistic in its outlook, but this performances scholarly examination of dynamics, tempo and articulation makes it another bracing listen. The Adagio in particular is something of a trot with a long-legged steed than a real slow movement, but I like it, and the musical narrative of all of these movements is a path to savour. Some slightly sour violin moments on occasion take a little away from good wind solos, but again the sum is greater than the parts, and this is a performance which would hopefully still grab wild applause even today.
The Symphony No. 5 is always going to be a crucial work, and I’m not entirely convinced by the opening here in this, another one of the earliest recorded in the set. Sustained notes in the strings are undecided whether to vibrato or not, and the lead violin is distractingly up-front. If you can stand back from this a bit, there are good horn moments and the pace and drama are all there, but that string mix is troubling throughout. The extreme contrast between really quite close and fairly distant instruments also makes ensemble coherence that much more difficult. There is still plenty of good playing here and some remarkable moments, such as the hushed and surreal opening to the final Allegro, but real enjoyment is something of an uphill struggle in this case. The Symphony No. 6 is a good deal more entertaining though the generalised sound and large acoustic fights against the detail and chamber-music aspect of the playing in the tuttis. This is a strange set of contradictions, but what I mean is that it sounds more symphonic and grander than it needs to or perhaps even should be. This is however not a small-scale performance, and the dynamic shading is as well observed and constructed as one could hope for, with the antiphonally placed violins a nice touch which adds to the sense of openness in the music, if making headphone listening a tad disorientating at times. The muted strings in the Szene am Bach are lovely, and those exquisite harmonic changes later on are very nicely turned. Lyrical expressiveness turns out to be a strong feature of the Hanover Band as well as their punchy rhythmic drive as the peasant’s merrymaking moves into a fearsomely potent Sturm. The joyful song is gorgeous, though the accompanying figures in the strings are sometimes a bit over-present. In all, this is a Pastoral which can be relished.
The last three symphonies are all from 1988, the last phase of recording, and less prone to the troublesome sense of danger which inhabits some of the earliest. The lyrical against dramatic qualities in this symphony work very well in this case, with the wind sonorities having sufficient impact to steer the harmonic pace. That funeral-march Allegretto moves forward with a satisfying momentum, and builds towards some tremendous sonorities. The swiftly urgent Presto crackles with energy, and has to be topped by the Allegro con brio and is, though the greater extremes of volume result in some less usual acoustic effects, some of the wind notes being heard more through their reflection than from the original attack. The Symphony No. 8 is also very good, with plenty of theatricality through its lighter textures. Roy Goodman manages some nice moments of ritardando as well, heightening certain expressive corners to great effect. This is sunny but also seriously weighty music making, creating an eighth which is imposing as well as generously warm hearted and boisterous.
If I appear to skim a little over these last symphonies it is only because they are less problematic in terms of performance and recording quality than some of the others. Not without their usual minor momentary problems, I’m still happy to endorse them without going into minute detail. The monster Symphony No. 9 does however demand greater attention. Ambitious music demands scale and stature, and the recording here does rise to the challenge, providing decent enough balance and filling the acoustic better than in some cases. There does appear to be some spot miking now, so for instance the horns pop up in your left ear more closely than previous experience would lead you to expect. The bass section is less powerful in the balance which is a shame, as a firm bottom is something you really need to carry this work properly. The first movement is good enough, though its vast canvas sometimes lacks clear direction – perhaps as much an artefact of Beethoven’s deafness as Goodman’s leadership. The Molto vivace second movement extends a vaguely unsettling feeling that we’re hearing a product of encroaching madness as well as genius. The music is driven on with a consistency of pace and within fairly narrow expressive parameters, giving the mind little chance to hook itself onto moments which are normally pointed out with greater expressive contrast. I remember one of my lecturers at the RAM pointing out what a ‘bad’ piece of music the 9th Symphony was, and I think hearing this version makes me realise what he meant for the first time. It’s truly eccentric and not less than crazy, but all done so gloriously and with such daring panache that we’re all left agape with a kind of awe of disbelief – we can’t really ‘get’ it, so it must be wonderful.
Well, there are wonderful things about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, but this is one of those recordings which challenges preconceptions and forces a re-evaluation. The final Presto-Allegro assai throws down the gauntlet one last time, making the low strings ‘sing’ that recitatief before the vocal entry, and this is done with great declamatory style here. With a relatively hectic pace established, the first quiet entry of that famous tune takes us more by surprise. It pops out like a sketchy doodle. We all know what it’s going to grow into, but in this case it has a good deal of work needed before achieving adulthood – an effect I admire. As for the singers, Michael George is a bit jowly in tone colour in the solo but is a fine bass, and the members of the quartet blend well enough together. The choir is very fine, but perhaps a little recessed in the sound. More recent research has the Allegro assai vivace a good deal swifter than we get it here, and it sounds bizarre now to go back to that now discredited tempo of one beat per half bar rather than one beat per bar – twice as fast in effect. Being used to John Eliot Gardiner’s generally faster tempi makes the first choral Freude, schöner, Götterfunken sound a bit clunky by comparison, and the rhythmic emphases enhance the vertical rather than the horizontal, although there are some remarkable moments. The brass in general tends to sound a bit isolated, and doesn’t mould too well into the general orchestral picture, but this is still a performance which leaves an exhaustingly intense and powerful impression.
This is indeed a ‘historical’ recording, in the sense of its being a milestone – or at the very least part of a significant moment in recording history, when the period instrument movement came of age and proved itself capable of challenging the old order of symphonic orchestras. There is much to be enjoyed in this cycle, and much which frustrates. I don’t think by any standard it can make a claim to be anyone’s first choice for a set of Beethoven’s symphonies, but that’s no longer the point with this recording and probably never was. This is a version which can live next to your box sets by Karajan or anyone else, and be brought out when you feel the need for a change of sonority and a different angle on familiar music. To be frank, I hadn’t expected it to have stood the test of time as well as it has. We have indeed moved on, and performance techniques, instruments and aspects of interpretation have all been refined and adjusted as the years have progressed. Just as with modern instrument recordings, there is no one option with period instrument versions of these symphonies. Roy Goodman/Monica Huggett and The Hanover Band can however still make a splash.
Still makes a splash.