Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 [25:06]
Symphony No. 2 [31:36]
Symphony No. 3 [47:21]
Symphony No. 4 [33:17]
Symphony No. 5 [30:11]
Symphony No. 6 Pastoral [40:20]
Symphony No. 7 [42:09]
Symphony No. 8 [23:40]
Symphony No. 9 [60:55]
Christiane Oelze (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (mezzo); Christoph Strehl (tenor); David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone); Collegium Vocale Gent & Accademia Chigiana Siena; Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. Nos. 1 & 3: Concertgebouw, Bruges, June 2007; Nos. 2 & 6: deSingel, Antwerp, February 2009; Nos. 4 & 7 De Roma, Antwerp, November 2004; Nos. 5 & 8: Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, June 2007; No. 9 deSingel, Antwerp, October 2009. Stereo and Hybrid SACDs
PENTATONE PTC 5186 312 [5 discs: 5:36.49]
Another month, another Beethoven symphony cycle. Herreweghe’s Flemish cycle has been in gestation for more than 6 years from first concert to collected release. Some individual releases have been reviewed elsewhere on MusicWeb International as it has emerged. Is there room, in an increasingly crowded marketplace, for yet another Beethoven cycle, especially when compared with recent releases from Thielemann, Chailly and Vänska, let alone the re-release of Abbado’s 2002 cycle on DVD?
The answer is a clear yes. Herreweghe has already distinguished himself with some outstanding performances of Bach, and he surprised many with his erudite Bruckner, Schumann and Mendelssohn with the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées. His turn towards Beethoven is every bit as successful, but the surprise here is that his orchestra, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, plays on modern instruments. Almost every bar, however, is inflected with period style, so there is little if any vibrato and there is a real sense of the musicians listening to one another and reacting to the sound that they each makes.
If I had to choose just one word to characterise Herreweghe’s approach to Beethoven it would be clarity. Again and again, through either interpretation or playing style, Herreweghe reveals aspects of these familiar scores as if they were being heard for the first time. He is helped by an outstanding recorded sound. The Pentatone engineers have done a fantastic job of capturing the orchestra's sound in a range of different halls, and the brilliance of the orchestral sound seems almost to crackle as it hits the ears. I was listening only in stereo, and I’m sure that the SACD surround sound is even more marvellous. Coupled with the clarity of the recorded sound comes playing that seeks to re-open our ears to the excitement and sheer novelty of this music. That’s apparent right from the off: the opening allegro ofNo. 1 has an almost uncanny sense of excitement to it, of fresh discovery. This doesn’t just come from the tempo, though this is on the fast side; it’s more the way every bar seems to carry a sense of discovering something new and being thrilled by the experience. The natural trumpets and timpani used throughout the cycle definitely help, especially in the final bars of the first movement, but it’s the conductor’s vision that seems to drive this.
The clarity of the sound, both in the recording and the playing, means that the inner lines never sound clouded, and this is especially helpful in the Eroica which sounds powerful without being titanic. The pace of the first movement is supple and lithe without sounding too grand. Herreweghe gives way to Harnoncourt in the sense of the music’s scale and breadth, but the Flemish playing is more beautiful than that of Harnoncourt’s COE. The funeral march is on the fast side, but this adds to the drama, especially in the final bars where there is a sense of life ebbing away. Furthermore, the finale builds clearly to a remarkably exhilarating coda, unequalled in its energy and pace by any other recording of the symphony that I have heard. No. 2 is fresh and exciting: there is something impish about the opening Allegro so that it always sounds exciting and mischievous. Even though the strings play without vibrato, their sound in the Larghetto is wonderfully full and generous. The last two movements seem to stress the link with the Classical past rather than breaking from it: you can still hear elements of the Minuet in the Scherzo, and the high-jinx of the finale is just a few steps away from Haydn. No. 4 opens with a mysterious introduction, but its Allegro is bright and vivacious as well as mellifluous, surprisingly so in the light of the chosen playing style. The scherzo wears its liveliness with a hint of delicacy, giving it an air of style that is almost seductive in the Trio. The finale fizzes like a wind-up toy with playing that is remarkably precise and clear.
The Fifth is also an extraordinary reading. From the off it as if it is being driven with a masterful vision. The famous opening movement proceeds almost with a single-minded obsession, rhythmic, clear and exciting, though the oboe solo at the launch of the recapitulation plays notes I’ve never heard in this context. The Andante proceeds with resolute clarity and the outer sections of the Scherzo are stately rather than brusque. I was all set to recommend this as the best Fifth in years, but the finale doesn’t quite live up to the expectations of the other movements. If anything Herreweghe takes his foot off the gas here so that the opening bars deflate rather than fulfil expectations. It’s not helped by the way the first three chords tend to ebb away rather than blaze triumphantly. The Pastoral is successful with uncontroversial tempi, but the string tone could do with more warmth so that the beauty of nature doesn’t quite come through. The Seventh is remarkably successful, though. Herreweghe builds an interpretation of surprisingly deliberate solemnity. This is a controlled reading which is never quite let off the leash, but Herreweghe makes this work successfully so that the all-important emphasis on rhythm really does become central to the work. The finale, in particular, is notably slower than you’ll hear in many performances, but Herreweghe performs the rare feat of holding the tempo precisely right through the movement so that there is no speeding up or letting the music run away with itself. I found this even more exhilarating than a reading where the final bars seem to hurtle off the cliff in an uncontrolled manner. No. 8 is muscular and exciting but it also keeps that element of control, and Herreweghe has clearly thought hard about the tempo relations of the different movements.
Naturally, the Ninth has a greater sense of scale to it, but even here the transparency of the inner textures is a real selling point. The great climax at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation is not, perhaps, as shattering as you’ll hear elsewhere, but you’ll seldom hear its constituent parts delineated so clearly; the same is true for the Scherzo. Not everyone will warm to a rather sprightly Adagio, but the sincerity of the playing is without doubt. The finale is excellent, as is the solo singing, but the choirs don’t sound quite as compelling, lacking the sense of scale that this music needs. The Collegium Vocale sound too much as though they were singing Bach. However, some may warm to this approach, and the final dash of the coda certainly ends the set on an exhilarating note.
I really enjoyed listening to this. In terms of style, I found that it combines the best of the old with the best of the new, and I’ll be coming back to it again and again for the precision of the playing, the vision of the conductor and, above all, the wonderful clarity of the sound. The only outright criticism of the set has to be its packaging, which is awful! The five CDs are housed in a fold-out concertina cardboard sleeve and to get to the fifth CD you have to go past all the others. Unforgivably, the booklet is super-glued into the innermost depths of the package, making it not just annoying to get to but impossible to hold comfortably - an absurd drudgery to read. It’s a terrible shame, not least because the essay it contains is absolutely excellent!
Simon Thompson
I really enjoyed this. Combines the best of the old with the best of the new amid a wonderful clarity of the sound.