Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (1808)1 [30:21]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, Pastoral (1808)2 [39:12]
Kammerorchester Basel/Giovanni Antonini
rec Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne, 1 8-9 July 2008, 2 3-5 July 2009, DDD
SONY MUSIC 88697648162 [69:33]

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (1808)1 [31:14]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, Pastoral (1808)2 [39:52]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
Rec. 1 Freiburg,Konzerthaus 29 November 2003; 2 Essen, Philharmonie & Basel,
Stadtcasino, 23-24 January 2007, DDD
GLOR CLASSICS GC11461 [71:24]  

The two recordings being reviewed here offer the contrast of Sylvain Cambreling’s full orchestra and Giovanni Antonini’s chamber orchestra. Does it matter? We shall see.
In Symphony 5 Cambreling gives us a fiery dragon of an opening movement with a stern, dour treatment of the four-note motto. There are explosive tuttis and a stark, mysterious and troubled development (tr. 1 2:47). Notable is the sole protesting voice in the poignant oboe cadenza, suddenly and rarely free from the forward thrust of the rest of the movement before the relentless and turbulent coda. Antonini steps back a little, offering less weighty sonority but equally impactful brass bite. There’s also a wider and more telling dynamic contrast, for example in the transition (tr. 1 0:43) from very loud horns to soft, sweet first violins, then clarinet, then flute. The focus of his development is deftness and surprise: when you think the trouble has quelled it breaks out again. The oboe cadenza here is less rhetorical, more puzzled questioning. The coda is defiant but there’s also something of pride, even celebration in this.
Cambreling begins the slow movement (tr. 2) with nonchalantly flowing smooth strings and then a nicely nuanced woodwind response. When the second theme moves from very soft (0:49) to very loud (1:03) the belching dragon has returned throwing his weight around and I find this rather hectoring. By contrast the variation with the theme in demisemiquavers is very deftly done. Antonini has a more genial opening to this movement and his giving the second theme a sense of triumph, exultant but not fiery, I find more convincing than Cambreling’s treatment. Antonini’s gradual rise in dynamic of the following very soft strings’ passage is also more mysterious than Cambreling while he makes the theme in demisemiquavers (tr. 2 3:20) more gentle but flowing.
From the very loud horns early in the Scherzo Cambreling proves to be more triumphant, more of an anticipation of the finale, than fierce, though there’s a haunted feel that things could go wrong. The Trio, that famous dexterity required of cellos and basses (tr.3 1:38) is sturdy and the following splashes of pizzicato when the Scherzo returns playful and quizzical. Antonini, beginning with greater dynamic contrast, has more sense of mystery in the softer passages and sheer bite to the horns. His Trio is lighter in articulation, more athletic. The return of the Scherzo has a disturbingly distilled quality: you appreciate its focus but feel it might evaporate any moment. Cambreling’s drum solo ushering in the finale is ominous, propelled into a weighty and sonorous closing movement with at times thunderous timpani. Cambreling goes out in a blaze of glory and still points details well, though his pace obscures total clarity in the piccolo’s articulation of its rising flourishes. Antonini finds more warmth in his drum solo, more sense of expectation. It’s good to hear the piccolo clearly from the opening tutti and crisper in articulation in its late solos. Here’s a finale of great conviction in its leaner sound yet also more muscular rhythmic life.
With the Pastoral symphony the question is how well are conveyed Beethoven’s ‘Pleasant, cheerful sensations awakened on arrival in the countryside’? Cambreling does this by adopting a fast tempo, for which Beethoven asks, on the very edge of ‘but not too fast’, which Beethoven warns against. Cambreling gets away with this because of light articulation and dexterous playing. So the joyful first tutti has eagerness and bounce which lends excitement to the flutes’ flourishes. The second theme (tr. 5 1:06) has a light glint leading to sunny loud affirmation by the upper strings. In the development from 4:39 there’s a gradual crescendo just as marked to a thrilling fortissimo and a confident, vigorous tutti come the recapitulation. Antonini is a touch more leisurely and you appreciate more the vertical density of the score, if at a little cost to the horizontal progression. On the other hand he’s then able to provide a more contrasted, dainty second theme (tr. 5 1:09). There isn’t the sheer flow Cambreling provides but this does give Antonini scope for more emphasis on rhythmic impetus, making his crescendo in the development (from 4:52) more brooding and urgent. Its termination in the unleashing of the fortissimo seethes more effectively.
In the ‘Scene by the brook’ the question is how fast is it flowing? Beethoven’s marking is Andante molto moto quite fast and so is Cambreling who gives us a sultry, benign flow with glowing woodwind. It’s beautifully played but a bit abstract. Antonini, just a touch slower, has something more magical, a sublime sense of summer indolence. This is achieved through shaping of the lines, a more sensitive dynamic shading and a more melting approach from the woodwind. The end result is a feeling of beneficence.
The ‘Merry gathering of the country people’ is very nifty and blithe in Cambreling’s hands but the country band are virtuosi. A vigorous Country Dance lets in a distinctly earthy element. Antonini, only slightly slower, conveys more of bustle and a certain abandon. There’s a potential fragility about the band solos that makes them more engaging. The Country Dance is less rustic but it’s still lively and full of momentum. For ‘Thunder. Storm’ Cambreling brings a creepily arriving pattering of rain. Then comes a timpani thunderbolt that could knock you out of your seat. The timpani’s contribution is tremendous throughout this movement. Antonini reveals both rain and thunder cleanly with both starkness and density though without Cambreling’s impact.
To the ‘Shepherds’ Song: Beneficent feelings bound with thanks to the Godhead after the storm’. Cambreling brings a smooth, cantabile gratitude through a lovely slender first violins’ tone and fine balance between strings, woodwind and brass. There’s also a clear and satisfying transfer of the song when present in running semiquavers from first violins (tr. 9 3:56) to second violins (4:11) to violas and cellos (4:27). The climax (7:25) opens thrillingly enough but its peak (7:41) is a touch formal and remote. Antonini’s emphasis on projection of rhythms brings more of a feel of spontaneity. The transfer of the song here (at 3:34, 3:50 and 4:04 respectively) is more fleetly and delicately done than Cambreling but Antonini also brings more vibrant contrast. His louder passages are a more joyous celebration, the climax (6:41) and its peak (6:56) more shaped.  

Michael Greenhalgh  

Cambreling is good but Antonini has a special rhythmic exultation. 

Masterwork Index: Symphony 5 ~~ Symphony 6