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The Symphonies and Reflections  
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Johannes Maria STAUD (b. 1974)
Maniai for orchestra (2011) [11:13]
Misato MOCHIZUKI (b. 1969)
Nirai intermezzo to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and No. 6 (2012) [9:00]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament symphonic fragment for orchestra (2008) [12:09]
Raminta ŠERKŠNYTĖ (b. 1975)
Fires for orchestra (2010) [10:34]
Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935)
Dixi for mixed choir and orchestra (2009) [21:47]
Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Con brio concert overture for orchestra (2008) [11:50]
see end of review for disc contents
Christiane Karg (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor), Michael Volle (baritone) (Symphony No. 9)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Peter Dijkstra (chorus master)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 2008-12 (see end of review for details)
No sung texts provided
BR KLASSIK 900119 [6 CDs: 417:08]

Commenced in 1800, Beethoven’s epic cycle of nine symphonies is revered as the composer’s greatest legacy to music culture with each symphony inhabiting its own individual world. Daniel Barenboim maintains “It’s one of the greatest adventures in music that we play the same pieces again and again - and that, despite their constant repetition, they sound different every time.” Barenboim was specifically referring to the pair of Chopin piano concertos but he could have equally well have been describing the Beethoven nine. I have a number of complete cycles and also hear individual symphonies often in concert performance. I remain astonished at the number of new things I hear. 

In addition to containing the complete Beethoven cycle this release, in the year of Mariss Jansons’s seventieth birthday, is supplemented by six new orchestral works, all commissioned by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). The six composers - Johannes Maria Staud, Misato Mochizuki, Rodion Shchedrin, Raminta šerkšnytė, Giya Kancheli and Jörg Widmann - were each commissioned to write a score lasting around ten minutes which should refer to a particular Beethoven symphony in terms of its form, its concept or the material used.
 
With such an outstanding choice of complete Beethoven cycles it is difficult to settle on one specific set. There are a few conductors who have recorded more than one cycle with Karajan having recorded four. The complete sets that I currently play most often are from the Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado/Deutsche Grammophon; Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan/Deutsche Grammophon (cycle 1961/62); Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle/EMI; Berliner Philharmoniker/André Cluytens/EMI and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman/Arte Nova. Time doesn’t allow any serious comparisons with various rival sets of recordings so whilst working my way through this BR Klassic box set I have noted my opinions about the performances. Here the Munich-based Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is conducted by Mariss Jansons who has been the orchestra’s chief conductor since the 2003/04 season. Having attended some half dozen performances in the last couple of years from this partnership I hold the opinion that their integrity of performing excellence is guaranteed.
 
Throughout this live cycle one senses an elevated level of musical intelligence. My principal impressions are the impressive structural coherence of the Beethoven interpretations and the weighty robust sound that Jansons obtains from his players. These are compelling performances that are buoyantly rhythmic with plenty of thrust when required. I was struck by the penetrating lyricism and intensity of emotion they bring. Notable throughout is the glorious, full-bodied tone of the brass. Also remarkable are the unified strength and range of the strings especially the rich timbre of the cellos and basses so crucial in providing a rock-steady foundation.
 
Recorded on tour at the Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Jansons and his Bavarian players get off to a flying start with the often overlooked Symphony No. 1. Completed in 1800 the score bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Beethoven’s early patron. The highly spirited playing of the opening Allegro establishes Jansons’ determined mood and contrasts with the calm and rather refined feel of the appealing Andante.
 
A score mainly composed in 1802 during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt, the Symphony No. 2 is dedicated to benefactor Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky. Also recorded at the Suntory Hall, Tokyo the beautiful playing of the Second Symphony is striking with the enchanting Larghetto sounding highly agreeable. It is in the compact Scherzo that Jansons adopts broad dynamic contrasts. The orchestra play with clean precision.

A frequently heard work in the concert hall it is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the page and replacing it with the title Eroica. It is clear from this Herkulessaal, Munich recording that Jansons fully appreciates that this progressive score from 1803 is music of considerable concentration and as the designation might suggest heroic power. Fresh and invigorating, the Bavarians’ performance of the Allegro conveys a sense of defiance in the face of adversity. The pulse given to the celebrated Marche funèbre by Jansons is unerring. This is certainly no mere funeral dirge - it is sombre and respectful yet the playing is bold and resolute. It feels as if the spirit of life has broken free in the Finale with Jansons’ fiery power making a compelling impact.
 
Written during the summer of 1806 the Symphony No. 4 is dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff, a Silesian nobleman who commissioned the work. Beethoven actually stopped work on the Fifth Symphony to compose this score. Jansons clearly revels in Beethoven’s glorious melodies. The fresh and sweeping account of the opening Adagio - Allegro Vivace feels evocative of cool and verdant Alpine vistas. Delightfully lyrical, the Adagio contains vividly bright playing ensuring a disarming feeling of contentment.
 
The Symphony No. 5 was completed in 1808 and the manuscript is inscribed with a dedication to both Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky. I’m unsure just how many times Jansons and his Munich players must have performed this enduringly popular symphony but in this Tokyo recording they bring a newly minted feeling to the table. Marked Allegro con brio,in the dynamic opening movement the players give a bold and powerful performance of biting intensity. One of my favourite movements in all Beethoven’s symphonies is the Andante con moto to which Jansons applies splendid rhythmic control. He paints a beautiful tender mood revealing a slight undertow of sorrow. Although Jansons comes close here no recording I have heard achieves the same level of spine-tingling intensity that Karajan and his Berlin players bring to the Andante con moto with their 1962 Berlin account on Deutsche Grammophon.

It was very rare for Beethoven to journey into programme music but he did this with his Symphony No. 6. Also completed in 1808 this score of Beethoven’s “expressions of feelings” suggesting a walk through rustic scenes is constructed in five movements. It too is dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky. This much loved work is given a compelling reading of real penetration. Especially impressive is the opening movement an ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country’ with stunning playing that paints a vivid nature scene. I also relish the orchestra’s uplifting playing of the Scherzo a ‘Happy gathering of country folk’. The rhythms are delightfully sprung evoking rustic dancing and merriment, like a scene from a Pieter Bruegel painting.
 
Both the Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 were completed in 1812 yet they differ widely in character. Dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries the Seventh enjoyed great success at its première in Vienna. It was Wagner who famously described the symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance”. Here the extended opening movement marked Poco sostenuto - Vivace is irresistible for its vigorous heroic power. The austere beauty of the much admired Allegretto is striking as is the joy and merriment that Jansons achieves in the Scherzo. Magnificently uplifting, the Finale is played here with strength and breathtaking energy. No matter how much potency they give to this performance I have yet to hear one to equal the intensity that Furtwängler and the Berliner Philharmoniker gave to their live recording from October/November 1943 at the (alte) Philharmonie, Berlin. 
 
The shortest in length of the cycle of nine symphonies, Beethoven warmly described the Symphony No. 8 as “My little Symphony in F.” Beethoven didn’t provide a dedication to the Eighth Symphony,a work overshadowed by the immensity of his Seventh and Ninth. Without forfeiting precision there is a strong sense of spontaneity in Jansons’ warm reading. It sports an especially attractive and stately Menuetto and a keen bucolic feel. The Bavarian players rise with conviction to the challenges of the brilliant Finale:Allegro vivace - a movement containing seemingly unlimited and sudden variations of rhythms, tempi and capacious imagination.
 
Dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, Beethoven’s colossal Ninth is one of the most magnificent and familiar works in the entire classical music repertoire. Composed in 1823-24 it’s unusual for its massive choral finale a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’. It’s astonishing to think that by the time of its première in Vienna in 1824 Beethoven was profoundly deaf. Throughout this outstanding account Jansons and his Bavarian players display their remarkable stamina with a capacity to maintain an elevated level of controlled intensity. In the opening movementI was struck by Jansons’ urgent forward momentum and his ability to convey a sense of torment and even anger. In the great Scherzo the reading is searingly powerful generating incredible anguish while the low strings ruminate darkly. With Jansons moving the music forward, a sense of spirituality pervades the beautiful slow movement. Remarkably fine playing from the woodwind choir and the sonorous strings all serve to underscore the atmosphere of profuntity. The crowning glory is the closing movement with its famous choral setting. It generates a robust sensation of awe under Jansons’ decisive control. The superbly controlled climaxes are remarkable as is the dark menace produced by the low strings, sending a shiver down the spine. In the choral section, we have rich-toned and secure baritone Michael Volle, tenor Michael Schade taut and expressive with fluid-toned soprano Christiane Karg and characterful alto Mihoko Fujimura. The quartet is nicely contrasted. The exceptional Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks are ardently incisive and perform with splendid unity and focus. They are marvellously fiery in the stormier moments. After such a dramatically engaging performance at the close of the score the feeling of exultation is absolute. As recently as 2010 Maestro Jansons and his Bavarian forces released an excellent live Choral Symphony on BR Klassik. That account commemorates a special occasion having been recorded in 2007 in honour of and in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI. It was set down at the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall that holds a massive 6,300 people. Jansons’ four splendid soloists on that occasion were Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Lioba Braun (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor) and Michael Volle (bass). No account I know quite holds a candle to Furtwängler in his legendary March 1942 (alte) Philharmonie, Berlin account with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Others fall short of that level of sheer ferocity, propulsive climaxes, torment and anger. Furtwängler’s quartet is Tilla Briem (soprano), Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo), Peter Anders (tenor)and Rudolf Watzke (bass) with the renowned Bruno Kittel Choir. 

Of the especially commissioned works the first is Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud’s Maniai for large orchestra. It was Beethoven’s First Symphony that inspired Staud to write Maniai - a title in Greek that refers to the three Furies. Cast in two continuously played sections the first is marked Furioso and the second Grazioso. Staud said of the work “I chose a fast tempo as the basic one… This time, although the rhythmic variety is relatively limited, the result is actually a very targeted impulse in a fast tempo.” Staud’s score is highly unsettling and unremitting, not permitting any sense of peace. At times the Furioso section feels suggestive of the dangerous and sweltering atmosphere of an Iron Age foundry. The Grazioso is disconcerting with an incessant momentum that evokes a perilous subterranean scene with poisonous serpents slithering and sliding around.
 
Misato Mochizuki’s Nirai is subtitled ‘intermezzo for Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and No. 6’ (2012). Now residing in Paris, the Tokyo-born Mochizuki blends music of a Western and Asian tradition and creates an array of fascinating rhythms and vivid colours. For her source material Mochizuki has selected and employs “eight noticeable changed notes from the end of the last movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony”. She was “attracted to the fact that it involves a minor second - the interval favoured in contemporary music.” This music is full of stormy climaxes and grinds its way forward using a variety of techniques noticeably glissandi and quarter-tones. There is also an array of percussive effects.
 
I always find the music of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin highly stimulating. Now a Munich resident, Shchedrin’s commission, entitled ‘Beethoven's Heiligenstädter Testament’ is a symphonic fragment, completed in 2008. Although Shchedrin uses the Third Symphony as his reference work the torment Beethoven experienced on account of his deafness was the defining factor. The famous ‘Heiligenstädter Testament’ is a letter that Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann in 1802. It reflects the composer’s deep depressive state provoked by the loss of his hearing and maybe exacerbated by a failed love affair. Shchedrin uses the ‘Heiligenstädter Testament’ as a starting point for his concert overture marked Maestoso con grave conveying the message through his symphonic fragment From darkness to light. Less quirky than some of Shchedrin’s more recent scores this twelve minute piece is more like a conventional tone poem. The aggressive opening chords are striking but are quickly replaced by mysterious music. What we hear suggests a muscular straining at every sinew to release reserves of pent-up energy. This is a quite remarkable work, weighty, powerful and highly accessible. It is splendidly performed.
 
Lithuanian composer Raminta šerkšnytė is represented here by her 2010 composition Fires for orchestra. It’s a work inspired by her love, since a child, of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. šerkšnytė remembers attending a concert of the symphony aged ten or eleven that left her “in a kind of trance”. Lasting ten and a half minutes, Fires is cast in two distinct sections. In this performance the first section marked Misterioso has a shadowy and eerily windswept mood. This gradually gains in weight and impact with potently energetic climaxes. Section two, marked Con brio,opens with a tremendous, uncomfortably grinding and angry orchestral outburst which is sustained for virtually the whole length. Con brio feels like a depiction of a savage land battle too indescribably horrific for mere words. Referring back to the original reference point, Fires ends with the famous four-note motif that opens the Fifth Symphony.
 
Giya Kancheli born in Tbilisi, Georgia bases his 2009 score Dixi on the Ninth Symphony and emulates the work by using a mixed choir with orchestra. For some reason Dixi,at over twenty-one minutes lasts twice the length of the intended commission. The choir sing fragments of Latin text seemingly arranged in a random manner, for example the phrases ‘Mortuos plango’, ‘Ad se ipsum’ and ‘Ora et labora’. This work follows a general plan of building up to an orchestral and choral climax of swirling tension and tremendous weight and power then sustaining it before suddenly changing to a mood of calm mystical reflection. Although Dixi is at times compelling and often fascinating I found it hard to sustain my concentration throughout its considerable length.
 
Munich born and bred composer Jörg Widmann responded to the commission by writing in 2008 his Con brio concert overture. His inspiration was Beethoven’s Seventh and Eight Symphonies the scoring of which is here emulated by Widmann. Approaching twelve minutes in length the composer utilises “block-composition” technique that “develops and furthers the composer’s tonal and idiomatic language while interacting with 19th-century music.” In this work’s constantly shifting sound-world the writing typically employs sudden and audacious transitions and breaks. Of all the six commissions this score is the most contemporary. I also felt that it was the least accessible.
 
The sound engineers have done a splendid job throughout these six discs. Overall the satisfyingly warm sound is clean rather than crystal clear and an excellent balance has been achieved. Applause has been retained in each case. The accompanying booklet is interesting and reasonably informative but sadly no sung texts are provided.
 
Jansons and his orchestra are in stunning form throughout. These are performances of elevated quality. Outstandingly performed and well recorded this highly desirable box is more than a match for any of the competing complete sets.
 
Michael Cookson 



Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies

Disc contents
CD 1 [76:02]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op.21 (1800) [24:45]
Johannes Maria STAUD (b. 1974)
Maniai for orchestra (2011) [11:13]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801) [30:40]
Misato MOCHIZUKI (b. 1969)
Nirai intermezzo to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and No. 6 (2012) [9:00]
 
CD 2 [60:00]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [47:43]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament symphonic fragment for orchestra (2008) [12:09]
 
CD 3 [75:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [33:00]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807) [31:25]
Raminta ŠERKŠNYTĖ (b. 1975)
Fires for orchestra (2010) [10:34]
 
CD 4 [64:23]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral (1808) [42:28]
Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935)
Dixi for mixed choir and orchestra (2009) [21:47]
 
CD 5 [78:06]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [40:00]
Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Con brio concert overture for orchestra (2008) [11:50]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [26:00] 


CD 6 [63:23]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 Choral (1824) [63:23]

Performance details
27 Nov 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (1, 2, 5)
18-19 Oct 2012, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany (Sym 3)
26 Nov 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (Sym 4)
8-9 Nov 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Sym 6)
30 Nov 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (Sym 7)
1 Dec 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (Syms 8, 9)
9-10 Feb 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Staud)
8-9 Nov 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Mochizuki)
18-19 Oct 2008, Philharmonie, Munich, Germany (Shchedrin)
17-18 May 2012 Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Šerkšnytė)
29-30 Oct 2009, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Kancheli)
25-26 Sept 2008, Philharmonie, Munich, Germany (Widmann)



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