I’ve come rather late to this party, but the wait was worth it. I was lucky enough to get to hear the Gewandhausorchester playing
in their amazing hall in Leipzig earlier this year, and it inspired me to seek out some of their most famous recent recordings under Chailly. There can be no doubt that their relationship with this chief conductor has revitalised them, and when this Beethoven box first came out in 2010 it was taken as living proof that the orchestra was in an exciting new phase. I came to it long after the dust had settled, but rather than being disappointed by the hype, I found myself excited and refreshed all over again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a Beethoven set that stands the test of time.
With the possible exception of the Staatskapelle Dresden, who are older, there is no German orchestra that carries more of a burden of tradition than the Leipzig Gewandhaus. They are the world’s oldest civic orchestra, founded in 1743 by music loving citizens rather than a princely court, and their previous musical directors include Mendelssohn himself, as well as Nikisch, Furtwängler and Walter. Furthermore, in 1825 they gave the very first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies in the history of music. You would think, then, that no-one would be more closely identified with the classic German tradition of Beethoven playing, with its traditionally broad tempi and thick textures. Not a bit of it. Chailly, who surely knew this expectation when he undertook the set, has made it his business to turn this anticipation on its head. His prime achievement is to give us lithe playing, light textures and agile tempi while sticking with a full symphonic texture that makes this music pulse with life and recaptures the thrill of coming to Beethoven’s music for the very first time.
A glance at his tempi for each symphony will tell you a lot about his general approach. A telling comparison comes when you put Chailly’s tempi alongside those of, say, Karajan’s 1962 Berlin set. That set was the first to be planned, recorded and issued as a complete cycle and sold by the bucketload, so arguably it defined the 20th
century’s expectations of Beethoven performance. If you compare Chailly’s tempi with Karajan’s you will notice that he is quicker in every symphony, and this is all the more remarkable when you consider that Chailly observes nearly every available exposition repeat — including an additional repeat in the Ninth
’s Scherzo that I had never come across before — where Karajan takes hardly any. This crack-of-a-whip energy explodes off the page in every work. Sometimes it knocks you for six, as in the finale of the Eighth
or the trio of the Seventh’s
Scherzo, but most often it acts like a tonic, forcing you to re-evaluate your expectations of this music and to listen with fresh ears. The thing that struck me most about the allegro of No. 1
’s first movement, for example, was the spirit of the dance, something that I had never noticed in this music before, and the sheer joy that comes through in the outer movements of the Fourth
There are two important things to say about this issue of tempi, though. The first is that Chailly is by no means a didact on this issue but takes each symphony – sometimes even each movement – on its own terms. Some movements, such as the Larghetto of the Second
or the Allegretto of No. 7
, sound pretty orthodox by today’s standards, with plenty of room to breathe and no sense of hurry. The second thing to say is that quick tempi in Beethoven symphonies are nothing new: ever since Harnoncourt — and arguably going back even to even Toscanini — we have been used to hearing Beethoven played more rapidly than did, say, Karajan or Furtwängler. Speed on its own is not, therefore, a sign of either originality or quality: it is what Chailly does with that speed that really matters, and he nearly always uses it to create something very effective. The first movement of the Eroica
, for example, is fast, but what comes across is not a feeling of rush but a sense of joy in the majesty. Likewise, the funeral march comes across as stately and dignified, not flat or doleful. A similar sense of joy permeates the outer movements of No. 7
, and the finale manages to sound exciting but always totally under control.
That said, it doesn’t always work brilliantly. No. 5
feels too hurried, as if Chailly is too keen on getting to the destination without enjoying the journey. Yes, the final C major chord is a fitting climax, but there seems to have been little lingering en route, thus diminishing much of the symphonic argument. A similar sense of haste damages the first two movements of the Pastoral
, which are too busy and bustling; less a contemplation of the countryside and more of a drive through in a sports car. However, this approach suits the Peasant Wedding and Storm rather well, and the finale does find some appropriate breadth to its consummation.
Still, tempi apart, it is the spirit of the playing that matters most, and with such an ebullient account of the Eighth
, it is the liveliness you notice rather than the speed, even though the speed of the finale is hair-raising! There is a palpable sense of tongue-in-cheek humour in the Scherzo and Minuet, and the finale crackles along with edge-of-the-seat excitement.
Every bit as remarkable as the tempi is the precision of playing that Chailly elicits from the orchestra at these top speeds. Listen, for example, to the figurations of first the cellos and then the violins as the Allegro con brio section of No. 2
’s first movement kicks in. Everything is absolutely precisely on the note, without a hint of muddle or gloop, and this then energises the whole of the rest of that movement. This is just one example of many. I could also mention the helter-skelter finale of the Eighth
, which goes so fast that it is extraordinary that the orchestra manage to hold it together at all, let alone that they do it with such precision. Suffice it to say that it works triumphantly, and not only does it make the listener marvel at the virtuoso playing but it reminds you of how magnificent this music really is, something that familiarity can make you forget.
Chailly’s take on the Ninth
showcases much of this in practice. The tempi are on the fast side again, with a slight loss of majesty in the first movement, but it makes the Scherzo crackle all the more, and the Adagio proceeds with graceful dignity rather than a self-indulgent wallow. The finale is fast too, and the different episodes aren’t that well distinguished from one another in terms of tempi, but the climax of this comes in the great double fugue on Seid umschlungen
— after the slow, first appearance of this text has finished: surprisingly, Chailly actually broadens out
here, taking the listener aback and turning this passage into the climax of the movement and, thus, the whole symphony. The choral singing is also tremendous, both in its precision and its energy, but the soloists are merely acceptable. Robert Dean Smith is pleasingly pingy in his “Turkish” section, but Hanno Müller-Brachmann growls his way through the recitative and first verse. The ladies make a beautiful sound, with a beautiful high pianissimo from Beranova just before the final gallop, but their diction is so poor as to be all but indistinct.
The overtures display many of the same virtues as the symphonies, such as the razor-sharp string figurations in Prometheus
or the sense of building excitement in Fidelio
and Leonore 3
. Chailly pays these pieces the complement of treating them with as much architectural vision as the symphonies: each of them — with the arguable exception of Coriolan
— has a slow introduction, for example, and in all of them you can feel a sense of pregnant expectation which then finds fulfilment in the ensuing allegro, be it excitement and grandeur as in Prometheus
or Leonore 3
, or dark tragedy as in Coriolan
is, in fact, the pick of them all. Chailly unpacks every detail and plays it with unique expressiveness, be it the dark inflections of the introduction, the menacing threat of the main allegro or the thunderous triumph of the coda, which I have seldom heard more thrilling.
Throughout, the playing of the orchestra is absolutely thrilling. They are fully aware of the weight of tradition behind them but refuse to be held prisoner by it. Instead, they put their virtuosity fully at Chailly’s disposal and serve his vision with total commitment. There is a lushness to the string playing that comes through despite the lean sound — there is vibrato, but not so much as to clog the sound — the winds are prinked and clean, and the brass sound broad and majestic.
All told, then, this set manages better than many to marry the new orthodoxy of Beethoven interpretation with old-school Rolls Royce orchestral playing and lavish orchestral textures. It gives a more luxurious sound than Harnoncourt’s COE set
, which uses similar tempi on a chamber orchestra, but it is more lean than Thielemann’s Vienna set
, which seeks to re-establish the argument for the mid-20th
-century playing style in the early 21st
century. Chailly does a better job than Rattle
at getting a traditional mittel-Europäische
orchestra to follow his period lead, and he has more stylish playing than Vänska in Minnesota
or Herreweghe in Flanders
. Perhaps the closest comparison comes with Mackerras’ Liverpool set
or Zinman’s Zurich one
, but the Leipzig orchestral playing is better than either. It’s interesting to note, though, how fresh and lithe this set is compared to the Beethoven of Masur and Konwitschny, Chailly’s Leipzig predecessors.
So we give a hearty welcome to this set. It marries the best of the old with the freshness of the new and reminded me of how eternally contemporary Beethoven’s symphonic achievement is. It seems a little late to be awarding the set Recording of the Month
but, when it was released, many reviewers made it one of their recordings of the year, so let this stand as a reminder that it’s still well worth hearing.
By the way, you’ll hear Chailly and the Leipzigers playing the annual Beethoven Ninth
at the 2014 Proms on 12th
September: that should definitely be worth a listen.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies
CD 1: [70:59]
Symphony No. 1 [23:09]
Overture “The Creatures of Prometheus” [4:54]
Symphony No. 2 [30:27]
Overture “Leonore 3” [12:28]
CD 2: [77:15]
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” [42:20]
Overture “Fidelio” [6:35]
Symphony No. 4 [29:36]
CD 3: [75:34]
Overture “Coriolan” [7:00]
Symphony No. 5 [30:06]
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” [38:28]
CD 4: [73:31]
Overture “Egmont” [8:10]
Symphony No. 7 [38:13]
Overture “The Ruins of Athens” [4:37]
Symphony No. 8 [22:25]
CD 5: [75:00]
Overture “Name-Day” [6:05]
Overture “King Stephen” [6:02]
Symphony No. 9 [62:50]