Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
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]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec., 27 November 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan (Beethoven), and 17-18 May 2012, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany (Šerkšnytė)
BR KLASSIK 900135 [75:14]

This release is part of a single-disc edition that has already appeared as a box set (see review). This reverse order to the more commonly found single-disc followed by more-budget box is an intriguing move, but with such high quality recordings the BR Klassik label must consider these releases commercially viable.

The live energy in the Fourth Symphony is certainly palpable from the outset, the refined and dynamic sound of this orchestra making the most of the much-admired Suntory Hall acoustic. The admirable drive in that Allegro vivace steps down to an Adagio second movement that also refuses to linger, the forward momentum maintaining a sense of inner drama to go along with the expressive beauty of the musical lines, often led by very fine wind solos. The third movement’s urgency in this performance takes a little away from its pastoral nature while adding a layer of operatic fantasy to its character. In keeping with the rest of the work, the finale is a fine tumult of virtuoso playing, superbly shaped by Jansons but laying on showmanship as well as the inherent musicianship of the whole.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is massively famous but with justification. If you can somehow imagine hearing it springing from a time not so very long after the premature death of Mozart then you can begin to appreciate why, for instance, it gave the young Berlioz the vapours when he heard it for the first time. Mariss Jansons’ “Fate” by no means labours this aspect of doom imposed on the first movement, keeping as much wit and playfulness in his performance as the score will carry, to go along with the intense and dramatic musical journey on which the seven minutes of the first movement take us. This is a gripping performance, and means we are carried in confidence through the elegantly expressive Andante con moto and heroic Allegro that follow. Brief praise hardly does justice to a performance rich with excellent moments, but you can rest assured that each crucial corner is more than equal to the sculpted success of the whole. This of course leads up to the triumphant entry of the final Allegro, the focus and climax of the entire symphony. Jansons keeps up his swift tempo but steers his ship on a course most exciting and awesome. With this kind of performance your faith in the transformative powers of music will be restored, and for that reason alone this has to be counted among the top recordings of this ubiquitous masterpiece.

Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Fires relates both to other orchestral works of hers based on themes around the elements, but the connection with Beethoven is closest to the Fifth Symphony. This is not immediately apparent, as the first of the two movements is a hauntingly atmospheric Misterioso, described by the composer as having a “character of intense expectation.” The Con brio second section is explosive, using the intervals of Beethoven’s most famous motief and transforming them into a score that is both elementally violent and at times cinematically cheesy – the kind of music you might expect to accompany Indiana Jones into his most repellent insect-crawly moment of wall-crushing extremis. Alas, the overt quotation of the theme as a final gesture comes across as supremely corny, like a plush veil swept aside to reveal the previously sawn-in-half magician’s assistant in spot-lit glory, the lights then turned off just quickly enough to make you wonder if it was a real person or a plastic mannequin. This is a fine piece, but is not without its flaws.

Mariss Janson’s Beethoven symphonic cycle is very good indeed but this CD is a particular highlight, and I would recommend it for the Fifth alone. As things stand I would still push the box set gently in your direction as, if you acquire this single disc the chances are you are going to want the whole set.

Dominy Clements

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