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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 [25:28]
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36 [31:16]
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. live, 2014, Landhaussaal, Palais Niederösterreich, Vienna, Austria
ALPHA 470 [56:44]

This new series of the complete Beethoven symphonies takes the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement to its logical extreme. The Orchester Wiener Akademie performs with the exact number of instruments used at the premiere of each symphony. Where possible — with symphonies 3, 4, 5, 6 and 9 — they perform in the exact same rooms as the premieres. Otherwise, they perform in other concert halls where Beethoven had his music played during his lifetime. All the recordings are from live concerts. The musicians tune their instruments as Beethoven would have, differently from modern tuning, so if you have perfect pitch you may find that the works are a little “off” your expectations. “Our performances even respect unusual platform layouts,” the booklet notes proclaim, “such as placing the chorus in front of the orchestra in Symphony no. 9.” That sounds like it will end badly.

What we have here, though, are the first two symphonies, in clean, fast, very well-played performances that neither make big mistakes nor take big risks. Aside perhaps from the tuning, somebody who grew up listening to Beethoven in the 1970s would not feel too out-of-place here. The natural French horns add an edge of dark lustre to the orchestra’s sound, and the speedy tempos are exciting without ever getting manic.

I’m a big admirer of period performances. My favourite recording of Beethoven’s Fifth, even ahead of Karajan and Kleiber, is the Anima Eterna orchestra’s performance with Jos van Immerseel (Zig-Zag Territoires) but this new series gets to the fundamental paradox at the heart of the movement. HIP is not about presenting the music as it was heard during the composer’s lifetime, it’s about an idealized version. In these live recordings, the audience sits dutifully and respectfully silent. It would have been more accurate if the Orchester Wiener Akademie had invited noblemen and social climbers to gossip and seduce each other in the audience.

There's another factor also: period performances were nearly as diverse as modern ones. For one thing, the players were mere amateurs compared to today’s immaculately trained musicians, who spend years in organized conservatories. Look no further than the tale of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. A reviewer said the orchestra was “lacking in all respects,” something that certainly is not true of the superb Orchester Wiener Akademie. During the same concert, as they played the Choral Fantasy, Beethoven actually stopped the orchestra and had them start over. There is no place for this in the HIP movement.

This is as it should be but then shouldn’t the booklet explain the movement’s limits? So much is unknowable, and so much of what we do know, we would never want to reproduce. The gesture of as-accurate-as-possible Beethoven is a noble one, but at some point it becomes absurd. This CD, as good or even great as it is, does not add any insights which we did not already glean from HIP performances by Anima Eterna, or by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (DG Archiv).

Anyway, I’m sounding very harsh but actually I enjoyed this CD very much. If you did not know that this was an attempt to perform the symphonies as “accurately” as possible, you would only know that the performances are very good ones. Whether that is a good or bad thing is uncertain. Either way, if I complain loudly about the booklet notes, it’s because the disc itself is immaculate.

Great recorded sound, although I can’t say I discerned anything about the historic acoustic which made it especially historically interesting to me. If you are interested, buy with confidence. If your main interest is having a good historically-informed performance of the Beethoven symphonies, the Immerseel and Gardiner recordings still top the list.

Brian Reinhart



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