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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1–9
Annette Dasch (soprano); Eva Vogel (mezzo); Christian Elsner (tenor); Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass); Rundfunkchor Berlin,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live and in rehearsal, October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
Sung texts and translations provided
5CDs + 1 Pure Audio Blu-Ray Disc + 2 Live Concert Videos in HD Blu-ray + High Resolution Audio Files for download

Back in April and May 2002 Simon Rattle led the Vienna Philharmonic in the complete Beethoven symphonies, which EMI issued on CD the following year. It was rumoured at the time that the Berlin Philharmonic were slightly aggrieved, as they had hoped to record the cycle with Rattle. Well now they have. These Berlin performances were given live in the Berlin Philharmonie, the orchestra’s home, last October. It is offered in the now familiar BPO own label multiple formats, with smart packaging (with, for some collectors, awkward proportions). The performances are heard on 5 audio CDs and on 1 audio Blu-ray disc, and seen on 2 video Blu-ray discs. The second of those video discs also contains two films, one of Rattle alone talking about the works, and another with some of the same material, but with extra interviews of some of the players, and some rehearsal and concert footage. There is also a download code in the box so you can obtain the high-resolution audio files, and a 7-day pass to the BPO’s digital concert hall.

The cycle begins with a splash, and of the wrong sort. The first chord of Symphony No.1 is not quite coordinated, with a definite ‘strum’ from the string band. The VPO in 2002 watched Rattle’s downbeat much more closely, as did the BPO themselves when Abbado launched his cycle both in the Berlin and Rome issues (DGG 2000 and 2008). For uncanny precision, a taut call-to-arms with every player on their toes, go to Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Decca 2011). I labour this not because I intend to go through the entire cycle chord by chord making comparisons, but just to discourage you from judging a ‘book’ by its cover. High resolution formats and luxury packaging are not much use if they simply reveal that, as Henry Wood used to lament, “the ensemble ain’t together”. Needless to say this is the Berlin Philharmonic so it’s a small aberration, not a harbinger of sloppy things to come.

The First Symphony is here treated as rather more than a curtain raiser, the first movement (with exposition repeat) has a stirring development section, with the exchanges tossed between winds and strings in sprightly fashion. But the music breathes its characteristic Haydnesque charm. The second movement andante is swiftish but still sings, exactly as cantabile con moto suggests, and the innovative drum figure later in the movement is nicely in focus. The so-called minuet which no-one could ever dance to, or at least not decorously so, is often seen as the most original of the four movements and is given very vivace indeed, and the finale the performance makes the utmost of Beethoven’s witty games with rising scales. This account of the First is an auspicious start.

The Second Symphony was one of the highlights of Rattle’s VPO set and so it is here.
The long first movement (again with exposition repeat) comes off splendidly, as does the lovely larghetto. The brisk scherzo (no pretence at a minuet this time) flies by in an exhilarating 3:21, (which was a relief after reading the booklet’s stated time of 13:18!) In the finale, which Rattle likens to Haydn “but a Haydn who as been to the gym and beefed up”, the BPO has great and exuberant fun with its various jokes, right up to its ending (or, this being Beethoven, its succession of ‘endings’). The timings of all four movements are shorter by between 10 and 30 seconds than in Vienna, but that feels no more than an adjustment made between two live performances in very different halls on occasions more than a decade apart. Rattle’s splendidly bracing conception of the piece survives the years between, even if ultimately the eminence of the VPO version is not quite surpassed.

The poet Christoff Kuffner – he who supplied a single Schubert song text and probably the text of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia – once asked the composer which was the favourite among his symphonies. This was in 1817 when he had written 8 of the 9, and Beethoven replied “The Eroica”. That would have been my answer too, even if the 9th had been written. I mention this not to claim any kinship with such a genius, but because it is why for me the Third is such a touchstone of a Beethoven cycle. (Did you ever rush out to buy a cycle on reading that “it was very good, especially in the even-numbered symphonies”?)

The opening Allegro con brio has brio aplenty, and there is a scrupulous attention to the markings in the score. This includes the innumerable sforzandi, but they are accommodated within the main pulse, never overstressed. The 16:20 timing (exposition repeated) is within one second of the Vienna timing, and subsequent movements are close also, except perhaps for a slightly swifter finale, 11:42 to Vienna’s 12:07. The three basses and ten first violins of the first two symphonies have become five and twelve respectively, but the sound is still that of a lean band with a bit more weight in tuttis. Rattle’s Eroica thus has a certain continuity of sound with the two predecessors, despite his remark on the interview film that it “changed music forever”. But that is the virtue of playing the whole cycle, as a couple of the players remark in the film, this linking of continuity and change. Certainly everyone plays as if making history in a compelling account throughout. The integrated (rather than blended) orchestral sound here and elsewhere is very engaging. Even the trumpets at the end of the first movement keep their place in the sound picture, rather than riding heroically to the rescue over their colleagues. And if there is an expressive ritardando from Rattle at the peak of the horn-led apotheosis of the poco andante section of the finale, it is no more than one might expect in moment of triumph at a live performance. In short, the cycle passes the Eroica test.

The characteristic rhetoric and drama – including comic drama - of these middle period symphonies is embraced by the Berliners almost as if the works were as new and daring as they seemed to the first audiences. The Fourth Symphony’s first fortissimo is detonated by strikingly explosive timpani rolls which kick-start an exhilarating Allegro vivace, launching an ingratiating and noble account which glorifies the sheen and agility of the BPO string sections in particular. The Fifth has a relentless power, and in this most famous symphony of them all, no hint of over-familiarity infects the playing. Rather there is a sense of Rattle at times pushing the players right to the edge of their formidable corporate competence, especially in the terrific finale. In the Pastoral Rattle even harks back at some points to an earlier age, less doctrinaire about authenticity of musical manners and more concerned about authenticity of feeling. This willingness to be seduced by the sheer lyrical beauty of the Sixth, and the succession of exquisite solo contributions (not least the all-important first horn, and some truly bird-like violin trills), make it one of the highlights of the set.

The Vivace of the Seventh’s first movement, solidly anchored by the double basses (now six strong), is a tour-de-force of sustained rhythmic drive. Wagner called number Seven “the apotheosis of the dance” but surely a better soubriquet would be the apotheosis of the dactyl, so insistent is the composer’s exploitation of long-and-two-shorts figures in the work. This must make it difficult to keep the rhythm aloft throughout, but that is not a problem for these players. The critic Richard Osborne has spoken of the obsessiveness of Beethoven’s music and this work is, with the Fifth, the locus classicus of metrical obsession in the symphonies. The performance never lets any hint of routine creep in, right through to that very rare fff marking near the end of the finale, as thunderous here as the storm in the Pastoral.

The Eighth is often described as a lighter work, and then just as often defended by saying that that is a misunderstanding of its importance. But it is lighter – why should Beethoven’s whole oeuvre, and not just the symphonies, be seen as one unswerving line of increasing intellectual weight and emotional significance, when he so obviously sidesteps on occasion into a more accessible style, right up to the very last quartet? Rattle, a fine Haydn conductor, gets the Eighth just right, revealing it as lighter but also as cerebral in its restless invention as any of the odd numbered symphonies. He is not too driven here, even leisurely at times, allowing space for the Eighth’s many charms to be enjoyed.

The Ninth is the one symphony where you are liable to notice the changes in the del Mar edition – unless you already know these works from Abbado in Berlin, Zinman in Zurich, or Rattle in Vienna. (But not the recent and wonderful Chailly in Leipzig, who considered and rejected the new edition and went back to Peters.) On the filmed interview with Rattle he illustrates at the piano a point in the Ninth (which has far the most textual changes) very lucidly. But there is still fairly little reason to favour any Beethoven cycle over another because of the edition, (unlike say, Bruckner). Great performances of the old editions will always trump mediocre ones of the latest text.

Rattle’s is an interesting view of the Ninth, calling it “the only symphony I know which starts from gigantic weight and becomes lighter and lighter as it goes.” It is the only one where he uses the full orchestra; sixteen first violins and eight basses, and with four each of clarinets and bassoons, for reasons of stamina as much as sound – the players told him it was ‘a life saver’ to have two of each, so they can sometimes “at least take their face off the instrument”. This Berlin Ninth is a tauter affair than the Vienna one, with a swifter opening movement and more flowing adagio, each over a minute shorter than before. That slow movement is a complete success here, its timing of 15:50 poised ideally between the two recorded extremes; Norrington in London (11:03) and Furtwangler in Bayreuth (19:36). The finale though had a better quartet of soloists in 2002 in Vienna, especially Barbara Bonney and Thomas Hampson. Neither tenor is particularly sweet-toned and the CBSO chorus in the Musikverein give a better impression of universal joy than the Berlin Radio Chorus in the Philharmonie. But both versions make a worthy conclusion to their respective cycles.

The general closeness of approach and tempi to the Vienna cycle at the very least suggest Rattle is a conductor who knows exactly how he wants this music to go, and despite the affable rehearsal manner and democratic approach we see in the film, he is a musician able to get the two greatest orchestras in the world (don’t write in) to play his Beethoven cycle. (In the film he mentions his very fast speed for the scherzo of the Second symphony, adding “the players have been complaining”.) That earlier Vienna cycle was for some reason not greeted with universal enthusiasm, but surely with this further evidence from Berlin, no-one will deny his mastery as a Beethovenian. In the most revealing part of the film Rattle says this of his Beethoven:

I’m a conductor who tends to do too much to things. Hopefully, I’m learning to leave him well alone when he needs to be left alone. You can make Beethoven too sophisticated or too elegant, you can clean him up too much, you can try to make him agree with himself when often he is fighting with himself. I have the feeling the more plain-spoken this music is, the better.

So it is no surprise that on balance he is less ‘interventionist’ in Berlin than he was in Vienna. This BPO cycle is at the very least highly intriguing and unquestionably important. With its brisk tempi often adapted to expressive need, its light vibrato, new del Mar editions, exposition repeats, and self-effacing “interpretation”, it is these days what we should consider a fairly central approach. Neither new school Norrington and Gardiner nor old school Wand and Skrowaczevski, but appropriating elements of both. So in time it might even come to graduate from a cycle that is central to one that is essential. If it does, it will be in part because the conductor and his players show such passionate belief in the music and intense commitment and skill in performing it.

The only other cycle I recall where, as here, all nine are available in sequence on a single Blu-ray disc is the DG remastering of the Karajan 1962 cycle (also packaged with the cycle on CDs), whose legendary status was not diminished by Karajan’s subsequent cycles, or by many since. In some ways it is the nearest thing we have to a stereo remake of the Toscanini cycle – which apparently Karajan would listen to in breaks between the sessions, especially if something wasn’t quite right.

There is fine sound on all the formats, not the least the audio Blu-ray with all nine symphonies which I mostly used, for the convenience and for the surround sound (it really which should be made available on its own sometime). Applause has been left in only on the filmed concerts, which are expertly done, doubtless because the BPO’s ‘Digital Concert Hall’ work makes this just another day at the office for the engineers and director. One point among many where the eye aids the ear is the recapitulation of the first movement of the Eighth, which famously has the lower strings playing the main theme while the joyous celebration of its return by everyone else effectively masks it – but here you can see as well as hear the five basses in one shot play the theme. Beethoven might not have appreciated having has his joke spoiled.

The two films on the second videodisc, the documentary ‘Living with Beethoven’ and ‘Sir Simon Rattle talks about Beethoven Symphonies’ are valuable additions, especially the latter. Rattle, in between the two Berlin cycles as he says at the start, sits at the piano for fifty minutes and just talks to the camera (there is no interviewer). He gives his views on those two big questions “how many players, and at what speed”, metronome marks, editions, his early heroes (Toscanini and Furtwangler), the Berlin musicians, and various aspects of the music itself. It is unusual in being one of those ‘video extras’ you might well play more than once. There is a 74-page booklet in German and English with all the timings and recording information, including how many players in each section are used in each symphony. The essays cover the history of performing the symphonies in Beethoven’s time by Jan Caeyers, and Jonathan Del Mar himself on his edition of the symphonies – this latter also has a table with disc timings where you can find the most significant changes. There are also the texts and translations for the finale of the Ninth.

The main comparisons with this set are the more recent (i.e. post-Karajan) filmed concert cycles, by Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic (2010), Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (2012), and Ivan Fischer and the Amsterdam Concertgebuow (2015), each of which occupies three Blu-ray discs. There is also the Berlin Philharmonic/Abbado cycle from Rome also now on Blu-ray video, which I have not seen - though the performances on the CDs are superb. Thielemann, a younger conductor than the others, has the old texts and the most traditional, even backward looking approach. He fails my Eroica test for instance with an 18 minute funeral march (even Furtwangler needed only just over 17 minutes). Each disc contains a discursive and occasionally insightful filmed conversation about the music between Thielemann the distinguished critic Joachim Kaiser, who in the first of them refers directly to Thielemann’s agogic distortions! There is more of those alas in the greatest of all Beethoven’s symphonic movements, the opening allegro of the Ninth, its slow basic pulse extending the movement to 17:30 and sapping the music’s energy. Thielemann is fascinating at times nonetheless, if you value an artist who really wants to do something individual with the music. If you wanted the luxury of a second Blu-ray cycle, this is the one that differs most from the others in conducting style, both to the eye and the ear.

Jansons too is old school, but without quite the same desire for individuality, and with the new edition. His Eroica is magnificent, and the only extra is film of him rehearsing the work, one he prizes above all others it seems. This excellent cycle is also available on a set of CDs. The sound is a bit old school too, with an ever present bass line and a satisfying weight in the tuttis, despite the band being not that big (six basses). This might be an effect typical of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo where the concerts were filmed. There is a very even vocal quartet in the splendid performance of the Ninth, if one without any very glamorous voices.

Fischer’s cycle is a more traditional one, both in text and tempi. He uses a smallish band, with just six basses even in the Ninth, but it sounds fine in such a spacious acoustic as that of the Concertgebouw. In fact in filmic terms, the occasional shot from the choir stalls or organ loft gives the Concertgebouw a starring role, if one less glitzy than the gilded majesty of Thielemann’s Musikverein. There are other intriguing touches, such as the trombones standing up for their dramatic entry in the Fifth. Then there is Fischer’s quaint habit, just prior to the downbeat for each movement, of giving a tiny indication with his hand of the tempo and rhythm about to be used, as much it seems to internalise it for himself as to show the leader. The playing is glorious, fully up to that in Vienna and Berlin, and if the interpretation is a little self-effacing, many might prefer that for viewing to a few of the more self-regarding musical manners on show in other sets. None of these Blu-ray cycles seems to me obviously superior to the Rattle filmed concerts, making the Berlin package an attractive choice for anyone who favours owning what is basically the same magnificent cycle in three disc formats and a download option.

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month) ~ John Quinn

Full Content Details
a) Audio CDs
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799/1800) [24.42]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ (1802/04) [49.09]
rec. live 6 & 12 October 2015 Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800/02) [30.51]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1803/05, 1807/08) [30.32]
rec. live 7 & 13 October 2015 Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [33.29]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811/12) [39.12]
rec. live 3, 9 & 15 October 2015 Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 4
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’ (1803/08) [42.36]
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [25.08]
rec. live 8 & 14 October 2015 Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’ (1822/24) [67.47]
rec. live 10 & 16 October 2015 Philharmonie, Berlin
Annette Dasch (soprano)
Eva Vogel (mezzo-soprano)
Christian Elsner (tenor)
Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass)
Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey: chorus master)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live and in rehearsal
b) 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Symphonies 1-9 in Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc in High Resolution Audio
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo 96 kHz/24bit
ii) 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 48 kHz
Running time: 344 minutes
c) 2 Live Concert Videos Blu-ray in High Definition
Disc 1: Symphonies 1/3; 2/5; 4/7
Disc 2: Symphonies 8/6; 9
Picture: Full High Definition 1080/60i - 16:9
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo 48kHz/16bit
ii) 5.0 Surround (upmix) DTS-HD Master Audio 48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Running time: 239 minutes & 155 minutes
For Symphony No. 9: English, German, Japanese subtitles
Bonus video footage
Disc 1:
i) The Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall [1.28]
ii) Behind the Scenes [5.00]
Disc 2:
i) Documentary: ‘Living with Beethoven.’ Produced by Magdalena Zieba-Schwind & Daniel Finkernagel [45.00]
ii) Sir Simon Rattle talks about Beethoven Symphonies [49.00]
Bonus film languages and subtitles.
d) Audio Download
Personal code for High Resolution Audio Files of the entire album
24bit - up to 192 kZh
Integral Booklet
74 pages - Essays in German, English
Digital Concert Hall
7 Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's virtual concert hall
Hardcover Edition
24.5 x 15.5 x 3.5 cm: 660g (approx)

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