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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major Op.21 (1801) [28.43]
Symphony No. 2 in D major Op.36 (1802) [35.47]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op.55 "Eroica" (1803) [49.41]
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major Op.60 (1806) [34.35]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op.67 (1808) [40.08]
Symphony No. 6 in F major "Pastoral" Op.68 (1808) [44.01]
Symphony No. 7 in A major Op.92 (1812) [40:53]
Symphony No. 8 in F major Op.93 (1812) [27.15]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op.125 (1824) [70.15]
Documentary film: Philippe Jordan - Born to Conduct [52.00]
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano), Daniela Sindram (mezzo), Robert Dean Smith (tenor) Günther Groissböck (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Paris Opera/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, Opéra Bastille, Paris, France; No.1 & No.3, 7 November 2014; No.4 & No.5, 14 December 2014; No.6 & No.8, 18 May 2105; No.9, 13 July 2015: Palais Garnier, Paris, France; No.2, No.7, 10 September 2014
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region 0, NTSC
Subtitles in English, German, French (Documentary Subtitles English, French, Japanese, Korean).
Reviewed in surround
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109248 [4 DVDs: 457 mins]

The sole ‘extra’ with this set is a fascinating filmed interview with the conductor Philippe Jordan, in which he speaks of the two big jobs he holds; the music directorship of both the Paris Opera and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He speaks of his need to conduct both operatic and symphonic repertoire. Perhaps it is odd that this symphonic cycle then is given with his Paris band not his Vienna one, but it brings two big virtues. First, there is the freshness brought by a set of really skilled professional musicians – Jordan says frankly he has the good fortune to have the best orchestra in France – to music with which they are not very familiar. So there is no sense of the routine that must affect many orchestral players in this repertoire. Second the dramatic instincts of an opera conductor serve well in the interpretation of Beethoven, several of whose symphonies have the tension, development and resolution associated with staged drama.

He also mentions how Beethoven playing has changed in recent times. “Do we still need sixteen first violins?” he asks rhetorically. No, and he goes on to say that the modern trimmer sound also permits the swifter metronome markings to become playable, or at least plausible; however Jordan is far from the fastest, and sometimes is closer to ‘traditional’ tempi. An essay in the booklet explains that Jordan’s approach started from the known forces of the first performances of the Eroica (tiny - three first violins!) and the hall in which it was first performed (also very small, which made the work very loud even with a small orchestra), and then sought to work out what that meant for a modern performance given in the huge space of the Bastille Opera (21,000 cubic metres – for singers it must feel like an aircraft hanger). For the DVD viewer, it sounds as if the conductor has found a convincing solution, with immediate, weighty but not bloated sound.

Neither Philippe Jordan in interview nor the booklet writer mentions the recent edition by Jonathan del Mar, but Jordan appears to be using it. Certainly in the finale of the Ninth the horns’ repeated F sharp octaves (just after the Turkish march and ensuing fugato) has the correct rhythm restored, not that familiar from earlier editions. This is the passage that Simon Rattle was so shocked to find changed, as he relates in the equivalent interview in his filmed cycle of the del Mar edition. The tempi are not, however, despite the booklet’s claim, especially swift by recent standards. Thus in the First Symphony we have Beethoven as a Haydn follower, rather more easy-going than frenetically fast. Whereas Jordan’s first movement takes 9:27, Rattle takes 8:36 and the next three movements show similar differences, ending with a finale that Jordan plays in 7:27 against Rattle’s 5:25! In the Second also all four movements are a bit broader than the contemporary norm, such that the second movement Larghetto seems the one movement in the set that lingers a little too much, taking a leisurely 11:51 against Chailly’s 9:13 and Rattle’s 9:54.

However for me this approach really does suit the Eroica, where a certain weight needs to be imparted that can be undermined by undue haste. Here the first movement timings with my two comparators reads Chailly 15:11, Rattle 16:20 and Jordan 17:02. This speed still equates to an Allegro con brio, but the extra breadth is to the music’s advantage, superb as the Leipzig and Berlin versions are. The Fourth too is very impressive, one of the best performances in the cycle. Again it is given time to make its effect, not least in the adagio introduction, where the creeping pp quavers make you hear why Weber declared the composer was “ripe for the madhouse”. The second movement adagio flows serenely at an ideal, ‘breathing’ tempo and the headlong finale gains from many a fine flourish from the expert wind players. The Fifth does not disappoint either, with all the revolutionary fire we expect given we are so close to the site of the old Bastille prison.

The Pastoral here is like the Eroica, in that it benefits from having some residual contact with the “old tempo” tradition and phrasing of Bohm or Klemperer, but still seeming contemporary. Certainly there is no mistaking the hard timpani sticks in the storm, even if the camera did not focus on them. The Seventh Symphony is launched with an especially fine oboe, and the horns shine also (as they do everywhere). Only in launching the vivace of the first movement does the flute, whether because of the player or the recording balance at that moment, seem too reticent. The Allegretto second movement is not the familiar plod – in fact Jordan is nearly as swift as Chailly here, and swifter than Rattle, but still does not seem rushed. In the Eighth Jordan again is close to Rattle both in tempo and in sheer ebullience. The performance of the Ninth is quite good enough on its own terms, but does not really prove a summation of all that has gone before. The first movement in particular takes a while to catch fire; the recapitulation is not of that sort that which, as the old Record Guide famously said of Toscanini’s recording “compels the listener to leave his chair and begin urgently to pace the room”. After that though all is well, and the professional opera chorus provides in the finale some of the fire that was missing at the outset – closing with a true apocalyptic blaze. The solo quartet is just good enough, but no more, at coping with Beethoven’s demanding writing – hardly a rare occurrence in live recordings of this work.

Overall there is much to like about the kind of Beethoven playing and interpretation to be found on these DVDs – dramatic, moderate-to-swift in pacing, lean-textured and contemporary in its avoidance of the heaven-storming high rhetoric fund in recordings from Furtwangler in Berlin in the 1940’s to Bernstein in Vienna in the 1980’s. But that style has not really become outmoded so much as been given a modish make-over, for the drama is there in the very structure of these evergreen pieces, and each generation makes them anew with these fresh perspectives. There is nothing very much here to frighten the Karajan fans (such as myself), and a great deal to admire and enjoy. The filming is unobtrusive and the sound is generally excellent, especially in the DTS 5.0 option. The filmed interview with the conductor illumines much about his musical personality, and shows plenty of extracts from his opera work, including Kaufmann and Terfel last season at the Bastille. (A pity they could not be persuaded to sing in the Ninth!)

There are ever more options for a filmed cycle nowadays, and they are led by Abbado and Rattle (see review), both with the Berlin Philharmonic, though Jansons and Fischer are hardly less fine. They all embrace the new way with Beethoven playing, but there is also Christian Thielemann reasserting traditions with the Vienna Philharmonic and providing solace for those who want a great orchestra but nothing to do with these new-fangled ideas. With Jordan you get something between the two, albeit closer to the former group. As such this impressive cycle certainly has its place.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge



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