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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [25:15]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ (1803) [46.46]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 25/26 February 2017, Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna

When Philippe Jordan became music director of Wiener Symphoniker with effect from the 2014/15 season he was stepping into big shoes, as previous chief conductors have included Wolfgang Sawallisch and Carl Maria Giulini, and also, as affiliated conductors, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. In great demand, the Zurich born Jordan is also music director of Opéra National de Paris and has been appointed as musical director of Wiener Staatsoper from the 2020/21 season. In 2015, with Wiener Symphoniker, Jordan released fine live accounts of Schubert’s symphonies ‘The Unfinished’ and ‘The Great’ recorded in 2014/15 at the Musikverein, Vienna (review). Staying with the theme of great Viennese composers Jordan and Wiener Symphoniker now turn their attention to Beethoven with live Goldener Saal, Musikverein performances of the First and Third (Eroica) Symphonies.

Unlike many of the older recordings, for example Furtwängler with the Berliner Philharmoniker (First Symphony recorded 1954 and Third Symphony recorded 1952) these live accounts from Wiener Symphoniker don’t sound anything like ‘big band’ Beethoven with Jordan presiding over period-informed performances containing lean textures, controlled vibrato and pointed articulation. I do rather miss the rich tonal power of the Furtwängler accounts especially the deep resonance of the low strings that typically underpin his performances.

Jordan’s Vienna players get off to a fine start with the often overlooked First Symphony one of the shortest in length in Beethoven’s cycle. Completed in 1800 the score bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Beethoven’s early patron. Based on familiar models by Haydn and Mozart, the symphony was premièred in 1800 at the Hofburgtheater, Vienna. Under Jordan what is immediately noticeable is the fresh and zestful quality of the playing. Brisk and spirited, the opening movement establishes an exhilarating mood contrasting with the rustic character of the elegantly played Andante. Here I detect a strange lack of engagement, a certain passivity, to the playing. Matters improve in the uplifting Menuetto which contains a slight noble quality. Forthright and jubilant Jordan’s assured performance of the Finale feels impressively exuberant leaving a satisfying impression.

A frequently programmed work in the concert hall, it is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the page and replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’. Completed in 1804 it was the next year before Beethoven introduced the score publicly at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Jordan fully appreciates that this progressive score is music of considerable concentration and as the designation might suggest heroic power. Thrilling and invigorating, the Vienna players in the opening Allegro con brio seem to convey a forthright sense of defiance in the face of adversity.

The solemn, mournful tread given to the renowned Marche funèbre rather lacks the rich and deep support by the low strings which I have come to admire from larger string sections. Nevertheless, this is certainly no mere plodding funeral dirge, it is sombre and respectful. In the energetic Scherzo the degree of tension Jordan’s players generate is striking. Strong and positive, it feels as if the spirit of life has broken free in the Finale with Jordan’s reading, full of energetic momentum, making a considerable impact.

Recorded live at the Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna the slightly thin, steely sound quality is satisfactory but not as crystal clear as many accounts I have heard. What is missing is the full detail, with little differentiation to the wind instruments while the strings are brighter rather than having the warm richness I prefer. These live performances are without any distracting sounds and the applause has been taken out. Contained in the accompanying booklet is an excellent essay by Walter Weidringer.

Under Philippe Jordan the Wiener Symphoniker provide creditable performances of these two Beethoven symphonies but the competition in the catalogue is extremely fierce. Rather than give recommendations for each of these two individual Beethoven symphonies owing to the extensive number available it can be especially hard to settle on a specific account. It seems best to look at complete cycles of Beethoven symphonies where there is such an outstanding choice available from a roster of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. In many cases it is possible to purchase a recommendable set of the complete symphonies cheaper than this single new Wiener Symphoniker CD.

In the Beethoven Symphonies there are a few conductors who have recorded more than one cycle with Herbert Karajan having recorded four cycles. The complete sets that I most admire for their strong sense of engagement are from the Sir Simon Rattle/Berliner Philharmoniker/own label; Claudio Abbado/Berliner Philharmoniker/Deutsche Grammophon; Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker/Deutsche Grammophon (cycle 1961/62); Sir Simon Rattle/Wiener Philharmoniker/EMI; André Cluytens/Berliner Philharmoniker/EMI, Karl Böhm/Wiener Symphoniker/ Deutsche Grammophon and Mariss Jansons/Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/BR Klassik. Currently a premium price set my first choice is the inspiring live 2015 Berliner Philharmoniker cycle from Rattle. Its principal qualities are the elevated level of musical intelligence and structural coherence of the interpretations that Rattle obtains from his players. Powerfully convincing, these performances feel fresh and buoyantly rhythmic with plenty of impetus when required. What is striking is the penetrating degree of lyricism and level of intensity which Rattle brings to Beethoven’s music.

Michael Cookson


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