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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, Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live and in rehearsal, October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Sung texts and translations provided
Details of symphonies at end of review

Now presented on five hybrid-SACDs contained in a traditional hardcover slipcase this is the Berliner Philharmoniker reissue of its award-winning accounts of the complete Beethoven symphonies recordings taken from live concert performances and rehearsals. These 2015 Philharmonie Berlin performances were originally released in 2016 on a sumptuously presented multi-media Beethoven Edition box set containing five audio CDs, two pure audio Blu-ray discs, two live concert videos on Blu-ray in HD and high-resolution audio files for download (review). Later these same recordings were also released by the label on a special vinyl set using a one-point microphone set-up on ten LPs also with the high-resolution audio files for download. Performance wise this review of the five hybrid-SACDs (5.1 surround) is essentially the same as that of the original multi-media Beethoven Edition box set.

Commenced in 1800, Beethoven’s epic cycle of nine symphonies is revered as one of the greatest legacies to music culture with each symphony inhabiting its own individual world. Daniel Barenboim explained “It’s one of the greatest adventures in music that we play the same pieces again and again – and that, despite their constant repetition, they sound different every time.” I have several complete Beethoven cycles of the symphonies and also hear often individual symphonies in concert and remain astonished at the number of new things there are to hear. In an interview for this release Sir Simon Rattle said of performing Beethoven with the Berliner Philharmoniker “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’s fighting with himself. I have the feeling probably that the more plain-spoken this music is, the better it is.” Here Rattle uses the Beethoven scores in the Urtext edited by Jonathan Del Mar published by Bärenreiter in 1996/2000. Incidentally this is the same edition of the scores that Berliner Philharmoniker used with Claudio Abbado for the recording of his 2000 cycle on Deutsche Grammophon.

The Berliner Philharmoniker get off to a flying start with the often-overlooked First Symphony the shortest in length of the cycle. Completed in 1800 the score bears a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Beethoven’s early patron. The symphony was premièred in 1800 at Hofburgtheater, Vienna and it is thought that the composer himself may have conducted. Immediately noticeable is the freshness and lightness of touch of the playing. The brisk and spirited opening Allegro establishes an exhilarating mood contrasting with the rustic character of the graciously played Andante. It’s rare to hear such detail in the winds; a quality that applies across the complete cycle: testimony to the excellence of the sound engineers.

Mainly composed in 1802 during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt, the Second Symphony is dedicated to benefactor Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky. Beethoven premièred the work the following year at the Theater an der Wien. A product of the time of Beethoven’s harrowing emotional turmoil as demonstrated by the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, a dark, serious mood permeates primarily the determined opening movement marked Adagio molto – Allegro con brio. By contrast the Finale is joyous and uplifting, repeatedly swirling round and around and concluding on a rather festive note.

A frequently heard work in the concert hall it is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the relevant 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. Rattle fully appreciates that this progressive score is music of considerable concentration and, as the designation might suggest, heroic power. Thrilling and invigorating the Berlin players in the opening movement Allegro con brio convey a sense of defiance in the face of adversity. Underpinned by the rich and deep low strings the solemn tread given to the renowned Marche funèbre is unerring.

Written in the summer of 1806 the Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff a Silesian nobleman who commissioned the work. Beethoven stopped work on the Fifth Symphony to compose the Fourth. It was the following year before Beethoven conducted the work before the public at a Liebhaber-Concert at the University of Vienna. Opening with an Adagio the mood of the first movement easily evokes a dark prison scene from an opera perhaps foreshadowing his own opera ‘Fidelio’. This is followed by an Allegro Vivace section radiating an uplifting celebratory feel. Delightfully lyrical the Adagio movement is full of sensitive playing - all disarming calm and contentment.

After a long gestation the Fifth Symphony was completed in 1808. Dedications to both Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky appear on the printed score. Beethoven himself introduced the symphony the same year as that of its completion at the Theater an der Wien. Most of the Berliner Philharmoniker must have performed this enduringly popular symphony countless times yet their reading sounds newly minted. Marked Allegro con brio in the bold opening movement Rattle creates a dark, serious tone. His is a powerful performance of inspiring intensity. One of my favourite movements in all Beethoven’s symphonies is the Andante con moto where Rattle fashions an oasis of calm that suggests to me a magnificent Tyrol setting in the Alps yet reveals a slight undertow of sorrow. In my view no conductor has equalled on record the same level of spine-tingling intensity that Karajan and his Berlin players bring to the Andante con moto in the 1962 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin account on Deutsche Grammophon.

Beethoven rarely journeyed into programme music but with his Sixth Symphony ‘Pastoral’ he created one of the greatest examples ever. Also completed in 1808 this score of Beethoven’s “expressions of feelings” suggesting a journey through rustic scenes is constructed in five movements. Also dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky it is thought that Beethoven that same year conducted its première, once again, at the Theater an der Wien. In this much-loved work Rattle gives a convincing reading of real penetration. Especially impressive is the opening movement an ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country’ with beautiful playing that agreeably paints a vivid nature scene. The uplifting Scherzo — a ‘Happy gathering of country folk’ is admirable with impressively sprung rhythms evoking rustic dancing and merriment; redolent of a scene from a Pieter Bruegel painting. The playing of the short ‘Storm’ movement is remarkable and it’s easy to imagine villagers running for shelter from the downpour, lightning bolts and thunderclaps.

Both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were completed in 1812 yet they differ widely. Dedicated to Vienna arts patron Count Moritz von Fries the Seventh Symphony enjoyed great success at its 1813 première at Vienna University. It was Wagner who famously described the symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance”. In Rattle’s assured hands the passionate music of the extended opening Poco sostenuto - Vivace, feels like the overture to an unwritten opera; it’s irresistibly played. Striking is the austere beauty of the much admired Allegretto, possibly a homage to those soldiers who had recently died fighting the French invaders. The sense of vivacity and joy that Rattle achieves in the Scherzo is uplifting, and the inspiring Finale is played with an infectious exuberance. I have yet to hear a performance of the Finale to equal the intensity that Wilhelm Furtwängler and Berliner Philharmoniker gave to their live recording from October/November 1943 at the (Alte) Philharmonie, Berlin.

Beethoven warmly described his Eighth Symphony as “My little Symphony in F”. There was no dedication to the Eighth Symphony, a work overshadowed by the immense dimensions of Seven and Nine. Beethoven introduced the score to the public in 1814 at the Redoutensaal, Vienna. Without forfeiting precision there is a strong sense of spontaneity to Rattle’s interpretation. Powerfully played, the opening Allegro vivace e con brio is proud and resolute. Gloriously melodic in the Allegretto scherzando Rattle ensures wonderfully sprung rhythms and an expression that evokes the scene of a toy shop. The Berlin players rise to the challenges of the festive and good humoured Finale: Allegro vivace. This movement's seemingly unlimited and sudden variations of rhythm and tempi are matched by a capacious imagination.

Dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia the colossal Ninth Symphony ‘Choral’ is one of the most magnificent and memorable works in the entire classical repertoire. Composed in 1822/24 the score is unusual for its massive choral Finale - a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’. It can be hard to comprehend that by the time of its première in 1824 at the Kärntnertortheater, Vienna, Beethoven, who assisted conductor Michael Umlauf with the performance, was profoundly deaf. Rattle’s decisive forward momentum in the opening movement is striking as is the tightening of tension to produce a near chilling sense of grief with torment and anger. In the great Scherzo this determined reading is searingly and wildly powerful, assisted by excited kettledrums and the beautiful melancholic Adagio must surely be a love letter in music communicating the pain of parting. Notable in the Presto the eight sonorous double basses establish a rock-solid foundation for the Finale. With its famous choral setting of ‘Ode to Joy’ this is the crowning glory of the score. Resolutely controlled climaxes and the sensation of dark menace produced from the low strings send a shiver down the spine. In the choral section, excellent rich-toned bass Dimitry Ivashchenko is highly secure and the nicely contrasted voices of Annette Dasch (soprano), Eva Vogel (mezzo-soprano) and Christian Elsner (tenor) sound quite magnificent. Tightly drilled by chorus master Simon Halsey the outstanding Rundfunkchor Berlin performs with unison and focus; marvellously expressive in the dramatic moments. Rattle doesn’t overload the weight of the playing, astutely holding back the fury thus avoiding a possibly uncomfortable cacophony. For those looking for an ultra-powerful ‘Choral’ Symphony the standout account is from Furtwängler and Berliner Philharmoniker - a legendary recording from March 1942 in the (Alte) Philharmonie, Berlin. Furtwängler achieves an incredible level of sheer ferocity in the propulsive climaxes and an unyielding sense of torment and anger. Furtwängler’s quartet of soloists is Tilla Briem (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo); Peter Anders (tenor) and Rudolf Watzke (bass) with the Bruno Kittel Choir. Furtwängler’s account has the advantage of surprisingly good sound for its age and I would commend recordings on the label Société Wilhelm Furtwängler and, best of all I think, the release on Pristine Audio.

With such an outstanding choice available in the catalogue it can be difficult to settle on one specific set of the nine symphonies. There are a few conductors who have recorded more than one cycle with Karajan having conducted four. The complete sets that I most admire are from the Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado/Deutsche Grammophon; Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan/Deutsche Grammophon (1961/62); Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle/EMI; Berliner Philharmoniker/André Cluytens/EMI; Wiener Philharmoniker/Karl Böhm/ Deutsche Grammophon and more recently Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons on BR-Klassik.

This inspiring Berlin cycle from Rattle in 2015 can stand proudly alongside the above recordings and unless you need big-band Beethoven this is the set to have. My principal impressions are of 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. Striking is the penetrating degree of lyricism and the level of intensity brought to Beethoven’s music. I wrote similar comments about a recent cycle by Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks recorded in 2013 on BR-Klassik, nevertheless by comparison Rattle’s performances feel suppler, less heavy yet responsive and providing remarkable impact. Notable throughout is the stunning woodwind playing and the glorious sound of the Berliner brass section, conspicuous for its pleasing and consistent intonation. The unity and range of the strings is remarkable especially the rich timbre of the cellos and basses so vital for ensuring a rock-steady foundation.

Recorded at the Philharmonie using standard main and spot microphones there are no problems whatsoever with the sound quality of these hybrid SACDs. This set was auditioned on a SACD player and 5.1 surround system with a trio of friends and the consensus was real satisfaction with the overall sound having excellent clarity, presence and balance. No audience applause has been left in these audio recordings. The accompanying booklet in German and English contains a wealth of information and helpfully for the ‘Choral’ Symphony sung texts and translations are provided. With performances and recorded sound to an elevated standard I’m confident this outstanding set of the nine Beethoven symphonies from Berliner Philharmoniker under Simon Rattle is one to live with.

Michael Cookson

List of works:
CD 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
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

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