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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Beethoven Revisited: Symphonies Nos. 1 - 9
Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano), Ulrike Malotta (mezzo-soprano), Markus Schäfer (tenor), Bernhard Spingler (bass)
Vokalwerk Nürnberg
Pocket Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Stangel
rec. 2012-17, Munich/Pollach
SOLO MUSICA ETP010 [6 CDs: 307 mins]

This is a remarkable journey through the Beethoven symphonies. With an ensemble of only 12-16 top-quality musicians, the Pocket Philharmonic Orchestra explores Beethoven's music in totally different way. All the great conductors and orchestras have recorded their own cycles over the decades and it’s completely impossible to choose one set as a “definitive” recording. No such set exists and the only way to properly explore this remarkable music is to buy several versions by conductors who have different interpretative approaches to the cycle. Peter Stangel has a new and thought provoking idea. Instead of utilising a full chamber orchestra or symphony orchestra, his group of musicians perform as a chamber ensemble but play in a symphonic manner. This Munich based ensemble calls itself the smallest symphony orchestra in the world and was founded by Peter Stangel in 2005. He wanted to create a unique kind of symphony orchestra that offered a fresh approach to enjoying classical music performances. This is the World première recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies using this innovative approach.

I will admit to being apprehensive about hearing these monumental works performed by such small forces. Indeed, the Pastoral symphony only has 11 players plus a timpanist in the storm section. I expected the first symphony to work well in a single player per part format due to its classical nature. The initial shock of hearing the thin string entry at the opening of the first movement soon dissipates as the ear adjusts to the sound. The performance itself is brisk and dynamic and the listener soon gets fully involved in the experience. Obviously you don’t get the usual impact of the forte tutti passages but the upside is that you get clarity of articulation and hear every strand of music coming through. The timps have more impact than usual and there’s something quite satisfying about this low fat version. Moving on to the second symphony the first movement is taken at a fair lick and the slow movement is beautiful. You have to erase memories of the full orchestra from your memory and listen to the Larghetto as you would a Beethoven, Schubert or Mozart chamber work. The Scherzo and Allegro molto are both fast, furious and exciting.

So what of the Eroica? Could such a monumental symphony really work with so few players? Well, the answer is an emphatic yes. The Allegro con brio packs quite a punch and it’s certainly full of brio. The Marche funebre takes us back into the realms of intimate chamber music. The French horns are sensationally present in the Scherzo and the Finale is remarkably weighty. This is a fantastic listening experience and one of the most enjoyable Eroicas that I have come across for some time.

By now my initial scepticism had been dissipated and Peter Stangel’s exceptionally brilliant orchestra had convinced me that they have something of real value to bring to the table. The adventure continues with more brisk readings, this time of the fourth and fifth symphonies. The fourth symphony is delivered with real dash and sparkle. The fifth doesn’t quite work as well as the Eroica. It sounds undernourished and the first movement is just too hurried and lacking in poise. The eerie passage linking the last two movements doesn’t quite come off and, again, the finale is lacking weight. The Pastoral is a triumph in every way. A brisk entry into the countryside blows the cobwebs away and then we proceed to the banks of a fairly fast flowing brook. The peasants are an unruly lot and certainly know how to make merry.
The 11 man band in the storm is completely overwhelmed by some ferociously thunderous timps. I wonder if this is anything like it would have sounded in Beethoven’s day? It has terrific impact. The Shepherd’s Song clarifies some inner parts that are often obscured by the full orchestra and it brings the symphony to a glowing close.

The seventh symphony is on par with the Eroica in terms of punch and weight. The string articulation in the finale is superb and the spare textures suit the wonderful Allegretto to perfection. This is a stunning reading. The eighth symphony hardly ever fails on record and there’s little to say other than it’s another beautifully presented performance with a real glow to the sound. The ninth is a fitting culmination to the set. At no time is the sonority of a large orchestra really missed but maybe that’s partly due to becoming acclimatised to this refreshing new sound world. The choir in the finale is rather small but has been recorded fairly close to increase their impact. In truth the overwhelming sonority of a large choir singing fortissimo is sadly missed in a few places but overall this is very satisfying.

The recording throughout is close and crystal clear but also has a resonant warmth that adds an attractive glow to the orchestra. The playing is first class and flawless. This cycle cannot be recommended as a first choice but deserves to take a place of honour in the list. For a completely new and refreshing experience it can be highly recommended.

John Whitmore

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