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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Symphonies
Sara Swietlicki (soprano), Morten Grove Frandsen (countertenor), Ilker Arcayürek (tenor), Lars Mřller (bass)
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish Chamber Orchestra/Ádám Fischer
rec. 2016-19, Concert Hall, Royal Danish Academy of Music; Studio 2, DR Koncerthuset (5)
NAXOS 8.505251 [5 CDs: 328:56]

And so it begins! Every orchestra and recording label on the planet (surely!) is gearing up to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020, but the releases have already started coming. Ádám Fischer has been working for years on his cycle of the symphonies with the Danish Chamber Orchestra. It’s either tremendous good luck or brilliant planning that it has appeared in time for the anniversary; but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because I think we’ll be talking about it for a long time after the anniversary. It isn’t perfect, but it’s very exciting, and some parts of his cycle are very good indeed.

The first thing to celebrate is Fischer himself. Now in his seventies he’s no spring chicken, but to hear the way he conducts the finale of No. 1 you’d think he was fresh out of the conservatoire because it veritably explodes out of the speakers in the most convincing vivace I’ve heard in a long time. Likewise, he clearly sees that symphony’s third movement as a Scherzo avant la lettre, so much does it pulsate with pent up energy. More importantly, he has thought through everything he does with the wisdom of age and a lifetime of experience under his belt. Crucially, however, this doesn’t embed him in tradition. Quite the contrary: it makes him discover things afresh. Listen to the way he tackles the main theme of No. 1’s first movement, for example: there is a slight dryness to the violin sound, but there is delicacy and the occasional sly inflection that gives this music a character all of its own. Indeed, the semiquavers that end the exposition have such a shuddering quality that they sound almost col legno in places. It’s invigorating that even in this most classical of Beethoven’s symphonies there is still new fruit to be shaken from the tree, and Fischer does a great job of bringing it down.

That characterises his approach across the board. Listen, for example, to the hammer blows at the end of the Eroica's exposition, which grow in strength as they progress, or, more conventionally, the way that, after a beautifully nuanced introduction to No. 2, the main Allegro sets off at a heck of a lick, making it tremendously exciting! There is a lovely play of light and there's a rationale for every innovation. The Larghetto, on the other hand, has a lovely sense of space to it has real room to breathe, and there is a bounce to both the Scherzo and the finale that delivers no undue heaviness. Phrases are clipped and the whole thing feels alive and light on its feet. It can't have sounded like this on the night of its first performance when one critic famously described the music as "a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death."

The players of the Danish Chamber Orchestra are fantastic, too. It was in the Fourth symphony that I most appreciated the difference made by natural timps: they’re fantastic in the big “ta-dah!” revelation as the first movement’s introduction gives way to the main allegro, and their distinctive thwack gives the pulse of the slow movement as much energetic crackle as the helterskelter fun of the finale. Similarly, it was in introduction to 7 that I really sensed the benefit of vibrato-lite strings, the long, dry held notes having an extra edge that they don't normally carry.

And only very seldom is there a sense of a smaller sound from a smaller orchestra. On the contrary, in some places: the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony sounds positively symphonic, with big string sound and crackling brass and timps to keep the punch of the pulse going. Orchestra and conductor are at their finest here, with clipped phrases and tight entries coupled with stinging clarity that makes this is a really exciting journey. Maybe the finale is a shade too fast for my liking, but the transition to get there is expertly managed, and you really notice the impact of the extra instruments when they enter.

That speaks to another one of the set’s strengths: namely the quality of the recording. The Naxos engineers have done a great job of capturing the orchestra’s sound in space. The transparency, which is one of the chief gains both of using a chamber orchestra and of playing with a period sensibility, comes across in the recoding very clearly, and at the other end of things there is a lovely sense of air around the sound as a whole. The recording also copes well with the big theatrical moments, such as the launch of the exposition in the first movement of No. 4; and they manage the impact of the trombones and timps in the storm scene of the Pastoral without unduly spotlighting them.

Before we get to that point in the Pastoral, Fischer treats us to a first movement with a surprising amount of bite, particularly in the string chuggings that end the exposition, and he points up some of the string swirls rather more than others. He does something similar in several symphonies, choosing to highlight some elements of the score above others, even where no such justification is given in the score, and you could say the same about some of his cheeky tempo tweaks. Not everyone will appreciate either move, and I suppose they should technically be illegal, but in most cases I confess I rather liked it. It’s part and parcel of Fischer’s individual vision, and as such it’s part of the package. It also means, for example, that there's a pleasing skirl to the Pastoral’s Scherzo and an edge of danger to the storm; and, importantly, there's a lovely sense as well to the finale. More than in many performances, this movement feels like a hymn and taps into the spiritual material of the music.

On the debit side, some unscheduled rallentandos in the first movement of No. 7 grated on me a little, and Fischer injects a few speedings and slowings into the Allegretto that for me, broke up the all-important rhythmic line. I also lost patience with the inconsistencies in the final pages of No. 9, more of which below. However, you have to decide to take the rough with the smooth, and there are benefits elsewhere. The Seventh’s Scherzo, for example, is a firecracker, with a Trio that’s a model of sustained tension, and the finale is just about perfect: pacy but brilliantly controlled so that it doesn’t just pass in a whirl.

There is similar rough-and-smooth in the Eroica. The first movement feels just a little rushed, and it was here that I first missed the sense of scale that comes with a symphony orchestra. However, the thin string tone works well for the emaciated funeral march, one of the darkest I remember, with jagged edges to accentuate drama and a power that flows from the rawness. The crackling Scherzo has chattering strings and blazing brass, and the finale is well shaped, playing the second and third variations in the version with a solo quartet, which I rather liked, before drawing back the curtain on the first appearance of the Prometheus theme as a grand reveal.

“Controlled” is also how I’d describe the first movement of No. 8, particularly the long build of the development, which exhilaratingly spills over into the recapitulation. A couple of wayward pauses in the coda threaten to break up the line but don’t (quite). The second movement bobs along winningly, the Menuet has a bouncy swagger with some lithe string playing, and the finale crackles with excitement, those same strings managing to conjure up a storm of semiquavers that, nonetheless, never sound foggy. As a combination of musicians’ skill and conductor’s vision, the Eighth is, perhaps, the single most successful symphony of the set.

If there is a weak link, however, then it’s in No. 9. I definitely wanted more weight than this orchestra could provide here: the opening sounds a little thin, and consequently the titanic first movement feels too light for my taste, not helped by Fischer’s very fast tempo. However, those same thin violins manage a fantastically sinister shudder in the background of the coda and, so long as Fischer’s opening tempo tricks don’t bother you, there is plenty of bounce and life about the Scherzo, taken at a more orthodox speed, with a Trio that sings along with a lovely legato. The Adagio then feels rather busy, without much sense of repose, unearthly or otherwise. The finale is rather rough in places too, with a team of singers that’s far from the A-list. Bass Lars Mřller is, frankly, dreadful; unstable and unfocused throughout his solo, and the rather odd move of choosing a countertenor instead of a mezzo made no impact on me because I could barely pick him out. Sara Swietlicki is more imperious, and Ilker Arcayürek does a fine enough job with the “Turkish” section. However, the choral singing is much better, sounding particularly fine at “Seid umschlungen”, and the orchestra relish the bite of the fugue very effectively.

With such an infinity of complete Beethoven cycles out there, it’s almost pointless to make comparisons, though I suppose Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra comes close, as does Herreweghe’s Flemish set, though both of those are more completely satisfying than this one. What’s more important to note, however, is that Naxos’ super bargain price means that the collector on even the slimmest budget will now be able to afford a quality Beethoven symphony cycle to own. If that’s not civilizational progress then I don’t know what is! The set is a slim(ish) box, with each disc in its own sleeve, and the booklet note contains an interview with Fischer, together with the German and English texts for the Ninth, but there’s very little about Beethoven or the music’s history.

So dip in and try it. As I said, it isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a talking point, and if we get other releases like that for the Beethoven anniversary then 2020 is guaranteed to be an interesting year.

Simon Thompson

Symphony No. 1 [24:48]
Symphony No. 2 [31:29]
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” [44:54]
Symphony No. 4 [31:07]
Symphony No. 5 [30:45]
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” [40:33]
Symphony No. 7 [38:17]
Symphony No. 8 [23:44]
Symphony No. 9 [62:39]

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