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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ (1808/09) [41.33]
Symphony No. 8 (1812) [23.49]
Wiener Symphoniker/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 17/18 May 2017, Große Musikvereinssaal (Goldener Saal), Vienna

Part of its project titled ‘Road to Beethoven’, recording the complete Beethoven symphonies, the Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan has released this new album comprising the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies. This is the penultimate volume of its ongoing five-volume cycle that will culminate with the Ninth Symphony, the ‘Choral’, planned for release in Autumn 2019. The Beethoven cycle will be complete in time for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Beethoven which occurs in 2020. Given its long history and roster of renowned music directors it is surprising this is will be the first time that Wiener Symphoniker has recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies.

Beethoven continues to be wonderfully served by a substantial number of excellent recordings of his symphonies. Unlike many of the established, older recordings for example Furtwängler, Szell, Klemperer, Böhm and Karajan these live accounts from Wiener Symphoniker were recorded using a different approach to ‘big band’ Beethoven. Here music director Philippe Jordan conducts modern instruments but uses insights from period informed performance practice, for example employing a pared-back orchestra with spare use of vibrato and original tempi. In some ways I do rather miss the richness of the established ‘classic’ accounts especially the deep resonance of the low strings that typically underpin their performances.

It was uncommon for Beethoven to journey into programme music, but he did so with his Sixth, the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, one of the most enduringly popular works in the repertoire. Completed in 1808 and dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky, Beethoven saw the five-movement work as praise to God. “More of an expression of feelings than painting”, the music suggests an eventful and picturesque journey through countryside scenes. In 1991 on the Radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ Sue Lawley’s guest was Klaus Tennstedt who for his first work selected Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ explaining that although the score was not technically difficult for the players it was extremely challenging for an orchestra to bring off well. With lean textures Jordan and his Vienna players provide a beautifully played reading that doesn’t in my view come close to doing full justice to this life-enhancing score. The enjoyable opening movement, an ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country’ evokes a verdant Viennese countryside, yet is rather lacking in memorability. Under Jordan ‘The scene by the brook’ is too ordinary to develop a believable Arcadian quality. An improvement comes in the orchestra’s stylish playing of the Scherzo a ‘Merry gathering of country folk’ with the delightfully sprung rhythms recalling rustic dancing and merriment, suggestive of a scene from, say, a Pieter Bruegel painting. Disappointingly, in the penultimate movement Allegro titled ‘Thunder and Storm’, Jordan delivers only moderate impact. The finale ‘Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’ a splendidly paced Allegretto, is attractively played. Noticeable throughout is Jordan’s sense of controlled engagement, drawing from his dedicated players a most beautifully polished performance in a reading that avoids extremes of expression and dynamics. Jordan’s reading does evoke looking at nature through a window but rarely has the view been so mundane. In truth the performance feels underpowered, deficient in potency. My particular favourite recordings of the Sixth are headed by Klaus Tennstedt’s commanding 1985 Abbey Road, London account of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with the LPO on EMI which is more than a match for any in the catalogues. Tennstedt said glowingly of the LPO that he could think of no orchestra in the world that could play better. Another remarkable recording offers the power and drama generated by the 1971 Musikverein, Vienna account from Karl Böhm with the Weiner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon. Riccardo Chailly’s stunning account with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, recorded in 2009 at Gewandhaus is on Decca. Another more recent release – beautifully played – is from the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling recorded in 2015 at Lukaskirche, Dresden on Sony Classical.

Written in 1812 Beethoven affectionately described his Eighth Symphony as “my little symphony in F”. There is no dedication affixed to the Eighth, a work overshadowed by the immense dimensions of Seven and Nine. Beethoven introduced the Eighth to the public in 1814 at Redoutensaal, Vienna. Adopting generally brisk speeds without forfeiting precision, there is a strong sense of spontaneity to Jordan’s interpretation, yet I require additional reserves of energy and exhilaration. Jordan is especially brisk in the outer movements. I’ve checked with around twenty accounts and only David Zinman with the Tonhalle, Zurich is quicker overall than Jordan. Engagingly played, the opening movement Allegro vivace e con brio feels resplendently proud. Gloriously melodic in the short Haydnesque Allegretto scherzando, Jordan ensures well sprung rhythms that evoke the scene of a toy shop. Jordan’s attractive and stately Tempo di menuetto is agreeably engaging with a bucolic feel. The Vienna 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. There are several powerful recordings of the Eighth that I tend to play most often. Probably the foremost, for its uplifting radiance, is Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1962 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche on Deutsche Grammophon, or there is the ebullience of the Wiener Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm in 1971 at Musikverein, Vienna on Deutsche Grammophon. Admirable too are the beautifully played live recording of Claudio Abbado with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2000 at Philharmonie Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon and the strong expressive element of the LPO under Klaus Tennstedt from 1985 at Abbey Road, London on EMI. A most expressive account is that from Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig recorded in 2009 at Gewandhaus on Decca. Currently I am savouring the account played by the Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling that was recorded in 2017 Kulturpalast, Dresden on Sony Classical.

Recorded in live performance at Goldener Saal, Vienna the sound team provide Jordan with reasonable clarity and pleasing balance, but I had to keep cranking up the volume. Very little audience noise is discernable and the applause at the conclusion of both works has been removed. Titled ‘Freedom and Salvation’ the first-class booklet essay written by Walter Weidringer is a most informative read.

Without doubt these are beautifully played accounts yet perhaps not distinctive enough for some, especially in view of the remarkably stiff competition in the record catalogue.

Michael Cookson



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