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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 [45.19]
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op.68 – ‘Pastoral’ [43.51]
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. 2018/19, Palais Niederösterreich, Vienna
ALPHA 479 [80.16]

This recording is Volume 8 of the series, Resound Beethoven, a series based on Haselböck’s idea of performing the great symphonic works – symphonies and concertos – in Viennese venues, either where they were first performed, or where Beethoven heard early performances.

The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were part of the notorious concert of December 22, 1808, when Beethoven conducted a four-hour-long programme of premieres, including both these symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 4, an extemporised fantasia for solo piano (later written out as the Fantasia for G minor, Op.77 , and the Choral Fantasia, and, for good measure, the previously performed Ah! Perfido, and the Gloria and Sanctus from the Mass in C major. The orchestra was little more than a scratch affair, the works unfamiliar, and the Theater an der Wien freezing cold - and it remains probably the most famous concert in musical history.

Haselböck has wisely chosen a different venue. Theater an der Wien is today externally a rather nondescript building, still a major musical venue, but much knocked about and reconstructed since Beethoven’s day: only a small part of the original remains. The Palais Niederösterreich, though much altered in the 19th Century, has benefitted from sensitive restoration of internal areas, including the hall used for many Beethoven concerts in his lifetime, including performances of all the symphonies between 1818 and 1827. The advantage of a smaller space than a modern concert hall for a period orchestra is evident in this recording. The string ensemble is, at around 15 violinists, larger than the numbers (around 8) scraped together for the Theater an der Wien premieres, but representative for the later concerts.

If the question of venue were the only reason for buying this CD, it would have limited appeal: but, make no mistake, these are terrific performances, which demand close attention. Martin Haselböck is a fine musician, as both organist and conductor. If his reputation is greatest in his native Austria and Germany (I have heard him live only in Austria), he is an insightful and accomplished musician. He founded the Orchester Wiener Akademie in 2004, and the rapport is evident. Time was when period orchestras could be scratchy affairs, but the mastery of these players is evident throughout. There is nothing of the scrawny in the playing: rather, a rich and mature sound.

The performances of both symphonies are forthright, attentive to detail, but with no lingering – the Beethovenian drive never slackens, and the excitement of invention is captured in every note. The performance of the Fifth Symphony is fresh as one could hope to hear and belongs among the finest on CD, despite a slightest hint of hesitation in the opening bars. Striking is Haselböck’s dynamic control of a terraced sound, and he draws out superbly the interplay between instruments.

The performance of the Pastoral has similar merits, conceived within an overall arc. Added interest is given by the very effective way Haselböck draws out some orchestral details often overlooked by those who balance instruments differently. This is especially striking at around 9.30 onwards in the first movement, but interesting details emerge throughout, and the performance is attentive to the sounds of nature Beethoven inserted so carefully. The peasants’ merrymaking is notably swifter than the ländler tempo Klemperer so lovingly produced in his wonderful performance, but none the worse for that.

Add to all these excellences fine production values, an eco-friendly case, valuable notes in German, English and French. Buy it and enjoy the thrill.

Michael Wilkinson

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