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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67 (1807)
MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis
rec. 2018, Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Reviewed as download
SONY 19075884972 [30:34]

You certainly cannot ignore Teodor Currentzis. Born in Athens in 1972, he completed his musical studies at the St Petersburg State Conservatory from 1994-1999 under the distinguished conducting teacher, Ilya Musin who can also count Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov and Yuri Termikanov amongst his former star pupils. In 2004 he founded his own ensemble, MusicAeterna, at Novosibirsk, only to then somehow persuade the whole orchestra some half a dozen years later to relocate a thousand miles to Perm. There, somewhat helped by being so remotely located in Siberia and unencumbered by union regulations, the orchestral rehearsals are free to the public and often last well into the night. Tickets for the subsequent performances are sold out weeks in advance and command a healthy premium on the black market, not least since audience members can often visit the conductor in his offices after concerts, where he holds court, drinking wine and discussing the music performed that evening….

More recently, Currentzis and his orchestra have been performing Beethoven throughout Europe – the Proms in 2018 saw symphony numbers 2 and 5 (with the final movement of the Seventh as an encore), where it was noted that the majority of the players performed standing up. Earlier that year, their recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was released by Sony Music to hugely respectful reviews. And now Sony have released Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 with Symphony No 7 scheduled for release in the autumn. Perhaps they might reissue them as a combined CD afterwards, hoping for a Christmas number one!

If, with his long hair and flamboyant (sans baton) conducting technique Currentzis reminds me of Leopold Stokowski on the podium, whilst his lifestyle is reminiscent of some kind of medieval lord, there is no doubting that his Beethoven is very much of the twenty-first century. My initial “present day” comparisons of Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus and Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony were quickly cast aside – this is Beethoven cut from the more parsimonious cloth of Norrington, Gardiner and suchlike. Apparently, whilst the MusicAeterna is not a “period instrument” band per se, Currentzis does decide what type of instruments his players are to use depending upon the composer being performed. In Beethoven this means gut strings, wooden wind instruments, hand-stopped horns and hard timpani sticks, which is what we hear on this recording. Certainly there is no vibrato being employed and when I saw them perform Beethoven, they were using eighteenth century clarinets, rather than later black wood Klosés more commonly used in modern orchestras, but which were only introduced in 1839. It results in the typical ‘spare’ sound of historically-informed Beethoven, although the whole orchestra can certainly pack a punch in the full tuttis. My only grumble would be that the violins were all but inaudible during the third movement transition to the finale, something I am attributing to a lack of tonal heft on the players’ part, as I noticed a similar problem on a radio broadcast. The sound Sony Music provide is very fine, with a wide dynamic range as well as plenty of inner detail.

As for the performance itself, I was struck by the sheer nervous intensity generated by the conductor and his players throughout the whole work – a/b/c/d comparisons certainly seemed to confirm a higher voltage than usual running throughout the performance that elevates it all to something out of the ordinary. Currentzis’s interpretation is fairly-straight forward too – tempos are swift and the whole thing hurtles forward like some unstoppable force of nature, which is surely how the music should be performed (with a respectful nod to the Klemperer model, where the music is seemingly hewn from a huge, immovable block of granite). A few points of note include how the fermata on the fourth note of the opening motif is barely acknowledged whenever it subsequently occurs (a far cry from Nikisch in 1913 who hangs on to it forever – how times change!), an attempt I would guess to generate maximum momentum from the very outset, as well perhaps to avoid the tapered diminuendos Norrington and Harnoncourt like to graft onto the end of this musical phrase whenever it occurs, an historically informed ‘idea’ I have never really been convinced by. This momentum is certainly maintained and carried through right to the end of the whole symphony, where as soon as Presto is marked at the start of the coda they really hit pedal to metal, tearing forward to the finishing line. In between there is much detail which I found thought-provoking – as Beethoven tosses the various strands of the musical argument throughout the orchestra, Currentzis likes to interpret it as if it is some kind of ‘dialogue’ between each group of players which he achieves by using some imaginative phrasing, most strikingly between the string pizzicatos just before the transition to the finale.

Overall, I found it all to be an absorbing listen – and this is from someone who swears by his Kleibers and Karajans in this music. Of course, the reader is going to want to know how this new recording by Currentzis ranks compared to all the many other versions of this iconic work which are available, both in the studio as well as live in concert. However I think one needs to be careful when using comparisons, particularly in this work, as everyone will have their favourites and it is unlikely that if you favour Furtwängler, that you would also be an advocate of Roger Norrington, for example. For me, until now my favourite version of Beethoven’s great C Minor symphony with period instrument ensembles was with Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, live from Utrecht in 1984 and released by Philips. What I like about Bruggen in this music was his musical approach to the scores – whereas other period instrument specialists seemed hell-bent on making everything sound new and different, sometimes (I felt) at the expense of Beethoven himself. So with Bruggen, in spite of using gut stringed instruments with no vibrato, he still manages to coax a sweetness and pathos from them in the Fifth Symphony’s second movement, something I feel is too often lost with other period-instrument performances. It isn’t there in this Currentzis recording either, but I must say that his performance burns away at a fair few degrees higher than Bruggen’s – and that is not to criticise the latter, who was already hugely involving to start with.

So this is a Fifth that blazes with considerable intensity and many ideas - as such, it is well worth investigating. Whether or not Currentzis will eventually be mentioned in the same breath as those great masters from yore in Beethoven remains yet to be seen – but with this recording, as I said at the outset, you certainly cannot ignore him.

Lee Denham

Previous reviews: David Dunsmore ~ Mark Zimmer

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