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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Camilla Nylund (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor); Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Philharmoniker/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, March 2017-April 2019, Großer Saal, Muiskverein, Vienna
5 CDs + 1 Blu-ray Audio disc
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4837071 CD/BD-A [5 CDs: 353:58]

As one of its major contributions to the Beethoven 250 celebrations, DG has released this cycle of the nine symphonies played by the Vienna Philharmonic under the label’s current star conductor, Andris Nelsons. Towards the end of his tenure as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Nelsons conducted quite a lot of Beethoven, including symphony cycles both at home and on tour. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that it was with a performance of the Ninth at the BBC Proms in July 2015 that Nelsons bade farewell to the orchestra. In his recent excellent history of the CBSO’s first hundred years Richard Bratby confirmed rumours that I’d heard at the time, namely that Nelsons had recorded the symphonies live in concert with the CBSO but for reasons unknown he declined to sanction their release. That Birmingham cycle will now presumably never see the light of day. I mean no disrespect to the Vienna Philharmonic but I would have been very interested to hear Nelsons leading performances with an orchestra with whom he was accustomed to working regularly. Indeed, I’m slightly mystified that Nelsons chose to record these symphonies in Vienna rather than with one of the two orchestras with which he’s currently associated as Music Director.

A while before I even knew I would be receiving these discs for review my colleague, Brian Wilson gave an overview of the Nelsons cycle in one of his Download features. I read this comment: “Like most conductors on New Year’s Day, Nelsons largely allowed the Vienna Philharmonic to play things their way, and the same applies to some extent to his Beethoven symphony cycle.” Intrigued, I decided early on in my evaluation of the Nelsons cycle to do a bit of comparison with another live cycle, recorded in 2002 and also played by the VPO. This was the EMI set conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. If I remember correctly, when these performances were first released in 2003, they met with something of a mixed reception. However, my colleague Marc Bridle liked them (review), as did I. When the performances were reissued a few years later, Simon Thompson also admired them (review).

Although the orchestra and venue are the same in both cycles, it was quickly apparent to me that they sound very different. I don’t know if Andris Nelsons has ever had any involvement with period-style performances; quite possibly not. Simon Rattle, on the other hand, has frequently worked with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Playing for him, the VPO produce a much leaner sound than is the case on the Nelsons set. The strings use vibrato very sparingly on the Rattle set whereas for Nelsons the sound is that of a modern symphony orchestra. I’m not sure if Rattle used a smaller band; that may have been the case. There’s one other factor which may have a bearing, I fancy. The Nelsons cycle was set down at five separate sets of concerts between March 2017 and April 2019. The Rattle recordings were also made in concert but over a much shorter time span, between 29 April and 17 May 2002, and that, I’m sure adds a degree of concentration: conductor and orchestra were able to work on the symphonies as one self-contained project.

I’m going to consider the Nelsons performances in the order in which they presented in the set. I also decided that in order to evaluate both audio options I would use the Blu-ray disc for the odd-numbered symphonies and the CDs for the even-numbered ones.

The Adagio molto introduction to Symphony No 1 is taken expansively by Nelsons and one is conscious immediately of the full, cultured orchestral sound. Rattle is a little quicker and the VPO produce a leaner sound for him. When the Allegro con brio is reached Rattle adopts a swift speed and his reading is very spirited. Nelsons, at a steadier pace, sounds more serious; his performance is good on its own terms but, for me lacks the zest of the Rattle. Nelsons offers us very well played big-band Beethoven. The two conductors follow a similar pattern in the slow movement. Rattle is much sprightlier but Nelsons’ steadier pace is attractive, I think, and he shapes the music nicely. Arguably, the Latvian conductor’s approach better suits a movement that is marked Andante cantabile con moto. There’s little to choose between the two conductors in the Scherzo; both bring suitable vitality to the music. In the slow introduction to the finale Rattle teases the listener nicely before launching the Allegro molto e vivace. Unsurprisingly, it’s Rattle whose performance is the swifter and more obviously high spirited but Nelsons’ version is enjoyable too.

In the ‘Eroica’ you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Rattle is swifter and leaner in the big first movement; his performance suggests revolutionary zeal. Nelsons is a bit more ‘traditional’ but he still invests the music with dynamism and strength; I think his account of the movement is very successful. Rattle is bracing and athletic – very often the pacing is clearly one-in-a-bar, whereas Nelsons seems to feel the music as a quick three-in-a-bar. Arguably, Rattle’s approach is more exciting but I wonder if Nelsons actually demonstrates more clearly the movement’s stature. Nelsons is more measured in his treatment of the Marcia funèbre. Rattle's view of the music has a great deal to commend it and is typically searching. However, Nelsons’ performance is very fine and I think he brings rather more gravitas to the proceedings. In the Scherzo Nelsons’ speed is fractionally swifter than Rattle’s, though there’s not much in it. Neither is there much to choose between their excellent interpretations of the finale until the slow variations are reached. Then Nelsons is appreciably slower than Rattle and he convinces me. When the music becomes fast again, I was rather surprised to find that it is Nelsons who is the swiftest – markedly so – while Rattle also ends the symphony energetically but in a rather more deliberate fashion.

The above comparative observations are reasonably representative, I think, of what we shall encounter throughout the cycle. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, it seems to me that Rattle seems to see the early symphonies in particular as works that emerged, in a ground-breaking fashion, from the eighteenth-century tradition whilst Nelsons has a more nineteenth-century view. I don’t mean to imply that one approach is “better” than the other, merely to highlight what seem to me to be different, and valid, ways of looking at the same music.

Following the order in which DG present the symphonies, the next two to consider are the Second and Fourth. Nelsons plays the first movement of the Second in a dashing way – even with swagger. In his hands, the Allegro con brio is full of life; there’s plenty of ‘brio’. Arguably, the leaner textures on the Rattle recording suit this music even more than Nelsons’ full sound, but the latter’s performance is very good on its own terms. His pacing of the second movement is pretty measured; one could argue that it’s too slow for a movement that’s marked Larghetto - Rattle is appreciably quicker. However, Nelsons ensures that the music is affectionately phrased and the VPO plays with style and warmth: I enjoyed this performance. The Scherzo is pleasingly sturdy and then Nelsons does full justice to Beethoven’s humour and high spirits in the finale. Overall, I think this is a very successful traversal of the symphony. Nelsons is good at conveying mystery and tension in the Adagio introduction to the Fourth Symphony, though I find Rattle more probing. Nelsons treats us to a vivacious rendition of the main Allegro vivace and it’s a punchy performance too. I very much enjoyed the first movement. The second movement goes well also; the music is well shaped and, in the appropriate places, there’s strength in the performance. Nelsons and the VPO deliver the third movement with abundant energy and then find even more energy to draw on for the finale. This almost zany movement shows Beethoven at his most unbuttoned and the present performance is a conspicuous success.

Nelsons brings plenty of thrust and momentum to the opening movement of the Fifth. His is a big, dramatic reading, not quite as urgently paced as Rattle’s. Comparing the two, Nelsons’ performance is the weightier of the two and there’s much to commend that approach. I find the ‘lean and mean’ Rattle performance very exciting, though, especially in the development section, which he makes very turbulent. The second movement is marked Andante con moto and I can’t honestly say that Nelsons’ broad speed is in line with that injunction. However, I’m less bothered by that than by his tendency to manipulate the tempo for expressive effect. The more I listened the less comfortable I became with what seems to me to be an excessively Romantic approach. Rattle, at a much more flowing speed, occasionally eases the tempo to make a point, but not to anything like the same extent. Ideally, I’d like a basic pulse that’s midway between Rattle’s and Nelsons’. In the last analysis, though the Nelsons performance is beautifully played, I find it over-interpreted. He’s very good in the third movement, however. He maximises the contrasts – without overdoing things – and creates a good deal of tension especially during the transition to the finale. Nelsons’ account of the last movement is dynamic and suitably exultant; it’s an impressive reading. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that even though Rattle sets a cracking pace in the finale he brings out much more inner detail than Nelsons.

In the ‘Pastoral’, Nelsons doesn’t take the exposition repeat in the first movement, which is a pity (Rattle observes the repeat). That reservation aside, Nelsons paces the music very nicely as a pleasant walk in the countryside – it’s neither an ambling stroll nor a route march. The tonal allure and warmth of the VPO is ideally suited to this music and I enjoyed very much my rural saunter in Nelsons’ company. In the second movement the brook flows smoothly and peacefully. Recalling his tempo manipulations in the slow movement of the Fifth, I did wonder if Nelsons might be tempted to slow down and admire the view from time to time, but such is not the case. The VPO’s playing is lovely and enhances the lyrical view that their conductor takes. I didn’t make any comparison with Rattle but I noted that both conductors have an absolutely identical timing for this movement. Then there are high spirits a-plenty and fun at the village party; Nelsons’ performance is a delight. The storm is fiery, after which, once the skies clear, we experience a beneficent Hirtengesang. Nelsons’ pacing of this finale is spot on and the orchestra’s collective singing tone gives great pleasure. Unless the lack of the first movement exposition repeat is a major issue, I think you’ll find Nelsons scarcely puts a foot wrong in the ‘Pastoral’.

Nelsons invests the introduction to the Seventh with plenty of strength and well-judged tonal weight though I do feel that Rattle’s leaner orchestral textures give him an advantage; there’s an edge – though not aggressively so - to the VPO’s sound which pays dividends in his account of this symphony. In the main Vivace the music bounds along very nicely in Nelsons’ hands – as it does with Rattle. As was the case in the ‘Pastoral’, Nelsons denies us the exposition repeat. Overall, I think his handling of the movement is a success; the music dances joyfully. In the slow movement Nelsons starts off at a speed which is slower than Rattle’s; frankly, I don’t think that the trudging speed adopted by Nelsons is truly an Allegretto. For me, not only is Rattle’s tempo preferable but also – and this is not just a question of speed – his performance has more spring in the rhythms. When the major-key second subject arrives, the two conductors adopt an almost identical speed. Strangely, when Beethoven then reverts to the first subject, Nelsons doesn’t resume his initial tempo but instead he plays the music at a somewhat faster speed – rather closer to Rattle’s. The effect is wholly beneficial and I’m puzzled as to why he didn’t adopt that speed at the outset of the movement. Then Beethoven briefly revisits his second subject before ending the movement with a reversion to the minor-key material, for which Nelsons returns to his initial slow tempo! I’m perplexed by his inconsistent approach in this movement. No complaints about the third movement, however. The performance is vivacious and I like Nelsons’ equally spirited way with the Trio. The finale is a high-energy affair, as it should be. Both Nelsons and Rattle deliver fast, exciting performances though, again, Nelsons omits the repeat. I have to say, though, that for all their respective merits neither conductor eclipses the near-legendary recording made in 1975/6 in the same hall and with the same orchestra by Carlos Kleiber (review). That’s especially true of the finale where Kleiber secures an incandescent performance from the VPO. It’s not a question of speed – he’s no faster than Rattle or Nelsons - but the sense of exaltation and of the music sweeping all before it is simply intoxicating. There’s much to admire in Nelsons’ reading of the Seventh but I’m unsettled by his approach to the slow movement.

The Eighth is arguably Beethoven’s look back to his Haydnesque symphonic roots, albeit through the prism of his achievements in the genre since the ‘Eroica’. Throughout the symphony the Rattle performance is a bit lighter on its feet than the Nelsons; that is partly due to the type of sound Rattle cultivated but I think it’s not unexpected, knowing Rattle’s great affection for Haydn. That said, I found a great deal to enjoy in Nelsons’ fuller-bodied approach. He brings thrust to the first movement, but in a genial fashion; the development section is strongly projected. I like Rattle’s nimble way with the Allegretto scherzando but Nelsons has a droll way with this Haydnesque movement and I appreciate that, too. He delivers a sturdy third movement – and the VPO’s horns and clarinets catch the ear in the Trio. As for the cheeky finale, Nelsons is convincing here, too, giving us a smiling, enjoyable performance.

Nelsons' performance of the Ninth opens with a very good account of the first movement. Rattle’s performance displays rather more in the way of lean muscle but Nelsons is certainly not to be underestimated. He establishes tension right at the outset and sustains this, making excellent – though not excessive – use of dynamic contrast. This performance does full justice to the movement’s stature. I’m afraid I always wish that Beethoven had taken a red pencil to the Scherzo; it’s a long movement and, though it may be heresy to say so, even in the best performances I find my attention wanders. My personal prejudice aside, Nelsons does it very well. His performance is dynamic, maintaining rhythmic tautness. The Trio is nicely turned. The slow movement is very broad and solemn at the start, introducing a fine reading. Nelsons fully justifies his expansive treatment of the Adagio molto e cantabile sections while the Andante moderato episodes have a very pleasing flow. The VPO is on sovereign form in what is a distinguished performance of the movement. Among conductors there seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to the cello/bass recitative passages at the start of the finale: some, like Rattle, play them quickly; Nelsons belongs to the fraternity that play them more slowly, emphasising the rhetoric. When the famous ‘big tune’ first appears on cellos and basses the Nelsons performance is really hushed – as is Rattle’s. The Latvian unfolds the tune beautifully, building to the noble full orchestra statement. Georg Zeppenfeld is commanding in his big solo and the fact that he’s a native German speaker is an advantage. However, I find Thomas Hampson (Rattle) has even more vocal presence. Later in the finale, at the testing tenor solo, ‘Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’, Nelsons has the not inconsiderable luxury of Klaus Florian Vogt to do the honours. I was mildly surprised, therefore, that Vogt doesn’t seem entirely comfortable. The sensible tempo that Nelsons sets is not an issue, I’m sure, but on the Rattle set, where the tempo is fractionally steadier, his tenor, Kurt Streit, seems able to articulate the music more freely. Overall, though, Nelsons’ vocal quartet is a strong one, never more so that in their last contribution, just before the Prestissimo coda, where their slowly intertwining lines are well balanced and Camilla Nylund’s radiant soprano crowns the quartet. In 2002 EMI went to the trouble and expense of bringing the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus to Vienna to sing in the ‘Choral’ for Rattle (it was worth every penny!). Perhaps that put the members of the Wiener Singverein on their collective mettle because they sing extremely well for Nelsons. No one hearing their sterling contribution to this performance will be disappointed. Honours are all-but equal with the Birmingham choir but I think the latter just have the edge on account of their extraordinary attention to detail. Nelsons’ very impressive traversal of Beethoven’s exultant finale sets the seal not just on an excellent performance of the ‘Choral’ but on his cycle as a whole.

Despite some reservations, which I’ve attempted to bring out in my comments on the individual symphonies, I’ve found much to enjoy and admire in Andris Nelsons’ cycle. I do think, though, that it’s legitimate to question the need for yet another Beethoven symphony cycle. It’s entirely understandable that any symphonic conductor should wish to test him - or herself against Beethoven’s symphonies in the concert hall but preserving performances on disc is another matter. I can’t honestly say that Andris Nelsons gives us any great revelations in these performances, excellent though they are in their own right. Let me qualify that statement at once, though, by saying that I unreservedly commend him for not seeking out “revelations” for their own sake.

The issue of the need for another cycle is one for another day. This set of performances represents no mean achievement. Andris Nelsons leads the VPO in performances that are well thought out and the orchestra plays magnificently for him. I’ve ended up making more comparisons than I intended with the Rattle set, not least because it’s been fascinating to observe the different way in which two conductors can get the same orchestra to play these masterpieces. Incidentally, I know that in 2002 Rattle used Jonathan Del Mar’s then recently published Bärenreiter editions of the scores; I don’t know which edition Nelsons used. If you’re looking for a modern view of the Beethoven symphonies played on modern instruments and presented in excellent sound then I doubt Nelsons and the lustrous VPO will disappoint.

DG have presented these performances in excellent sound. As I mentioned earlier, for my primary listening I used the CDs for the even-numbered symphonies and the BD-A disc for the odd-numbered ones but I also made spot comparisons of some individual passages using both formats. I got consistently pleasing results in both - and whether using loudspeakers or headphones. When I listened through speakers, I got a particularly good sense of the hall’s ambience. Naturally, you get more impact and presence when using the BD-A disc but no one who is only able to listen on CD will feel short changed. Though the performances were spaced over several series of concerts across two years the engineering team has achieved consistent results. The useful essay about the music is by Jan Swafford. We can also read a short note by Andris Nelsons. Though the conductor himself is pleasingly modest in this note about his approach to the Beethoven symphonies, there’s no mistaking that DG are presenting this as Andris Nelsons’ Beethoven cycle. Including the outside cover, there are no less than thirteen pictures of him, plus a further four pictures which just show Nelsons’ baton cradled in his hands. By contrast, poor Beethoven is represented by just two images but, then, he only wrote the music! The whole package comes in a sturdy hardback book package with each disc in a separate sleeve.

John Quinn

CD 1
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op 21 [25:50]
rec. 2-7 April, 2019
Symphony No 3 in E flat major, ‘Eroica’, Op 55 [52:26]
rec. 1-2 April, 2019
CD 2
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 36 [34:26]
rec. 2-7 April, 2019
Symphony No 4 in B flat major, Op 60 [34:18]
rec. 25-31 March, 2019
CD 3
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67 [34:43]
rec. 25-31 March, 2019
Symphony No 6 in F major, ‘Pastoral’, Op 68 [40:56]
rec. 18-23 March, 2017
CD 4
Symphony No 7 in A major, Op 92 [36:16]
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93 [26:39]
rec. 11-15 October, 2017
CD 5
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 [68:24]
rec. 8-13 May, 2018

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