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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Beethoven Revolution
Symphony No.1 in C major, op.21 (1800) [25:28]
Symphony No.2 in D major, op.36 (1802) [34:05]
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op.55 (1804) [43:57]
Symphony No.4 in B-flat major, op.60 (1806) [32:01]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, op.67 (1807-1808) [34:17]
Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
rec. 5-6 June 2019 (Nos. 2 and 4) and 5-9 October 2019 (Nos. 1, 3 and 5), at la Collégiale du Château de Cardona, Catalonia
ALIA VOX AVSA9937 SACD [3 SACDs: 169:48]

The 1994 recording of Beethoven's Third Symphony by Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations on the Alia Vox label has been one of my favorite recordings of that vital piece (review). I've often wished I could hear more Beethoven symphonies from Savall. And here we have the first five, in one collected set of new 2019 recordings, again using period instruments. These recordings were made in conjunction with a series of concerts of these symphonies. It was supposed to be a complete cycle, but the recordings were interrupted midway by the coronavirus. Rather than wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass, Alia Vox granted us the first half to enjoy in the meantime. This is an essential set that should be part of every Beethoven lover's collection.

The First and Second Symphonies follow a common pattern in Savall's rendition. The first movements of each offer a clear sense of drama that is so essential to Beethoven. The middle movements, almost Haydnesque in character, reflect pleasantness and spiritual refreshment that often dips into humor, especially in Beethoven's use of the bassoon. Savall lets all the stops out for the finales, both unfolding into a moto perpetuo that becomes exhilarating and even exhausting by the ends. The reverberations of the hall linger for quite a while as we attempt to catch our breaths from the storm of music that has been unleashed.

But nothing quite prepares us for the Eroica, with its brutal opening cannon shots and the wild storm of discords that follow. The contrast of these moments with the alternately sweet and bombastic main theme presents one with a tempest of ideas. The listener to Savall’s performance quite clearly understands how the 1804 audience in Vienna thought Beethoven to be completely unhinged. The funeral march is heart-rending with its agitation just below the surface, periodically broken by wails of despair. Savall's interpretation of the first three movements has not changed all that much since his 1994 recording, but the finale runs nearly a minute shorter in the updated version. This seems like wizardry as the fourth movement of the earlier disc began at a significantly higher speed. But where the tempo slackened in that recording as it went along, here it begins at a more leisurely rate and quickens its pulse as it works through the variations, building speed and excitement. I have to say I prefer the new recording over the old, which I find a little shocking since the earlier version has been one of my more beloved Eroicas.

The Fourth Symphony often is read as a lighthearted piece, but Savall is having none of that. The opening Adagio of the first movement feels like a soundtrack to a mystery thriller, with the winds not offering much in the way of encouragement. The big chords that transition to the Allegro vivace are the stuff of nightmare, and then it's off in a maelstrom of bubbling arpeggios at breakneck speed. This is as serious and intense as I've heard this symphony played, and it works exceedingly well. The second movement continues with the theme of mystery, accepting the moments of lightness, but refusing to treat them as comic relief. The third and fourth movements rocket along with dramatic intensity and, at last,break through the sense of dread with much the same feeling of triumph one is used to hearing in recordings of the Fifth Symphony. This similarity in approach underlines the continuity between these works in a way most conductors disregard. This Fourth is one of the glories of this set.

And then we have the Fifth Symphony, that monument to fury and defiance of fate. While it's difficult to find something new to say in this very familiar work, some have done so recently with great panache. See, e.g., the mold-breaking 2018 recording by Teodor Currentis and MusicAeterna (review). Savall varies the tempo in the first movement significantly, playing the standalone occurrences of the four-note motif quite a lot more broadly than the breakneck speed of the rest. Savall pays very close attention to the staccato and sforzando markings in the text, giving them particular emphasis that helps underline the drama and forward momentum. It's a thrilling and engaging reading, if not necessarily new ground.

In contrast, Savall emphasizes the lyricism of the second movement, rendering the melody in a very cantabile manner. Underlying that is the insistent nervous beat of the timpani, like a heart racing against the vocal line above. Like Currentzis, Savall de-emphasizes the brass in the Finale, an unusual but still effective approach. Nothing is held back in contrasts here, as the loud is really loud, and the soft is really soft. I expect the composer would be pleased indeed. The swirling violins as we approach the close are simply delirious, and the brief return to the Scherzo finds it full of charm and shorn of the ominous treatment in the movement proper. The concluding Presto is no joke, and simply astonishing in its raw brutality. What this had to have been like to hear live! Performers and audience alike must have been dripping in sweat and emotion.

There's very much to like in all of these performances. The winds of Le Concert des Nations are a high point. The horns and bassoons deserve particular commendation as they vary in color and character to suit the moods of the music. In critical moments of the Scherzi of the Third and Fifth Symphonies the horns equal some of the best I've ever heard, though they seem a little tentative at the end of the second movement of the Fourth. The balance overall is superb, with numerous moments of "have I ever heard that bit before?"

The one niggle I have with these recordings is that the kettledrums, using hard sticks, are a bit prominent and draw attention to themselves a little too often, especially in the earliest symphonies where they seem at odds with the lighter touch. But they nonetheless are highly effective and emphasize the elemental nature of the music, especially in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. In particular, the rampaging timpani are simply breathtaking in the first and final movements of the Fourth.

The SACD recording quality is uniformly excellent, with clearly precise placement of instruments on the soundstage and a quite broad dynamic range (essential to the contrast-loving Beethoven). The clicking of keys (I suspect on the bassoons) are frequently audible, which may annoy some but which I find charming. For some reason, the sound on the Fifth Symphony seems a little less bright than on the others, but that's not inappropriate for such a dark work.

For those who care about such things, Savall takes each and every one of Beethoven's indicated repeats, including those in the da capos of the Minuetto of the First and the Scherzi of the Second and Fourth. He also takes a da capo in the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony that is not indicated, but which has been adopted as fashionable by some in recent decades. Instead of a three-part Scherzo, this makes for a longer five-part Scherzo. Norrington and Hogwood do the same in their period-instrument recordings of the Fifth.

I personally don't agree with this approach of adding in an unwritten da capo. The five-part Scherzo appears to have been Beethoven’s initial plan, but was rejected as he prepared the work for printing. However, some musicologists look on the lack of a da capo as a mere oversight in the first edition (apparently thinking Beethoven somehow did not notice the omission when he reviewed both the printer’s copy and the proofs) and agree with Savall's reading. I note, however, that in Beethoven’s conversation book for April 10, 1820, his friend Franz Oliva disparaged as dilettantes an orchestra that failed to take this da capo, complaining that they left out half the movement, with the result that “the transition into the Finale made a very poor effect.“ Unfortunately, Beethoven’s response was not written down, so the issue remains an open question.

Josep Maria Vilar's liner notes appear to have been written without the benefit of actually listening to Savall's recordings. For instance, Vilar describes the Fourth Symphony as "cheerful and sunny," and this recording of that work is anything but.

The orchestra plays with vitality and enormous energy that leaves one thrilled and emotionally drained; I don't recommend trying to listen to all five of these symphonies in one go. These first five symphonies are a very welcome addition to a much-recorded repertoire, and I look forward with great eagerness to the concluding four.

Mark S. Zimmer



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