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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Annemarie Kramer (soprano); Wilke te Brummelstroete (alt); Marcel Reijans (tenor); Geert Smits (bass); Consensus Vocalis (Symphony No. 9)
Hannes Minnaar (piano)
Liza Ferschtman (violin)
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 2008-2011 (Symphonies), 2014-2016 (Piano Concertos), 2010 (Violin Concerto and Romances), and 2012 (Triple Concerto), Muziekcentrum Enschede, Netherlands. CHALLENGE RECORDS CC72856 [9 CDs: 644:10]
I wouldn’t normally go for a box set, a good portion of the contents of which I’d already reviewed on these pages. After leaving it on the first time around when offered for review it turned up again on a second list of discs, meaning it hadn’t been taken up by any of my colleagues and, remembering my enthusiasm for the Ninth Symphony in this set, decided to take my opportunity for hearing the rest of the cycle. This will as a result be a review with a greater than usual number of links to reviews already written, for which I beg your forgiveness.
This is Challenge Records’ contribution to the 250th anniversary celebrations of Beethoven’s birth, and a very fine one it is as well. All of these recordings have been released over the years in single and/or box sets of SACD multi-layer discs, and this all-inclusive box is a more budget-friendly release on standard CDs. I’ve seen this set available at a variety of prices, and it is certainly worth shopping around a little.
CD 1 brings us the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies (review), and the strengths and one or two arguable weaknesses of this cycle are illustrated well here. The recordings by Bert van der Wolf of Northstar Recording Services are all superb throughout this set, and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra is terrific. Jan Willem de Vriend’s background has been in historical performance, and this is carried through in this set. The orchestra uses modern instruments with the exception of some of the brass, and harder than usual sticks with the timpani. All of this adds up to a refreshingly bracing and transparent sound with plenty of stereo separation and detail. The Fourth Symphony has plenty of drama and excitement, and if the Adagio second movement is a bit on the swift side it can be forgiven as a part of the whole. Strings play without vibrato in this aesthetic, and it is in the Sixth Symphony that I felt a lack of warmth here and there, for instance in the Scene by the Brook. Everything is done very well and the narrative of this programmatic work is highly involving, but a little expressive variety might have helped here and there.
CD 2 has a superb First Symphony with an impact that removes it as far as you can imagine from Mozart and Haydn without turning it into something grotesque. One could perhaps wish for a little more cantabile in the second movement but I also admire its finely-tuned balance of delicacy and weight. Pairing the First with the Fifth Symphony works well as a result of de Vriend’s uncompromising approach to the First. De Vriend doesn’t do what most conductors do, which is add a little extra comma of silence behind the first or even the second of those famous four-note motifs, and as a result the first note of the following passage can be eaten up in the reverberation. This is a small point, but in refusing to pull the music around the first movement has a breathless urgency all of its own. This is an excellent performance, and your ears expect rousing cheers and applause after the final chord, so dramatic are those climaxes in the closing Allegro.
For CD 3, Symphonies Seven and Eight I refer you to my review from 2011. Revisiting this disc I don’t find much to disagree with myself on, other than that Osmo Vänskä’s BIS set of the Beethoven symphonies is no longer quite the leading favourite for me that it apparently once was. Having reached this far what is clear is the consistency in this cycle. Conventions aren’t overly distorted and the fine sound and performance quality always keep you listening, with expectations delivered and even exceeded, even when you know these pieces very well indeed. The Seventh Symphony is superbly dark and dramatic, and the Eighth, while perhaps not quite as bright and shiny as some, is uplifting enough.
CD 4 pairs Symphonies Two and Three in another effective coupling, bringing out the drama and tough edges in the Second Symphony with swift tempi and emphatic dynamics in the outer movements, bringing out poetry in the Larghetto and a weighty boisterousness in the Scherzo. The Third Symphony or ‘Eroica’ also has plenty of dynamism in the first movement, but in a tempo that also allows for nuance and contrast rather than tumult. The Marcia funebre is an important movement and de Vriend goes for understatement here, letting the music speak for itself without indulgent slowness or artificial profundity.
I enthused about the Ninth Symphony in my review from 2012 and, while neither the work nor the performance is entirely flawless I’ve since kept this recording at the back of my mind as a reference, mainly for its high-wire balancing act between excitement and tension alongside expressive tenderness, but also for its attention to detail without loss of form and flow.
For the five Piano Concertos I also refer to my review and also that of Roy Westbrook (review).
As I pointed out, there is little if any controversy about these performances. The lack of vibrato in the strings doesn’t bother me particularly in much of this music, and the clean-textured aesthetic is all part of the whole in this set. Everything is perfectly well executed here, but there is an overall politeness in the playing, particularly from Hannes Minnaar, that just prevents it tipping over into something that causes that genuine ‘wow’ factor.
The Triple Concerto (review) with the Storioni Trio uses a period fortepiano, which makes for a bit of a shock, placed as it is on CD 7 after the Third Piano Concerto with its modern concert grand. The orchestra is excellent as usual, but its huge scale against this fragile sounding instrument is a bit of a leap in terms of balance. The violin and cello soloists are good here however, playing valuable instruments from 1794 and 1700 respectively and creating some magical moments. By way of comparison, the Triple Concerto (review), also conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend, appeared as something of a bonus on the 5th volume of the Van Baerle Trio’s complete Beethoven Piano Trios. This is a good recording and performance but also not an absolute top choice, and in any case is with the Residentie Orkest The Hague rather than The NSO so it wouldn’t have been a fit for this box. Liza Ferschtman’s recording of the Violin Concerto (review) is very fine, with “that purity of tone and absolute singing quality which you want in this piece, with lines glittering above the orchestra and each cadenza a sublime masterpiece.”
All things considered this is a collection that is well worth having. It is presented in a sturdy clamshell box, each CD with its own card sleeve and a booklet with a respectable amount of information, though not the notes from the original releases. These are all excellent recordings, with a very high standard of performance and a consistent sound that blends period-informed transparency with satisfyingly modern sonorities. If SACD is not a priority for you then having this Beethoven Symphony cycle available on standard CDs will be welcome, and most of the rest of the concertos are far more than a mere bonus.
Dominy Clements Contents
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60 (1806) [32:56]
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 Pastoral (1808) [30:05]
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [26:22]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 (1807-8) [29:53]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1811-12) [40:35]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) [25:22]
Symphony No. 2 (1802) [34:25]
Symphony No. 3 (1804) [46:45]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Choral, Op. 125 (1823) [63:40]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1793-98) [28:04]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [36:53]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) [34:38]
Concerto for violin, cello and piano in C major, Op. 56 (1803) [34:31]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) [32:31]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 15 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [37:46]
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806) [25:04]
Violin Romance No.1 Op.40 in G major (ca.1802) [8:52]
Violin Romance No.2 Op.50 in F major (1805) [8:04]