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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Beethoven Odyssey
Symphonies, Concertos, Overtures, Masses
BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
Rec. 1962-85
ELOQUENCE 484 1728 [12 CDs: 7:50:03]

This is the first time Sir Colin Davis’s London Beethoven recordings have been collected together, a proportion of which appearing here for the first time on international CD release. The recordings here are mostly from the early to mid 1970s, and for context, you can take a look at John Quinn’s survey, Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013): The Recorded Legacy. These discs are neatly packaged in a sturdy clamshell box, and each disc has an ‘original cover’ to illustrate the front, the actual contents of each disc listed on the back. This is almost invariably different to the original LP so don’t allow yourself to get confused. Just be grateful that most of these discs have been filled out to deliver respectable playing times. If you shop around you can find this set for around the GBP 50,- mark which, with a well documented and nicely illustrated booklet, is by no means a bad deal.

Colin Davis became Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1967, and he raised its profile as a radio and BBC Proms orchestra into more mainstream respect with the Beethoven recordings found here. These are of course relatively big-boned performances that preceded the ‘historically informed’ trends of later years, but Davis’s touch is by no means lugubrious in the lighter movements, and while his tempi in movements such as the Menuetto of the First Symphony are perhaps a little slower than we have become used to there is a welcome spaciousness to his approach that allows the music to speak naturally without denying its dynamic impact and moments of drama. This first disc includes a previously unpublished Leonore No. 3 overture with the London Symphony Orchestra, taped during the same sessions as the 1962 ‘Pastoral’ Symphony on CD 5. Without going into too much detail, Colin Davis’s Beethoven almost invariably strikes the balance between lyrical expressiveness, gruff drama and architectural shaping that all combine to make Beethoven such a compelling listen. This is true of the first movement of the Third Symphony, in which the excellent french horns also deserve a mention, but are qualities you will find throughout this set. When it comes to sheer drama, these overture recordings are also no holds barred events, each and every one.

The two versions of the Sixth Symphony make for interesting comparisons. The earlier 1962 recording with the LSO has plenty of life and ‘zip’, with shorter timings in every movement than that with the BBCSO, sometimes by a couple of minutes, such as with the Szene am Bach. This chimes in with the ‘firebrand’ image Davis had as a younger conductor, the 1976 BBCSO recording being closer to the ‘master Beethoven conductor in his prime’ profile attached to this set. In fact the later recording is of course perfectly fine, if more languid and ‘romantic’ as a performance, and perhaps a little shorter on the energy needed to propel us through Beethoven’s more repetitive passages. A true highlight of this Beethoven symphony ‘cycle’ takes us away from London, and gives us Sir Colin Davis’s 1985 recording in his early days with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra where he was Chief Conductor from 1983-89. There are many excellent recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony around, but this has to count as one of those triumphant successes that almost transcend the recorded medium. The recorded sound is superb, the orchestra is on top form, all of the soloists excellent and the choir both refined and disciplined. Davis paces everything with clarity of purpose, not allowing his keen attention to detail get in the way of the narrative arc of each section and each movement, and taking us on an entirely engrossing ride towards a blazing climax about as rousing as anything on record for this work.

Davis’s highly respected recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in January 1974, as was this recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Arthur Grumiaux. Grumiaux recorded this work numerous times of course, but this is a version that revels in the gorgeous acoustic of the Grote Zaal at the Concertgebouw, and also captures the house orchestra in a golden period for its wind section alone. The cycle of Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos with Steven Kovacevich became well-known as a staple of the Philips catalogue, and is indeed considered legendary in some quarters. While much of this collection will be an exercise in nostalgia for many I came to these concertos with relatively fresh ears, appreciating the naturalistic balance between soloist and orchestra and of course Kovacevich’s virtuosity and sensitivity of touch. The recordings are very good, to the extent the Pentatone label saw fit to remaster the Piano Concertos 2 & 4 onto quadraphonic SACD back in 2002, restoring Philips’ multi-channel master tapes to their original glory. There is a sense of cultivated poise in these performances that holds back on maximum firepower to a certain extent in the earlier concertos, while the breathtaking Fourth Concerto is veritably symphonic in its ambition. The LSO takes over from the BBCSO for the Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’ which again has a larger-than-life presence and an imaginative synergy that speaks volumes for these interpreters.

The collection concludes with fine recordings of the Mass in C and Missa solemnis with the LSO and Chorus. The Mass in C was written for Prince Esterházy for the nameday of the Princess, and was damned by the Prince as “totally ridiculous”, tarring the work as a failure from the outset. He was probably more in tune with Haydn’s contributions in this genre, but we have no need to take any notice of this bias today, taking Beethoven’s idiosyncrasies in our stride and enjoying the work for what it is: a setting that breaks away from convention, and in some ways paved the way for the likes of Rossini’s Petit messe solennelle. It is nice to see Richard Hickox’s name here as chorus master. This must have been a valuable experience leading up to his own acclaimed recording with Collegium Musicum 90 on the Chandos Chaconne label. The Missa Solemnis is a massive work, and one that Davis admitted to being overawed by in his younger days. I’ve recently been mostly listening to Daniel Reuss’s recording on the Glossa label (review) which is a performance that manages to balance a kind of period leanness while providing a window onto Beethoven’s intentions that in turn always seemed somehow impenetrable from Leonard Bernstein (review). Sir Colin Davis’s recording shares Bernstein’s big and impressive sound, but his less idiosyncratic approach is an easier ride, and his soloists are also better and less inclined to kill the music with massive vibrato. There is no such thing as a perfect recording of the Missa Solemnis, but this one has plenty of stirring moments even if it hasn’t become an instant favourite.

All of these recordings are listed as having been remastered by Chris Bernauer, and everything sounds very good indeed. There are some limitations to the analogue sound here and there on some of the symphony discs, but there is very little tape hiss and I only spotted one or two very mildly bumpy edits. These are occasional little details that will probably only be noticeable over expensive headphones, but are to be expected on any vintage recording. The conclusion to Peter Quantrill’s booklet notes convey a sentiment with which I can only agree: “Whatever this BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra collection may lack in finesse compared to [Sir Colin Davis’s] later Dresden recordings, it retains a rough-hewn power and a lucidity of thought that will never go out of fashion in performing Beethoven.”

Dominy Clements


CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Overture – Leonore No. 3, Op. 72b
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 12–13 December 1975 (Symphonies Nos. 1, 2); Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 22–24 April 1976 (Leonore No. 3)

CD 2
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’
Overture – Coriolan, Op. 62
Overture – Leonore No. 1, Op. 138
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 15–21 September 1970 (Symphony No. 3, Coriolan); Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 27 September 1971 (Leonore No. 1)

CD 3
Overture – Egmont, Op. 84
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 19–20 December 1974 (Egmont), 27 February 1975 (Symphony No. 4), 16 March 1973 (Symphony No. 8)

CD 4
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 5–6 October 1972 (Symphony No. 5); Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 11–12 July 1974 (Symphony No. 6)

CD 5
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’
Overture – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus
Overture – Leonore No. 2, Op. 72a
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 11–13 & 16–17 April 1962

CD 6
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 22–24 April 1976

CD 7
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’
Helen Donath (soprano)
Trudeliese Schmidt (mezzo-soprano)
Klaus König (tenor)
Simon Estes (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Josef Schmidhuber (chorus master)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Residenz, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany, 15–19 July 1985

CD 8
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Arthur Grumiaux (violin)
Concertgebouworkest/Sir Colin Davis

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 7–10 January 1974 (Violin Concerto); Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 15–16 September 1970 (Piano Concerto No. 1)

CD 9
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 19–20 December 1974

CD 10
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (No. 3)
London Symphony Orchestra (No. 5)/Sir Colin Davis
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 24–28 September 1971 (Piano Concerto No. 3), 6–7 May 1969 (Piano Concerto No. 5)

CDs 11 & 12
Mass in C major, Op. 86
Christiane Eda-Pierre (soprano)
Patricia Payne (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Tear (tenor)
Kurt Moll (bass)
Leslie Pearson, John Constable (organ)
London Symphony Chorus, Richard Hickox (chorus master)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis

Mass in D major, Op. 123 ‘Missa Solemnis’
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano)
Patricia Payne (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Tear (tenor)
Robert Lloyd (bass)
John Constable (organ)
London Symphony Chorus/Richard Hickox (chorus master)
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, UK, 30 November & 2 and 5 December 1977 (Mass in C major); Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK, 14–20 October 1977 (Missa solemnis)

 

 



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