Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Siobhan Stagg (soprano); Ekaterina Gubanova (alto); Werner Güra (tenor); Florian Boesch (bass-baritone)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. July 2021, Festspielhaus, Baden Baden, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4863050 [5 CDs: 347]
This is the second complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies to be released by DG in the last two years, and as another dozen Beethoven cycles from other labels have appeared in recent years, one is surely entitled to question the need for such releases when other composers are ignored by the major recording companies. However, there is a specific reason for this release, which is that it is the first complete recording based on the Urtext from the new Beethoven Complete Edition published by G. Henle Verlag of Munich in 2020.
Having listened to many performances and recordings of the Beethoven symphonies and being the owner of more than twenty complete cycles, I approached this new set with apprehension; however, I was quickly impressed by the brilliance of these performances by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nézet-Séguin. Certainly, this ensemble’s cycle under Harnoncourt from the 1990s remains among the finest available and is for me a personal favourite; now, even more than previously, the virtuosity of this orchestra, admirably led by Lorenza Borrani, is blessed with world-class strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. It was a constant pleasure to listen to some of the solo contributions.
Unusually, the booklet notes omit a full analysis of Beethoven’s symphonies, only briefly appraising the first eight symphonies); instead, there is an analysis of the new critical edition of the Ninth Symphony by the editor, Dr Beate Angelika Kraus of the Beethoven Haus, Bonn. Of most significance are the changes in the in the repeat of the second movement, where there are only 554 bars instead of 954. There is also a noticeable change in the contribution of the contrabassoon in the finale.
It would appear that DG has prepared this new set for those who have already a Beethoven symphonic cycle in their possession, as the booklet (in English and German) provides information only on the Chamber Orchestra of Europe along with a listing of the musicians. I would have preferred some photos of the marvellous virtuoso soloists rather than the five colour photos of the conductor which adorn the booklet, which are in addition to his picture on each of the CDs and the box, all of which reminds us of the personality cult of other leading conductors – and I think the Canadian maestro has yet to merit this over-the-top publicity.
I have not heard Nézet-Séguin’s complete Mendelssohn and Schumann cycles on DG and was not overly impressed by his concert performances with different orchestras before I listened to this set, yet I was immediately drawn to his conducting here. It is clear that he has prepared intensely in this series of recordings, set down during live performances in July last year. Thankfully, DG has chosen one of the finest concert halls in Europe which has an acoustic permitting a clear and truthful musical image - admirably produced by Andrew Mellor. One has a good impression of how the conductor approaches Beethoven from the very first bars of the Symphony No. 1, with little vibrato employed and crisp articulation, and immaculately performed throughout. The First is coupled with the ‘Eroica’, in a strikingly powerful performance with brilliant string playing and colourful woodwind.
Nézet-Séguin writes that, ‘I am interested in how Beethoven’s music can surprise us today. Our interpretation should feel to the audience as if they are hearing this music for the first time. That is my goal.’ In his debut Beethoven set, he succeeds magnificently in what is the most challenging symphonic cycle in world music. There is virtuosity and mastery in ensemble and the solo playing throughout. I particularly like his handling of the Symphony No 4, drawing beautiful playing in the Adagio, some of the finest that I have heard for a long time in this repertoire. The orchestra plays with modern string instruments while using natural brass, and natural timpani in which wooden hammers are used.
I would have thought that Nézet-Séguin would have given us a traditional interpretation of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, but his reading is absolutely stunning for the fresh innovation of his interpretation, decorated with outstanding solos, notably from the flute of Clara Andrada, the oboe of Phillipe Tondre and the clarinet of Romain Guyot in the Szene am Bach. Andante molto moto. The playing of this symphony in this recording is among the very finest, and is further exemplified by the magnificent Seventh Symphony, and as if one is hearing this for the first time. The Fifth Symphony is blessed by the virtuosity of the natural horns of Chris Parkes and Peter Richards and the trumpets of Neil Brough and Michael Harrison. Nézet-Séguin throughout uses tempos close to the score, although he chooses to take an unhurried pace in the Andante con moto, second movement, while yet ensuring that the finale is tremendously exciting.
The conducting throughout is of the highest standard of interpretative art, keeping the pace generally in accord with Beethoven’s own tempos, which are speedy, and with the phrasing cut back to create the effect of excitement and drama. No symphony brings this inimitable quality more powerfully than the Choral Symphony. The chorus is magnificent and the four soloists splendidly articulate. A small disadvantage is the conductor’s stamping at certain points, and breathing - negligible issues against the overwhelmingly astonishing standard of playing as he drives them onwards to the glorious finale. It is in the finale that there is a significant change in which the contrabassoon (admirably played by Ulrich Kircheis) is heard an octave higher, avoiding the rather vulgar sound in the section in the Allegro assai vivace, alla marcia when it is heard beside the triangle, cymbals and bass drum. This gives a quite different feeling and one of greater enlightenment. There is this sensation of a shared experience which makes this new cycle quite unique. In all, this new release is momentous for its unique Urtext and exclusive for its stunning virtuoso playing and crystal-clear recording.
Even if you already have a couple of Beethoven cycles in your possession, you will not regret acquiring this magnificent set.