Beethoven
The Nine Symphonies

No.1 in C, Op.21
No.2 in D, Op.36
No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
No.4 in B flat, Op.60
No.5 in C minor, Op.67
No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
No.7 in A, Op.92
No.8 in F, Op.93
No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Barbara Bonney (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (contralto)
Kurt Streit (tenor)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle


Recorded live between 29 April and 17 May 2002 in the Musikverein, Vienna
CD No: EMI 5574452 (5 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: June 2003
This cycle – Sir Simon Rattle’s first complete traversal of the Beethoven Symphonies – has been eagerly awaited in many quarters, with claims made and plaudits issued even before the set was released.
The Vienna Philharmonic has, of course, a long association with these works – a number of cycles and numerous individual symphonies forming part of its distinguished discography. An interesting history of this is provided in the elegant hardback booklet by Clemens Hellsberg, the VPO’s president, alongside programme notes by Richard Osborne. Indeed the presentation is handsome and expensive-looking (although retailing at mid-price). The cardboard sleeves that contain the individual CDs are replete with photographs of the conductor in various poses.
How Sir Simon measures up to his recorded predecessors in this music – in Vienna and elsewhere – is a matter for debate, and those who want to discover for themselves can now do so.
The problem with Rattle’s view of these towering masterpieces is that he has not – as yet – decided what approach to take to the all-important question of performance practice. Working with an orchestra with as rich a heritage as that of the Vienna Philharmonic might lead one to suppose that a conductor would take on board their tradition and style. Rattle, however, would appear to want the VPO to sound like the London Classical Players or some other supposedly authentic-sounding body. This begs the question as to why not work with an orchestra of that kind in the first place? Make no mistake, the Vienna Philharmonic here rarely sounds like the golden-toned orchestra one has grown accustomed to, particularly the vibrato-less strings which often sound uncharacteristically – and uncomfortably – thin.
Working from the recently published New Bärenreiter Urtext Edition, edited by Jonathan Del Mar, Rattle is clearly concerned to sweep any cobwebs aside. I am grateful to Bärenreiter for kindly supplying me with scores. The Edition is a model of its kind, prepared with scrupulous attention to the minutest particulars of manuscripts and other published versions, and correcting numerous errors of detail which have become established over the years. However, and with the greatest respect to those who have worked on preparing the Urtext Edition, a dynamic detail hereabouts and a misplaced tie or accent elsewhere do not bring the music’s soul to life. Rattle might be considered a successful exponent of the Edition. As a traversal of Beethoven’s symphonies, disappointments are in store.
I have already drawn attention to the string tone. Anyone seeking the full sound Karajan draws from the Berlin Philharmonic or Klemperer from the Philharmonia, not to mention Leonard Bernstein and others working in Vienna itself, will not find it with Rattle.
Rattle’s streamlined sound is employed at a loss to expressive shape and phrasing. The woodwind is, as ever with this orchestra, eloquent and sensitive, although one curious feature, which is presumably due to the recorded balance, is the frequent over-prominence of the first flute. The brass is kept somewhat at bay. One interesting – and effective – feature is the use of ’stopped’ horn notes when those particular notes would not have been available on the instruments of Beethoven’s time. It is a sound the composer would have expected and is put to striking use here.
From Rattle, there is not the wanton abandon one finds with Norrington, for instance, who has the courage of his convictions; a quality I fear is, as yet, lacking in Rattle’s approach to Beethoven. The issue of tempo is a prime concern and, arguably, the starting point for the interpretation of any music. Perhaps inevitably, Rattle errs – if that is the right word – on the fast side. Whilst this lends freshness to the music, there are moments where it sounds rushed off its feet – for example, the bassoon solo in the Finale of the Fourth Symphony.
Perhaps the most disconcerting feature of many of these performances is the sense of tension between podium and players – neither seems convinced by the other. Consequently, there is a feeling of the performers wrestling with Beethoven’s music rather than communicating the inevitability of the composer’s symphonic arguments.
In the first two symphonies Rattle suggests the Haydnesque qualities rather than their forward-looking characteristics. The terse introduction to the First Symphony is a portent of what follows – the string pizzicatos are very dry, the subsequent ’Allegro’ decidedly non-smiling. There is reluctance throughout the cycle to allow Beethoven’s sense of humour and optimism to flower. Far too often, there is a dogged, even grim determination, which makes the Seventh, for instance, seem a darker work than is usually the case.
With the Eroica, the epic scale inherent in the first movement is undermined by too fast a pace, the strings often scampering unconvincingly over their rhythmic figures, rendering coherent articulation of the notes impossible. There is also some unsteadiness of the basic pulse – the opening chords, not totally unanimous in execution, seem to exist in a different pacing from the music which follows. The ’funeral march’ is a brisk one, though the tragic quality is certainly present. Here, however, as elsewhere, the lack of a firmly defined bass-line is a significant drawback. Beethoven needs his foundations and these are not always granted him. One movement that really works is the Eroica’s Scherzo. Rattle hits exactly the right tempo and the slightly manic, even panicky sense of exhilaration is gripping.
The Fourth Symphony is a casualty of haste, the slow introduction almost completely devoid of mystery, Beethoven’s wit and sleight-of-hand passing for nothing. The surprise in the Fifth (though scarcely different to Rattle’s earlier VPO recording – EMI 5571652) is that the initial motto is delivered as a triplet rather than three equal quavers. This is an old-fashioned mode and texturally incorrect. It’s a surprise to find it adopted in this context. That aside, this is one of the more convincing performances of the cycle, even if the scramble for the finishing-post renders what has gone before rather ineffectual.
Another success is the Finale to the Pastoral Symphony, where players and conductor seem much more relaxed – to the great benefit of the music. This ’shepherds’ thanksgiving’ after the storm (a particularly lacerating one, with violent accents and shrill piccolo) really feels like a benediction, calm and repose ideally conveyed.
We are back in troubled waters for the Seventh Symphony, whose sunny character is downplayed, and the Finale is aggressive rather than celebratory in character. Likewise, the Eighth is hard-driven, with barely a moment of relaxation.
Rattle adopts comparatively spacious tempos for the first three movements of the Choral, although the ’classical’ rather than the ’romantic’ side is played up. There is no cataclysm in the first movement and timpani in the Scherzo are underplayed (with, amazingly, the second repeat overlooked when all others are in place, save the contentious one in the Fifth’s Scherzo). The slow movement does bring a welcome feeling of warmth even if, as we have come to expect by now, the music is not given the space it ideally needs. One can almost hear the woodwind wanting to linger a little longer on some phrases – but are not encouraged to do so.
There is little sense of impending calamity in the opening to the Finale; dissonance does not make its full impact, woodwinds predominate over brass. The cellos’ and double basses’ recitative is rushed and the initial phrases of the ’joy’ theme are subject to fussy mannerisms. Thomas Hampson is imperious in his delivery of the baritone’s opening lines, but the interpolated ornament on his ’ad lib’ phrase sounds silly. With his colleagues, this is one of the best-blended quartets to have recorded this symphony in quite a while, even if Kurt Streit’s tenor is on the small side. In the march, which starts with a remarkable contrabassoon sound, Rattle has to speed up for the orchestral fugue and subsequent choral peroration, having begun the section at a leisurely pace.
As we sight the conclusion, there are one or two oddities, the most striking being the clipped manner in which the chorus sings the second cry of “Brüder”, and the surprisingly steady ’prestissimo’ for the final section and coda. The chorus’s final ’maestoso’ cry of “freude, schöner Götterfunken” is so fast as to detract from the sense of the text and music at this point.
Expectations for this cycle have been running high. Perhaps Rattle devotees will be content. There is unquestionably much that is provocative in this cycle but rather less, I fear, that is totally convincing.

 

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