Three previous conductors of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – Franz Konwitschny (in position 1944-1962), Kurt Masur (1970-1996) and Riccardo Chailly (2005-2016) – have made complete recordings of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. Since Chailly’s departure, Herbert Blomstedt (1998-2005) has returned and will hold this position until Andris Nelsons (Gewandhauskapellmeister designate) takes up the post. It is very fitting therefore that Blomstedt should have his recent Beethoven performances with the Gewandhaus Orchestra issued in order to celebrate his recent ninetieth-birthday (July 11).
The interpretations of the four incumbents differ although the splendour of this great orchestra’s sound always enriches Beethoven’s music. Chailly’s view is the least conventional, holding firmly to the metronome markings. Konwitschny, less concerned with that machine, was remarkable for attending so straightforwardly to the scores, especially in his decision to make all repeats – rare in those days. Masur also rendered the music nobly and it is interesting to note how very closely the timings of the movements in his recording equate to those of Blomstedt’s latest versions.
Tempo is very much a matter for discussion here. Between 1975 and 1980 Blomstedt recorded all of Beethoven’s Symphonies with Staatskapelle Dresden. In every case, Blomstedt’s previous speeds are notably slower. Blomstedt is quoted as saying “one must take Beethoven’s metronome markings seriously” but clearly he regards them only as a guide and by no means follows them exactly. I find his direct, sensitive readings closer to the refreshing classicism of Günter Wand.
There is a consistency of texture (a full-sized modern orchestra with clear inner detail) throughout these recordings and the production team shows how properly to prepare transcriptions of concert performances – with no audience noise or applause and carefully spaced silences between movements. The (antiphonal) violins have a suave, unified sound and there is mellow yet powerful brass, concessions are not made to ‘period’ instrumentation, and this sonorous orchestral quality is used in a way that honours Beethoven’s intentions.
The powerfulness of the opening movement of the First Symphony aligns its style with its more mature companions. In this reading Beethoven has already stepped away from Haydn into the nineteenth-century. The benefit of antiphonal violins is soon shown as the seconds brightly introduce the Andante and the Minuet is forceful without being rushed. How refreshing to hear Blomstedt sweep without hesitation into the lively dancing Trio. Here too one’s attention is drawn to the conductor’s view of required repeats. In this Symphony, as in No.2, he takes the view that these conventional Minuet or Scherzo movements require both repeats to be made following as well as before the Trio (though not in No.8). After a teasingly cautious introductory Adagio, the Finale of No.1 is taken rather faster than is the convention and with exciting effect.
Conventionally Symphony No.2 is thought of as ‘early’, yet at the time of composition he had already lived for more years than Schubert was destined to achieve. It is really a mature work and from Blomstedt this quality is evident. The grandeur of the first movement’s closing pages is reminiscent of Scherchen’s dramatic reading. A further similarity is evident in the Larghetto where both conductors opt for a flowing tempo and Blomstedt is here two minutes faster than in Dresden. The Scherzo is weighty and unhurried while the Finale flies swiftly but not impatiently forward.
In Blomstedt’s large-scale conception of the ‘Eroica’ all Beethoven’s challenging effects are brought out but without subjective emphasis – the solidly driven reading of the opening Allegro proves the sometimes-ignored exposition repeat to be essential. The unrelenting steadiness of the ‘Funeral March’ enhances its tragic nature and the common tendency to rush the fugal passage is avoided. The Scherzo is also firm and steady and the excellent horn section is rhythmically strong throughout the Trio, although the dramatically quiet timpani passage is not very clear. The Finale is full of well-observed detail; I was intrigued in the march-like episode, commencing at bar 212, by Blomstedt’s decision to have the upward flute sweeps that decorate the melody played in staccato fashion. It is not marked this way in my score, could it perhaps be in a recent edition by Jonathan Del Mar? Certainly it is very effective. I do feel however that the long Quasi andante section is rather deliberate (I liked Chailly’s urgent forward-pushing approach); nevertheless Blomstedt’s is a finely contoured reading.
Of notable accounts it is Klemperer’s that comes to mind when hearing Blomstedt conduct Symphony No.4. Preceded by an exquisitely hushed Adagio, confident solidity informs the opening movement. An even flow and sense of gentility is the essence of the slow one and the Scherzo is enhanced by the ideal choice of tempo to represent Beethoven’s required reduction of pace for the two Trio sections. In the Finale Blomstedt ignores the modifying instruction of ma non troppo and provides an ideally impetuous Allegro.
Timpani are nicely in focus for No.5: a quality notable in the soft, threatening strokes that precede the outburst at the start of the Finale. Blomstedt’s view of the first movement is fairly rapid – eight-percent faster than previously and dramatic force is the philosophy behind the reading although even greater pace can be very effective as Kleiber father and son have proven. There is no sentimentality about the sensitively phrased slow movement and the Scherzo is serious and intense – the repeat which Beethoven excised is not reinstated although recently some have chosen to do so (Abbado, Zinman). The Finale is very convincing, being suitably majestic and apart from some modesty on the part of the piccolo Beethoven’s powerful scoring is well revealed.
I find the opening movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony too swift for comfort. It is a speed adopted by many yet the broader view by such as Böhm and Monteux is more convincing. Even those who take the music slower still – Furtwängler, Eugen Jochum, Klemperer – convince and give the impression of a gentle country walk. Nevertheless Blomstedt’s is a most-sensitive exposition of the music and makes the ‘Brook’ movement ripple gracefully with tiny surges and delicate shadings. He is suitably rugged in the rhythmically strong Scherzo – nice dynamics and a tense lead into the ‘Storm’ – timpani wonderfully thunderous in the latter. The woodwinds are a joy to hear in the final ‘Thanksgiving’ where a rare moment of indulgence is taken through considerable relaxation of tempo in order to achieve a peaceful ending and the result is warmly beautiful.
This reading of Symphony No.7 is a worthy successor to Franz Konwitschny; the same strong rhythms and unhurried tempos are held with the utmost firmness. A broad introduction is followed by a measured Vivace which allows the music to expand and generate powerful climaxes. Timpani sound is exceptionally natural and ideally forceful at critical moments, and the horns in their high register send a chill down the spine – I had to pause the recording after the first movement in order to recover. A decently judged Allegretto follows and is suitably cool in mood to calm the emotions. The Scherzo is vivid with dynamics closely observed and the slower Trio is not greatly reduced in tempo – this is in line with the proportionate reduction suggested by the metronome markings; there is however a slowing at the end to make the Scherzo’s return more striking each time. I could have done without the second part of the Trio on its return being restated – to do so upsets the symmetry of the movement, but marvellous that it leads straight into the Finale. I concede that the generous acoustic loses some of the woodwind detail during loud passages but I don’t care; this Symphony is performed in a way that left me thinking: “what great music!”.
The Eighth symphony begins impetuously and the right musical spirit is present. Maybe because there are many opportunities to shine the bassoon is especially well defined, and what an exciting build-up to the triumphant restatement of the main theme which is nicely evident in the bass. The relentlessness of the quaint second-movement Allegretto scherzando makes it all the more amusing. The Minuet is relaxed, the rhythmic aspect less forceful than usual but then emphasis is not essential since Beethoven has written many sforzandos into the score. The horns are accurate if a little shy in the Trio. The slightly forward woodwinds are an advantage in the unhurried Finale but the softer moments for timpani are not always clear.
Coming finally to the ‘Choral’ Symphony gave a good opportunity to reflect on this release. There are occasional tiny blemishes: a chord might spread slightly or a woodwind entry is covered by other instruments but this is live music-making. Regarding the generally excellent recorded balances I note that in Symphony 9 there are occasional moments when the strings do not make their full impact (there are a couple of similar instances in Symphonies 2 and 4) but this is rarely troubling.
Marked sotto voce, the violins’ hushed opening descending phrases seem very remote. This becomes less of a problem as the music progresses and the tutti passages sound very impressive. Blomstedt gives a swift, unrelenting reading – there is immense power when needed and yet there is not quite the intensity that might have been expected. There is admirable robustness however and it matches the forthright Scherzo – much rhythmic thrust here and precise phrasing in the rapid Trio. The slow movement is expounded eloquently until sweeping into the Finale’s violent opening. Christian Gerhaher’s opening solo is not unduly highlighted and at the dramatic full-chorus “vor Gott”, Beethoven’s molto tenuto is given full value. The tenor avoids being militaristic and is properly sung at the required modest volume level – others approach this almost as a call to arms but with Christian Elsner it is simply a confident encouragement. This is a skilled group of vocal soloists although in the passages where they sing as a quartet their voices do not fully blend yet I admire the way in which Šimona Saturova soars seraphically above the others. This is a generally swift performance – nearly seven minutes faster than Blomstedt’s Dresden version – but there is no sense of haste. The acoustic may be responsible for a feeling that high frequencies are not particularly evident, in particular the chorus is not always clear because sibilants are not so positive and certainly the percussion does not make a great deal of impact. Nevertheless this is a notable performance of a great masterpiece and the coda is as thrilling as any.