Symphony No.5 in C minor Brahms
Violin Concerto in D
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
CD No: EMI CDC 5 57165 2 Duration: Reviewed: October 2001
Rattle - Beethoven 5th (EMI)
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Make what you will of the coupling. As a straight transfer of a concert to CD, fair enough; in fact, these are separate events. The Beethoven is live, or said to be, from the first three days of December 2000; the Brahms followed a few weeks later, a studio production, both recorded in Viennas Musikverein.
This is a sort of sampler Beethoven 5. Rattles much-heralded VPO symphony cycle doesnt begin until 2002 and will include a new Fifth. Live recording says the booklet, yet there is little audience ambience to suggest this is the case. Maybe a few chosen people were gathered in the stalls; perhaps a decision was made to record each movement whole and not edit go for it certainly theres spontaneity but little evidence of a full audience with all that entails noise-wise, although there are some extraneous sounds. The recording is excellent, spacious and well balanced; good not to have additional resonance added to this venues acoustic as has happened from other labels.
Rattles view of the music vies between ancient and modern performing practices, leaning, in turn, to Classical then Romantic gestures. Speeds are metronomically fleet yet Rattle wants to mould, even sentimentalise, phrases; expression orientates to staccato and sustained legato via a narrow bandwidth. Full, vibrant tuttis (brass and timpani to the fore) rub shoulders with minimal-vibrato strings (which can seem distant, although distribution between antiphonal violins is even) and lean wind sonorities. I like Rattles drive, ear for texture and sense of culmination, albeit stylistic bed-hopping compromises the latter en route.
This rather dapper, sometimes glib Fifth precludes a sense of struggle the familiar dark to light scenario with little perception of danger, shadows or eventual victory. Repeats are in place save for the uncertain reprise of the scherzo (Beethoven failed to mark a conventional repeat maybe he didnt); I wouldnt want to hear Rattles weightless, clipped way with the double bass-led passage (from 146) twice.
Rattles concern to elicit detail is admirable, although, in the finale, the piccolos cheeky-chappie impersonation sounds impertinent in the context of ever-growing triumph. Or perhaps weve got too used to a programme for this symphony and its wartime connotations and then theres tradition of course, that of Furtwangler, Toscanini, Klemperer et al. George Szell would get my vote, his Philips Concertgebouw recording [464 682-2, now with Sibelius 2]. If Rattle lacks a certain gravitas, he does offer an individual and interesting viewpoint that should be heard, even if his seeking-out some sort of authenticity cant disguise that he knows and probably loves what a whole range of twentieth-century conductors have brought to this music. Will he consciously re-think the music before he records it again?
No problems with the Violin Concerto, which surprisingly is Chungs first recording of it; incidentally, I have hyphenated Kyung-Wha, which EMI do not, yet each reference I have consulted suggests it should be as here. The recording is again lucid and affords a welcome natural balance to her. Rattles blending of string textures between 117-145 in the first movement is particularly haunting in its stressing of usually-unheard lines. Hes more than an accompanist; this is a collaboration, the VPO sweetly responsive and glowing.
Chung is at her finest in moments of introspection and lyricism, where her expressive and contoured playing comes into its own, especially in the opening movements coda; she makes a fine job of Joachims cadenza, exploiting the fantasy aspects of it. In the bravura passages she may not always have the dazzling technique that the music demands, but her depth of purpose, commitment and seasoned professionalism see her through. If that sounds cautionary, I should stress that theres much to admire and return to just that theres lots of recordings of the Brahms out there, though not many, if any with a Janus-like Beethoven 5, which Rattle recreates so as to halt its evolution but knows where it has been before it has arrived!
A unique if curious CD with an equally curious booklet note offering a bit of history, artist eulogy and enthusiastic press comment. Make up your own mind!