Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Janice Watson (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Detlef Roth (bass)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Scottish Chamber Orchestra [Symphonies 1-8]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Recorded August & September 2006 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh International Festival
CD No: HYPERION CDS44301/5 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 36 minutes
Reviewed: October 2007
Beethoven - Complete Symphonies Sir Charles Mackerras has a refreshing approach to Beethoven's symphonies. He takes full awareness of musicological discoveries in order to represent Beethoven's intentions correctly but usually (though not always) uses a 'modern' orchestra. He takes care to represent the correct timbres of the period, evident in this recording where 18th-century tonal characteristics are represented. For example, the trumpets sound rounder and less penetrating and the horns are suitably brazen when required. The timpanists (of both orchestras) seem to be using hard sticks – also an 18th- and early-19th-century attribute. These features, added to the use of an orchestra which, in the first eight symphonies, is no larger than what would have been available to Beethoven, ensures a very reasonable representation of 'authentic' textures. The use of a larger orchestra for Symphony No.9 is also suitable, since a greater number of instruments were known to have been used in early performances of this work.
With regard to tempo, Mackerras generally respects the metronome marks, sometimes adhering to them exactly. Some movements are slower than the metronomic requirements, but only slightly; these are very much performances of today, faster than would have been heard in the middle of the 20th century, and Mackerras nearly always adheres firmly to a tempo once he has set it.
Mackerras has a fairly simple philosophy regarding the composer's repeat markings: obey them. There are just two minor exceptions, but they are both justified. The first concerns the second part of the trio section second time round in Symphony 7. This omission makes perfect sense (Felix Weingartner once explained in great detail the necessity for its omission). Basically Beethoven has both parts of the scherzo and of the trio repeated the first time round but second time round he omits the repeat of the second part of the scherzo. To then repeat the second section of the trio again would throw the structure askew, especially as Beethoven continues his ever-decreasing system by requiring no repeats at all in the final statement of the scherzo. But then Mackerras always did have an innate instinct for rightness in these matters.
The scherzo of Symphony No.5 is the only other example of a repeat not being made but it is not a matter for complaint because it unlikely to have been marked in Mackerras's score. Originally, Beethoven had the whole first statement of both scherzo and trio repeated but later he deleted the da capo marking, perhaps feeling that the further mysteriously quiet restatement of the scherzo was sufficient. Scholars often recommend Beethoven's first idea being reinstated: presumably because the finale also has an extensive repeat. This is a difficult matter to resolve and many conductors balance the proportions (successfully) by making no repeat in either scherzo or finale. In these two movements Mackerras is content to obey the score as it stands in most editions.
Beethoven - Symphonies 1 - 9 That this conductor is keenly aware of structure is verified by consulting his previous complete recording of the symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics for Pleasure). Interestingly, the tempos in the Edinburgh versions tend almost invariably to be a little slower but the proportionate speeds of the movements remain the same matched movement-to-movement. Those who follow this conductor's career probably have that set and it represents a very relevant basis of comparison. The Liverpool recordings were made during 1992, 1994, 1997 and 1998 – just long enough ago for Mackerras to have had some differing thoughts by 2006.
After comparison I find only one interpretation changed in concept because of a different tempo in a particular movement. This is in the first movement of No. 7. The introduction is taken at an identical speed in both readings but in the main Allegro section Mackerras is six percent slower in his 2006 performance. This is a big difference in speed and it represents an even bigger difference in interpretation because the new, steadier version has a more comfortable feeling to the rhythm. Those fearsome ever-more insistent chords that attack the progress of the movement at the recapitulation are the more powerful and terrifying because of the slightly greater time taken to make their emphatic point. Symphony 7 is certainly one of Mackerras's finest readings and both of his CDs stand high in the ranks of recorded versions.
One more small detail differentiates the conductor's two sets and this is his approach to movement endings. Consistently in Edinburgh, Mackerras espouses the long-standing tradition of slightly slowing the last chord or two of a movement with particular emphasis on the final note. This is so often done by musicians that no-one ever remarks on this habit of giving finality to a piece of music, yet Mackerras scarcely, if at all, relaxed in this way when recording his Liverpool set. Symphony No.2 has the most marked examples of this 'tradition' but most symphonies show signs of it. I must stress that these emphases are not objectionable and they sound musical. The point is that they are different.
In the same way, climactic or important chords are emphasised in the Edinburgh set. I cite in particular Symphony 5 because this habit is at its least convincing in the first movement. Those fermatas near the start really do not need the slight 'commas' before them. Many years ago Erich Kleiber thrilled listeners by playing these chords strictly in tempo thus creating an exhilarating, impatient forward momentum. Since that time I have never found the Wagnerian tradition of slowings and pauses acceptable. With Mackerras the tradition takes the form of no more than a slight 'breath' before these chords – very slight indeed and certainly avoiding the pomposity of many conductors of the past. Yet this tiny nod towards well-worn tradition is just enough to undermine the impetus. This new tendency to emphasise important points appears in many places, most notably in the Fourth Symphony – but it gains in stature from being emphatic at musically significant points and therefore, in this work, the technique proves a distinct advantage.
Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive Barda This whole business of making small points more boldly in the new recordings is very interesting. Could it possibly be that the presence of an audience gives a subconscious prompting that causes the conductor to want to underline dramatic points in order to display them to listeners? Would all these emphases go away if Sir Charles were to return to the studio to record yet another set of the symphonies?
In listening through the Edinburgh performances I kept returning to the Liverpool set. The differences mentioned above were consistent, but it is a fascinating insight into the way in which this notable conductor's feelings about the music were being subtly investigated. The general philosophy of the interpretations has not changed, and the best example of altered performing technique not affecting the interpretative approach is to be found in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony – clearly slower in the later performance, but with an identical musical impression of the interpretation.
All the Edinburgh performances were live and each was allotted a separate concert. Audience noise is limited to slight murmuring before, between and after movements (and some coughing) - there is no applause.
Symphony No.1 is swift, clear-cut and convincing enough to recall the great performances of the past, such as those by Toscanini and Fricsay. But did the recording engineers have time to balance this first live performance before it got going? The brass and drums are noticeably less positive in the first two movements than in the third and fourth – therefore the music gets more exciting as it progresses. There is one mild disturbance when the orchestra enters uncertainly at the start of the trio section in the Minuet – as if the players were expecting the conductor to change speed or make some sort of point. This is a rare example of orchestral indecision within the context of a very positive series of performances.
Symphony 2 is gritty and powerful, the second movement has the forward momentum so lacking in many a sleepy performance and Toscanini is again called to mind, although Mackerras is not so daringly swift. Similarly, the finale has great drive – somehow the average speed chosen gives the impression of being swift.
The 'Eroica' disappoints a little because I have heard the conductor give a fiercer, more rugged concert performance. Somehow the Scottish Chamber Orchestra seems not to hit the major chords hard. In Liverpool there was greater force – the ever-more insistent trumpet and drum interjections in the coda of the first movement are much more strongly pointed. But I feel that Mackerras really thinks of the music in terms of the swift and dramatic live version where I was privileged to be present. Period instruments were used and the timpani were allowed to make their point with great force. Of course modern instruments can make the same effect – I recall Hermann Scherchen giving a fierce reading – as swift as Mackerras and with similar hard percussion and brazen horns. Liverpool gives a better representation of the conductor's vision but neither version seems quite to capture the full essence of what I believe to be the conductor's true reading. So I was fortunate to hear something like it on that live occasion.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 Symphony 4 is a complete success. The use of a wide dynamic range is a particular feature from the just-audible start, through the tremendous power of the chords which introduce the faster section and onward. Throughout, the hard-hitting treatment of the full-orchestra passages increases the stature of the work. Robert Schumann famously described the Fourth Symphony as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants" and described it as "placid and serene". Given Mackerras's interpretation Schumann seems to be speaking of an entirely different symphony. Edinburgh was treated to a commanding and weighty reading, which underlined the sheer force of the genius that created the work.
Turning to one of Schumann's nearby Norse Giants, Symphony 5 is stated with relatively less force. I have already explained the reasons for my disappointment with expressive relaxations of rhythm. In the slow movement the opposite is evident when the louder parts move on a little hurriedly; additionally, the lower strings are not powerful enough when they have the melody. This remains an enjoyable performance but I was not gripped by it. I particularly missed the amazing increase of tension as the close of the work approaches. There are massive chords here and these should surely be played with increasing tautness and enhanced volume. Ultimately, the score is obeyed but the listener is not swept along. To hear the effect I mean, go to Erich Kleiber's Decca recording of fifty and more years ago.
Speaking of Kleiber, his version of the 'Pastoral' Symphony from around that same time found him taking a swift speed for the opening movement. I had always felt that a touch less pace would have been more suitable, yet when Mackerras takes the same tempo he seems even less relaxed (Beethoven's remarkably fast metronome mark is minim=66; Mackerras and Kleiber choose 58). Somehow Kleiber made the swift approach acceptable; Mackerras feels a trifle tense here and in Liverpool this tendency was evident to an even greater extent. It is no mean reading of the symphony though – the fast trio to the 'peasant' scherzo is surprising but convincing and the finale flows joyfully.
I explained my enthusiasm for No.7 above when remarking on the most notable difference of tempo compared with Liverpool. I feel it is a compliment that I can compare both of these performances with the great one by Carlos Kleiber. Just one moment of personal satisfaction with the Edinburgh presentation: for years I have wanted to hear the double basses in one of the earlier statements of the theme of the second movement more clearly and here this is so.
Symphony 8 is just a little smoother than I expected. The Liverpool version has greater attack and in the finale Beethoven's subtle use of quiet timpani is not so clearly defined in the Edinburgh recording. Nevertheless this swift appraisal of the music, always close to the metronome markings, has conviction.
The Philharmonia Orchestra appears for the 'Choral' Symphony. This is a very dramatic performance which, more than any other, shows that it is a live event. There are even a few moments of imperfect ensemble but none matters and in the recapitulation section of the first movement I don't mind melodic detail being lost because the amazing sense of fury makes up for it. I thought the end of the movement a bit plain though, with dynamics not increasing. In Liverpool the timpani was more exciting in the solos during the scherzo but in all there is little to complain about.
Bass-baritone Detlef Roth In the sung finale I prefer Terfel in the earlier recording as compared with Roth; but on the other hand Skelton is a superior tenor in the Phiharmonia version. The faster tempo here does perhaps push him towards sharpness but that is not important in a solo that is as heroic as any I have heard. In fact, from here on the interpretation really takes off and the nature of live performance surely lies beneath the magical moment when the first verse of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" returns with full chorus and is absolutely thrilling – it certainly made the proverbial chill run up my spine. This is overwhelming music-making and the sense of unbridled joy continues right through to the powerful coda.
The live, BBC, recording of the symphonies is more than adequate. I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect a "hi-fi spectacular" although that is what great music deserves. There are a few sonic inconsistencies and although my conclusion is one of recommendation I must point out that there are some areas of greater clarity in the Liverpool set. Either production gives an excellent representation of Mackerras's mature, and frequently very exciting, way of performing Beethoven.
In his introductory note (there is a full essay on the symphonies by Misha Donat) about the latest recording, Brian McMaster (Director of the Edinburgh Festival until 2006) refers to the performances as a "valediction to a lifetime of making music", but surely his use of this phrase implies finality? Since it is so obvious that Sir Charles Mackerras is still refining his interpretations I am left looking forward to reviewing another set of his Beethoven interpretations.

 

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