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)
Sinéad Mulhern (soprano), Carolin Masur (mezzo-soprano), Dominik Wortig (tenor) & Konstantin Wolff (bass-baritone)
Choeur de Chambre les Élements
Le Chambre Philharmonique
Recorded between June 2009 and May 2010 at MC2 Grenoble, Théâtre de Caen, Opéra de Vichy, and Cité de la Musique-Paris
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: NAÏVE V 5258 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 30 minutes
Subtleties of balance and the conductor’s approach to tempo are important facets of these Beethoven symphony recordings. The most consistent element is that of general overall speed – those chosen by Emmanuelle Krivine are amazingly similar to those of Charles Mackerras in his Classics for Pleasure set with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The overall approach is more personal however. Krivine’s tempos certainly respect the metronome marks almost throughout as is the case in many recent recordings – but this a mixed blessing. In No.8 they seem just right although in the 1950s critics were shocked when Hermann Scherchen obeyed them in what is a remarkable performance. But does Krivine really feel comfortable with the metronome’s swift indications in every case I wonder?
He has a lyrical way of leading from one melody to another and in some fast movements this can come out as an inorganic slowing, a device that may have been more acceptable within an overall slower speed. Symphonies 1, 3 and 4 show this tendency in particular. In order to point a climax Krivine will sometime approach the moment at a slightly relaxed tempo, urging the music forward with a hint of crescendo accompanied by a touch of accelerando. I admit that in every case added excitement is achieved. The tendency sometimes to urge forward as the music gets brighter or louder is an acceptable way of dramatising such moments and I was only disturbed by this when a Minuet or scherzo returned at a faster speed than the preceding Trio (Krivine does not slacken for these).
Recorded balance is interesting – I must pass quickly over Symphony 1 – very fine woodwinds, strings that mostly but not always state their melodies boldly, but very vague timpani – the repeated quiet trumpet and drum chords in the slow movement go for nothing. It is difficult to define where in the stereo spectrum the timpani are placed. Krivine is strong when accenting the changes of tonal direction in the outer movements but it is sad that he follows the obsolete habit, often perpetrated by conductors of the early- to mid-20th-century, whereby the returning opening upward sweep of the Minuet after the Trio is unnecessarily played twice thereby ruining the symmetry of the movement. Furtwängler, Carl Schuricht and Bruno Walter all did this, but after Fricsay, Klemperer and Toscanini put matters right the habit began to die out.
For the remaining symphonies there is much to praise. Timpani are never again so vague – they might perhaps have been more positive in 3 & 4 but this complaint seems mostly to apply when they are played quietly – for example the threatening drum-roll in the development of the first movement of No.4 is very suppressed and the vital solo at the end of the slow movement sounds extremely distant. In the same way the intricate, quiet drum pattern as the scherzo of the ‘Eroica’ reaches its forceful close really cannot be distinguished. It is obvious that the timpanist is an exceptional musician. Very noticeable is this musician’s ability to point dramatic moments by subtle inflection, perhaps preceded by a minimal crescendo. This is the essence of fine musicianship and putting aside my few complaints about the sound at quieter moments, the recorded quality is natural and very realistic so that the player’s artistry is clearly displayed.
Krivine is much concerned with contrast. Sforzandos are administered with force, and he is also at pains to produce wide dynamics. In particular he applies this to the strings but there is a disadvantage in this because the wind instruments are pleasingly forward and in ensemble have a full, rich tone. This means that when quiet melodic lines are being enunciated gently by the violins, they get lost. Elsewhere the strings have a more ‘earthy’ sound than most ‘period’ ensembles. None of this is evident in Symphony No.2. Here is some of the finest playing in the set. The firm, strong opening movement is followed by an ideally forward-moving Larghetto played with delicacy and charm – so often this can be played soulfully and sluggishly. Both Toscanini and David Zinman obey the swift metronome mark, but although a touch slower Krivine still achieves ideal lightness of touch. A forceful scherzo and a fierce finale round off a notable interpretation.
I was a little disturbed by Krivine’s way of leaning into new territory in the ‘Eroica’. For example, at the end of the first movement’s exposition on both its appearances the emphatic hesitation seriously interrupts the flow. To his credit however he does not rush the louder parts of the ‘Funeral March’ and the wild military march in the middle of the finale with its upward woodwind sweeps is certainly exhilarating although I could have done with more fire in the final pages. Perhaps the slightly less positive sound of No.4 does less that justice to a perceptive interpretation but, occasionally subdued timpani apart, all goes very well except for the notorious bassoon solo in the finale. Nothing wrong with the playing but it’s terribly distant. These recordings were made using the 16-track system so could not this detail (and indeed various others) have been corrected later in the studio?
I suppose to call a performance of Symphony No.5 ‘very good’ is to damn with faint praise but there is little to object to here. Balance is excellent apart from the over-quiet drums in the lead-in to the finale. The traditional pause before the third of the fermatas in the first movement is inserted, but mercifully there is no preceding ritardando. This is a faithful and dramatic reading; the raiding loudness of the finale may seem overstated but I found it to be a suitable dénouement since the tension throughout all the other movements seemed to demand a finale performed in a way that suggested triumphalism. In a series devoted to ‘authenticity’ of instrumentation and tempo, I should not perhaps complain when the conductor takes the score at face value but in the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony I do not feel that Krivine needed to approximate so closely to the generally rapid metronome marks, especially in the first movement. “Awakening of happy feelings…” wrote Beethoven but here the bouncy jollity, enlivened by a few shadings of speed, does not give a particularly rustic atmosphere, and while the slow movement is better-suited to a swift speed the themes are not always allowed to breathe. Krivine’s forcefulness is better suited to the riotous ‘Peasant Dance’ with its exuberant trio sections and the storm is thrilling with angry woodwinds and thunderous timpani. The flow of the final ‘Shepherds’ Hymn’ is also convincing although at the very close the problem of virtually inaudible quiet strings emerges again as the gentle utterance from solo horn submerges them.
Symphony No.7 could scarcely be better-suited to Krivine’s temperament. He is immensely powerful and the tempos are superbly judged – noble opening movement, urgent Allegretto, perfectly matched Trio, racing finale. The only personal touches are limited to a slight holding back in speed in the quiet passage just before the first movement’s coda and the minimal relaxation of subsidiary subjects in the finale – all designed to enhance the subsequent onslaughts of full orchestra. This is a chamber orchestra using period instruments, but the reading has a big-band conception. It is said that Beethoven intended a contrabassoon to double the bass-line and this instrument is used here although, had I not been informed, I feel sure that I would never have detected it. This, as with all the symphonies, is performed in a resonant setting but the detail in the forceful passages is excellent – indeed the furious maelstrom of sound before the long repeat in the finale hurls every instrument at the ear and helps today’s listeners understand how Beethoven’s contemporaries suggested that this symphony showed signs of madness on the composer’s part. Once again the timpani-writing is very important and this remarkable musician plays with immaculate judgement – the entries in the finale are particularly thrilling. With Symphony 8 I am convinced by obedience to the metronome marks and Krivine is emphatic in the outer movements to the point of anger. Good humour is the very essence of this work but in this reading it does not preclude high drama – there are some magnificently surprising full-orchestra attacks in the first movement and the lower lines come through strongly at the start of the recapitulation where other versions display overpowering violins. The bassoon is well in focus. To perform the work with urgency from beginning to end is not the conventional way of approaching this music but in these circumstances it works very well. There are also subtleties however – for example the quieter playing of the first repeat in the Minuet. In the finale, fury does not undermine good humour – a fast tempo is taken but the music is not rushed and the quiet bassoon and timpani duets make their properly quaint effect.
The ‘Choral’ Symphony is a different matter. The sound is not quite the same – and the composite performance was recorded in three different locations. There is no longer the striking presence of the instruments which was so clearly evident in symphonies 2, 5, 7 and 8. The work commences with almost inaudible violins and Krivine’s normally strong dynamic contrasts are far less marked. It is difficult to determine if the conductor feels that the music is so strong that he does not need to stress the dramatic points so firmly, or this feeling could be attributed to the approach of the engineers or the changes of venue. Violin sound is also a touch more grainy than hitherto – this is not really a matter for concern but their occasional faintness is rather a worry. Altogether the orchestral detail is unremarkable – after the fury of Symphony 7 I had expected the first movement’s extraordinarily dramatic recapitulation to be overwhelming. Certainly it is not underplayed but I cannot say that it is exciting. This is a sensitively fashioned reading with superb woodwind playing but I do not find it gripping. The same impression is given by the scherzo which is lively, strong in rhythm and good in detail (especially the woodwinds) but not particularly memorable. The slow movement responds to Krivine’s straightforward treatment – no longer does he impose shadings of tempo leading from one theme to another and the flowing speed leaves room for sensitive phrasing. At 6’44”, just after the horn solo, the main theme returns on woodwinds and the intricate counter-melody on the violins can scarcely be heard – but this could be intentional – exactly the same happened in Jascha Horenstein’s recording and his concert performances confirmed that this was how he viewed the music at that point. Krivine’s account of the finale is carefully thought-out. The opening thematic references are phrased with great care and sense of theatre – a certain reserve precedes the joyful acclamation of the chosen theme. The vocal soloists are generally light-toned but eloquent and are balanced naturally – the heroic tenor solo starts almost confidentially but develops in strength. There is more immediacy in the recording of this movement with the exception of the high percussion – the ear has to search for the cymbals and triangle. In all, although this is a faithful approach to Beethoven’s intentions, I find myself wishing I could use a word stronger than ‘enjoyable’.
The production has collated these public performances well enough and has chosen to remove all audience noise between movements. Regrettably applause remains after each work – very tiresome on recordings and entirely unnecessary. We get twenty or so seconds of applause after the first eight symphonies and forty after No.9. The unvaried nature of the clapping suggests that the audience must have been impressed by each performance in an identical way. Symphonies 2, 7 and 8 are absolutely outstanding – splendidly vital and comparable with most rivals whether played by period instruments or modern symphony orchestras. The reading of No.5 is also very vivid. All the remaining performances have something interesting to say; No.1 is the only real disappointment. These traversals suggest that it is possible to use ‘authentic’ instruments in such a way so as to appeal to aficionados of modern-orchestra performances.