Beethoven The Nine Symphonies/Riccardo Chailly [Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Decca]

0 of 5 stars

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)
Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Overture Namensfeier, Op.115
Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Fidelio – Overture
Overture, Leonore No.3
Die Ruinen von Athen, Op.113 – Overture
König Stephan, Op.117 – Overture

Katarina Beranova (soprano), Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Robert Dean Smith (tenor) & Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)

GewandhausChor; GewandhausKinderchor; MDR Runfunkchor

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Recorded June 2007 to November 2009 in Gewandhaus zu Leipzig


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: DECCA 476 3402 (5 CDs)
Duration: 6 hours 12 minutes

Several recently recorded Beethoven symphony sets use modern instruments but have strong ‘period’ influences – David Zinman was one of the first to take this approach and he also incorporated the up-to-date findings that Jonathan Del Mar included in his editions for Bärenreiter. Riccardo Chailly also uses a modern orchestra but he returns to the standard Peters scores while still showing respect for performance practice of Beethoven’s time. One of his notable predecessors at Leipzig, Franz Konwitschny, took a similar view and was perhaps the first to have recorded the music in this way. By comparison, even the famously objective Arturo Toscanini compromised a little in that he permitted the use of some of the traditional re-orchestrations; also repeat indications in the scores were not always observed. Konwitschny made the repeats (very rare in the 1960s and a matter for discussion at the time) and his strong, direct approach avoided all those time-honoured tempo changes. Sadly the record-buying public was limited in its appreciation of this for the first re-issue cut out quantities of repeats and I have yet to hear his complete performance of any symphony except No.7. There is a CD transfer that I trust has restored the cuts.

Half-a-century later Chailly is very much Konwitschny’s successor. His Beethoven symphonies recall the magnificent sound that the orchestra provided for his predecessor but with the added advantage of modern technology. There is one big difference however because, like Zinman and many current conductors, Chailly pays great attention to Beethoven’s metronome marks. This is a fairly recent trend – I do not recall it being much of an issue prior to Roger Norrington and Christopher Hogwood and recent attempts to be faithful to these markings seem sometimes to put conductors in a musical straitjacket of their own making. That is not to say that this aspect should be ignored but adoption of metronome-inspired tempos can only work when conductors feel that these are the speeds that they themselves would have chosen. We know that Chailly is influenced by them because the booklet notes go into the subject in great detail – the indications are all specified exactly – including those of No.9 which, I understand, were not published under Beethoven’s direction. On the whole the suggested tempos appear very fast but that is hardly surprising since it is well-known that a person’s thought-processes usually imagine a faster tempo than would occur in public performance. At the time Beethoven was using this form of guidance his hearing was so poor that he could scarcely hear his own music so the tempo in his mind may never have been put to the test.

Having raised some doubts about this subject I have to say that if the metronome is obeyed in Symphony No.1 the effect is overwhelmingly convincing. Chailly does just that and many other conductors perceive the music in this way too – Toscanini and Ferenc Fricsay are the earliest examples to come to mind. With Chailly, conviction is enhanced by his fierce sforzandos – a notable feature throughout the work. In movements 1, 2 and 4 Beethoven uses the effect daringly at the start of the development in each case. The Minuet is a world away from the elegance of the 18th-century dance and I admire the way in which the orchestra launches so boldly into the Trio (I forgive the inexplicable inaudibility of its early string flourishes). This is strong Beethoven, the Nineteenth Century has arrived even though the work dates from its very first year.

Power also informs Symphony No.2 and in the slow movement the metronome again fully justifies itself. Zinman and Toscanini take the same view but how strange that so few others do likewise. Around nine minutes is par for the course but Mackerras took ten and Abbado nearly 11. At Beethoven’s prescribed speed Chailly presents a light-hearted, dancing movement – somewhat akin to the lively Allegretto of Symphony No.8. Sturdy, powerful playing in the other three movements makes the work sound far more mature than usual.

In Chailly’s hands the ‘Eroica’ proves that there is no question as to Beethoven’s early compositional maturity. Driving hard, almost to the point of fury, this is Beethoven with determination. There is none of the almost ubiquitous easing for the second subject. Not surprisingly, considering the great resonance in the hall, some of the quieter entries emerge rather than strike the ear because many of the full-orchestra chords are extremely forceful. This is as impatient a performance of this first movement as I have ever heard and it is very convincing: Chailly is even a minute-and-a-half swifter than Charles Mackerras. The ‘Funeral March’ does not linger and is steady and processional throughout – Chailly is never tempted, as was his compatriot Toscanini, to speed up for the forceful sections. The scherzo is strong and Beethoven’s angry syncopations are played fiercely; in the trio the horns sweep in magnificently. The finale is a tour-de-force featuring rapid tempos and strikingly rich sound. The march-like theme at around 3½ minutes in (probably five in any other performance) fairly races forward, although the flute’s upward rushes are not as clearly defined as should be, but I was hugely impressed by the way Chailly urges the music on when he reaches the Poco andante (bar 349). Many conductors relax so much here that what follows can sound like an interpolated slow movement. With Chailly it is simply a broadening which underlines the grandeur of the theme. This is as exciting a reading of the finale as I have heard.

Robert Schumann’s reference to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as being “A slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants” is a useful way to compare performances. I suggested recently that judging by Mackerras’s version, Schumann seemed to be speaking of an entirely different work. Chailly differs by being sonically substantial, dramatic and full of vivid contrasts. His performance justifies Robert Simpson’s comments when he said that the music is “neither maidenly nor Greek.” The full-blooded opening movement, which commences with a beautifully hushed introduction, is followed by a swiftly flowing Adagio and a scherzo in which Chailly follows the recent tendency to ignore Beethoven’s Un poco meno Allegro marking for each of the two trios; this means that tension, once built up, is not allowed to slacken. Beethoven might perhaps have intended the non troppo addition to the Allegro marking of the finale to be a moment of sympathy for the bassoonist in the terrifyingly rapid solo but when he came to add a metronome marking he indicated minim=84, certainly very rapid – Chailly obeys it.

There are elements of ferocity in Chailly’s readings and in No.5 this is a suitable characteristic. He does not imbue the texture with quite so much weight here and this aids the detail. It also suits the conductor’s avoidance of traditional rhetorical tempo manipulations. Indeed he stresses this aspect in the booklet saying: “All these fermatas must be kept in tempo.” His driving tempo is held unrelentingly. The slow movement is a true Andante with a beautifully judged transition to the faster speed towards the end. Chailly observes the repeats in these symphonies but, as with most conductors, he chooses not to reinstate the indication requiring a second playing of the scherzo and trio that Beethoven decided later to delete from the score. The finale is dramatic: it is urged impatiently and excitingly forward: nobility remains the prerogative of other conductors. The piccolo comes and goes but the other additional instruments – trombones and contrabassoon – are well in evidence.

I often have a problem with conductors who take the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony quickly and with Chailly I find it particularly uncomfortable. Not only is it very swift indeed (quicker than the very fast metronome mark) but there is a sense of hurry and Chailly’s usual admirable ability to instil firmness of rhythm seems not to be evident. The feeling may reflect the “joyful” element of the music that Beethoven mentions, but haste results in unsuitable tension – this is not a relaxed day in the countryside. The choice of a swiftly flowing Brook makes sense in the second movement but peace had already been disturbed; I do like the birdsong at the end of its close though. As expected the Peasants are very lively in their dance although maybe a bit more agricultural heaviness from the bassoon would have helped. Chailly is in his element in the Storm – massive chords are supplied where required and there are admirably forceful drums. No hurrying is evident in the finale: I wish this graciousness could have been applied to the first movement.

With the exception of a faster trio section, Symphony No.7 finds Chailly taking the same tempo pattern as Carlos Kleiber in his truly great recorded performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. Recently I much admired Mackerras too and despite some questionable elements elsewhere in his complete set, Emmanuel Krivine also gave an exceptional reading. Chailly is among this admirable company too: the rhythm of the main portion of the first movement is superbly handled – a very demanding feature in performances of this work and it is achieved magnificently. The tradition of taking the succeeding Allegretto too slowly has long gone – this version is beautifully poised. The scherzo is full of fire – I like the strong entries at the start of the second section of the scherzo on its every appearance but I don’t see any reason why the second part of the trio needed to be repeated on its final appearance (Carlos Kleiber doesn’t do so and I recall praising Mackerras for avoiding it). On its second appearance Beethoven reduced the pattern of the scherzo so surely the subsequent trio should reflect the same pattern. The finale is effective when its starts attacca but Chailly – refreshingly generous with his pauses between movements – does not see the necessity; the excitement is intense however.

No.8 starts with an interesting fade at the close of the first pattern of a dozen notes – nice idea. There is a slightly more prominent bassoon in this work too – very appropriate for this music. Hermann Scherchen’s 1954 recording, which shocked listeners at the time because of its rapid speeds, is virtually identical in pace to Chailly and this really does seem to be right for the music. The tiny Allegretto certainly need not be lingered over. The Minuet, allied to a rich orchestral texture, sounds lively and its Trio again displays the accuracy of the horns. Not for the first time Chailly brings an element of controlled fury to Beethoven at the most appropriate places and in the finale faster is always better; its dynamic contrasts are made vivid.

In the ‘Choral’ Symphony Chailly is for the only time a little slower than the metronome-inclined Zinman. How encouraging to hear the forceful attack of the Gewandhaus Orchestra at the first tutti with the clear, realistic tone of the timpani vehemently cutting through the weight of the orchestral chords. Utmost drive is evident here; contrasts of colour are strongly underlined. The pace is unrelenting but the rhythm is immensely strong. In the most dramatic moment of all – the start of the terrifying recapitulation – Chailly fully respects Beethoven’s demand that the timpani should play fortissimo throughout, reinforced by the occasional sforzando. Many recordings are surprisingly timid here. Most conductors convince in their different ways when it comes to the scherzo although I could never understand why Zinman sounded so underpowered and I hoped that the impression could be accounted for by the engineering. With Chailly the woodwind detail is excellent and the timpani are some of the most natural-sounding that I have heard. The problem of the trio’s unexpectedly faster tempo is solved satisfactorily and the phrasing is immensely precise. To my regret a matter of authenticity raises its head after the trio. Somewhere I believe there is an Urtext (but not one used for Del Mar’s Bärenreiter edition) that seems to indicate a further repeat after the trio of the 151-bar-long first section of the scherzo although I have never seen this in any study score. I don’t understand how it got there and in order not to ruin the symmetry of the movement it surely should be omitted. Chailly takes no repeats after trios in any other movements, but he makes this disputed example – and the shape of the movement is ruined. I recall the first time that this problem arose – this was in James Loughran’s recording: no-one had aired this matter before so I sympathise with the critic who suggested that the use of this repeat was due to an editing error. A flowing slow movement follows. The finale is ideally powerful with excellent male soloists and is full of drive and excitement – the coda is exemplary in being both very fast and very clear. High percussion is not very audible as so often is the case.

The assortment of overtures represents a generous bonus and all the performances are admirable. Prometheus and Leonore 3 are forceful and direct: Chailly’s philosophy. Leonore 3 is driven forward, unrelentingly; the unusually distant trumpet calls are very effective. Placed between symphonies 3 and 4, Fidelio sounds bolder than is often the case and in Coriolan, placed before No.5, Chailly marks out the timpani strokes particularly strongly. One day a conductor will again dare to underline the intense passage leading to the final climax by using a continuous timpani roll in crescendo. I do not know whether it is authentic but I do know that it sounds very exciting and typical of Beethoven. I have heard it done only on Furtwängler’s HMV recording and in an unreleased version by Carlos Paita. Egmont is forward-moving, here drama is achieved through attack rather than emphatic gesture. It is good to hear Beethoven’s striking use of the piccolo so clearly in the final stretch. For a very long time the only access to The Ruins of Athens was the recording by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by its leader of fifty years Arnold Rosé. Namensfeier (Name Day) – an occasional piece of no particular merit – and King Stephen in which one of its themes resembles one in finale of the ‘Choral’ Symphony. I recall reading that when the Royal Philharmonic Society of London was sent both these potpourri overtures its members were less than pleased. Chailly plays both lightly and deftly.

This is an important set of Beethoven’s symphonies played by one of the finest orchestras (“the first to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, in 1825 and 1826 – when Beethoven was still alive”), notable for its powerful tone, and recorded in an ideally resonant acoustic. Chailly’s choice of tempos is related to the recent style of Beethoven interpretation and is often similar to choices made by ‘period’-instrument ensembles. Despite my fears that strict attention to metronome marks (explained in the comprehensive booklet) might restrict the conductor, I have the impression that Chailly chooses his speeds because he really feels the music at that pace. A few do not work, but overall there is welcome consistency and a truly admirable pattern of not altering a tempo once it has been set. I regard these readings as being part of the great German traditions of Beethoven performance. This is a notable release that deserves considerable attention.

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