Ah! perfido, Op.65
Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Egmont Overture, Op.84
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
The Consecration of the House Overture, Op.124
Emil Gilels (piano)
Aprile Millo (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Recorded between 1944-1994
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2003
CD No: CSO CD03-2
Fifty years of Beethoven performance as the Chicago Symphony delves once more into its archives. The earliest example is the 1944 Fifth Symphony under Désiré Defauw. It’s a powerful performance that the booklet notes term “controversial” – this is to overstate the case. Defauw certainly knows the virtues of extending silent bars effectively and adding rhetoric for dramatic purposes; otherwise the first movement (without repeat, as elsewhere) is quick without being too fast and is trenchantly played. The ’Andante con moto’ doesn’t live up to its billing – it’s very slow and richly moulded and comes in at 12 minutes. Once past the suggestion that stasis is the likely outcome, Defauw’s intense traversal becomes quite hypnotic – noble, sentimental and searching. Better this than a ’period’ jog-trot with one eye on the metronome and the other on the letter rather than the spirit of the score. Defauw may be hopelessly awry with what Beethoven intended but his individuality is welcome – and, for this listener, convincing.
The remaining two movements continue this potent sense of oratory; the Scherzo is robust, the ’link’ to the Finale fragments purposefully and the Finale itself blazes at a determined speed that still allows rhythmic equilibrium; Defauw extends the timpani part in a couple of places. This is a singular rendition well worth seeking out. If one said it ends defiantly, then maybe the performance date is influencing that opinion!
The other symphony here, No.8, is given an elegant and vibrant reading under Kyril Kondrashin, from 1966 at the Ravinia Festival, an outdoor affair with the occasional noise to prove it. In the first movement, some of Kondrashin’s dynamic shading may seem a little mannered, but his bringing out of detail, thrilling propulsion and clarity of parts is of a high order. My litmus test, the no-need for a rallentando on the closing bars, is more or less passed with flying colours; a more staccato final note would have merited A+. The metronomic movement that follows is beautifully fashioned, just the right amount of dry wit, while the Menuetto (not a Scherzo) has that warmly nostalgic feel ideal for Beethoven’s glance-back. The music dances; timpani detail is tangible; clarinet, horns and cellos are exemplary in the Trio, which is taken at a slower tempo to yield some lovely expression. While a helicopter hovers, the Finale alternates rakish demeanour with energetic differentiation that sets the seal on this being a rattling-good version of this ever-delightful work.
Between the symphonies comes the hauntingly beautiful Elegy (aka Elegiac Song), for chorus and orchestra, one of Beethoven’s best-kept secrets – surely a perfect concert entrée into the Choral Symphony? – Daniel Barenboim leads a very moving performance from 1994, the CSO Chorus mellifluous and unanimous. Aprile Millo, with James Levine conducting, spares no sinew in her belting account of Ah! perfido from Ravinia in 1988. More heartfelt and gentle expression follows (sometimes with an edge) and, with the text in Italian, there is much that goes straight to the heart.
The overtures are shared between Fritz Reiner and Jean Martinon. Egmont and Coriolan are Reiner’s (1957/58, mono) and both receive disciplined performances (as anticipated) that are meticulously ’trained’ without denuding depth of utterance. The great Jean Martinon delivers The Consecration of the House (1966) with ceremonial splendour before dissolving, with pianissimo wonderment, into one of Beethoven’s most sublime passages – such sensitivity being typical of this wonderful musician. The Handelian impulses that follow enjoy rhythmic buoyancy and dynamic chiaroscuro, which need to be heard rather than written about. Hopefully the CSO has even more Martinon to issue – there’s been a goodly amount so far; in the context of this release one thinks of his Missa solemnis, which would surely be good to hear.
Martinon also conducts the ’Emperor’. This ’subscription’ performance from 1966 finds Emil Gilels in remarkable form. His mix of bravura and composure, and delicacy and vigour, has about it the chiselled perfection of Michelangeli. Security in realisation is one thing – Gilels goes beyond this with a rhythmical and lyrical equipoise, an enchanted utterance, that enjoys Martinon’s bristling partnership, which further underlines his admirable qualities. In many ways, this ’Emperor’ is the highlight of a set full of distinguished things.
The recordings are excellent in relation to their time; only Coriolan sounds a little rough and processed in transfer; those in stereo are vividly immediate. Purchase can be made on-line through the CSO’s website.