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)
Karita Mattila (soprano), Violeta Urmana (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor) & Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Swedish Radio Choir
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Symphonies 1-8 recorded in February 2001 in Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome; Symphony No.9 recorded April-May 2000 in Grosse Saal, Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2008
CD No: DG 477 5864
Duration: 5 hours 46 minutes
I could have wished for more relaxation in the opening of the ‘Pastoral’ but conversely I felt at home with the swift representation of the brook in the second movement; both movements are given a somewhat casual reading however. There are many charming phrases here, but Abbado does not seem to shape them with any great affection. Similarly the quaint birdsong at the close of the ‘brook’ movement is despatched rather casually but perhaps the conductor did not want to dwell too much on such simple pictorialism. The scherzo is done with good cheer although it is strange that in a performance blessed with superb woodwind detail, the upward flute flourishes should be so reserved. The ‘Storm’ is splendidly done: often employing great volume but this is not permitted to obliterate inner detail and the swing into the fast-moving finale is very convincing.
No.7 is very demanding regarding choice of tempo and Abbado judges it well. There are a few moments of understated drama including the threatening passage for double basses near the end of the first movement: they seem far too friendly here. A slightly slower than expected tempo for the Allegretto remains acceptable but I was surprised to hear much unnecessary shaping and caressing of the opening one-note theme. The remainder is excellent – the difficult choice of a suitable tempo for the trio section is solved triumphantly and the finale is extremely exciting. Abbado invokes real power and the speed is extremely fast – for once the metronome mark is exceeded: Beethoven suggests minim=72 but Abbado sees the tempo as nearer to 80.
The first movement of No.8 benefits from not being hurried while still remaining eager. For no understandable reason the sound here provides less detail than in No.7 although balance remains acceptable. There is however an oddity in the Minuet. I had found it strange that in his 2000 interview Abbado said that the trio section of the symphony “has to go at almost the same speed. It only seems slower because Beethoven marks it dolce in the score.” The last part of the comment is true enough but why “almost the same speed”? Beethoven’s score does not require any alteration of tempo yet in this performance the tempo is not even fast enough to qualify as “almost”. This is a strange inconsistency on the conductor’s part, especially as he makes no similar unmarked changes of tempo anywhere else. His remarks, and indeed his performance, make it appear that he is uncertain about the interpretation of the movement.
The provenance of this version of Symphony No. 9 is puzzling. The publicity tells us that this is a re-edited version of the 2000 recording from Berlin. It would be interesting to know where the new material came from – the timing for both the original and the re-edited performance is identical at 62 minutes and 15 seconds. The acoustic is a little more resonant than in the other recordings but this is not of any great consequence. What I do find however is an exaggeration of a tendency, evident to a lesser extent in the earlier works, towards a softness of impact during forte chords – a suggestion that Abbado tends to give a legato feeling to big moments. On the other hand this recording improves on the previous eight symphonies in that the timpani can be heard clearly when playing softly.
Important episodes are given considerable thought – the notable return to the recapitulation in the first movement is recognised as one of the great moments in music and suitable fury is invoked yet the last of the many fortissimo chords is held back and is seemingly used as the start of the diminution of ferocity over the coming bars. This interpretation may not please every listener but clearly Abbado has considered his approach to these important bars carefully. The slow movement is fairly swift and very elegant, the big climaxes being welded into the progress of the music rather than representing violent interruptions. The result is a beautiful but perhaps not a deeply moving interpretation – an unusual but certainly a valid approach.
The finale is on a suitable large scale with soloists swept into the fray as symphonic participants rather than operatic accessories. With the exception of the (admittedly arresting) tenor solo, vibrato is kept within reasonable limits with Thomas Quasthoff being exemplary in this respect. It is good to hear the chorus given convincing stereophonic spread and most climactic moments have suitable power with the previously reticent trumpets interjecting with force during the unison chorus twelve minutes into the movement (6’20” into the final track). If anything, the balance seems to be at its best in this movement, even Beethoven’s piccolo writing can be discerned in the final peroration.
When reviewing Mackerras’s most recent set of Beethoven’s symphonies I ventured to suggest that it might still not be his last word on the subject. Abbado’s new release is of performances given seven years ago – perhaps the same comment might also apply.