LSO/Haitink Beethoven Cycle (5)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London in 2006 – on 24 & 25 April (Symphony No.5) and 29 & 30 April

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: October 2006
Duration: 57 minutes

I haven’t caught up with Bernard Haitink’s LSO Live Beethoven symphony cycle until now – but if this disc, and the plaudits earned by earlier issues, are anything to go by, it is building into one of the most impressive recorded cycles of the moment. Only symphonies 4 and 8 remain to be released.

These performances were recorded at concerts in the Barbican Hall in London in April 2006. The Fifth Symphony comes first on the disc, an odd decision, albeit placing the slighter work second follows the pattern of previous releases in this series, although I’m not sure I wanted to hear No.1 straight after this blistering account of the Fifth.

Haitink’s tempos are swift without sounding rushed. He gets the Fifth moving straight away, with no heavy underlining of the famous opening bars, and he elicits powerfully athletic playing from the London Symphony Orchestra. There’s tenderness, too – the brief oboe solo is a touchingly-phrased oasis of lyricism in the midst of a vehemently ferocious reading of this movement.

The second movement, too, has a sense of urgency tempered by gentler impulses. The scherzo has a springy resilience, with admirably clear and precise cello and double bass tone at the start of the trio – you can actually hear what notes they are playing, which isn’t always been the case. The link into the finale is suitably tense, emerging almost as an anticipation of the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The last movement itself is positively incandescent. Perhaps the recall of the scherzo about halfway through is a touch less menacing than it might be, but the coda sweeps all before it impressively.

Haitink’s broader approach to the introduction of Symphony No.1 and his relaxed view of the main part of the first movement downplays the work’s novelty, as if to remind us that Beethoven is here flexing his symphonic muscles, and that the real revolution is still to come. His tempo for this movement is not particularly swift, but the second movement – Andante cantabile con moto – positively skips along in a very attractive way. The scherzo (Beethoven called it a minuet, but it’s nothing of the kind) finds a nice balance between the elegant and the uncouth; Haitink, rightly, does not follow the recent tendency to play the short opening section twice following the trio. The finale is lively but not hurried, the ending crisp and to the point.

These performances use Jonathan del Mar’s edition of the scores, published by Bärenreiter, and as hinted above, Haitink encourages his players to produce a clean and clear tone, with less string vibrato than usual, a splendidly transparent balance between strings and winds, and focussed timpani. There are few brief, slightly untidy moments in No. 5 and some occasional just-under-the-note solo wind tuning in both works, but these are merely surface blemishes on an impressive whole. The recording has a vivid sense of presence.

The disc can be confidently recommended, especially to anyone looking for ‘historically aware’ performances but not wanting to go the whole hog with period instruments.

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