Rattle – Beethoven 5th (EMI)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in C minor
Violin Concerto in D

Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: EMI CDC 5 57165 2

Make what you will of the coupling. As a straight transfer of a concert to CD, fair enough; in fact, these are separate events. The Beethoven is live, or said to be, from the first three days of December 2000; the Brahms followed a few weeks later, a studio production, both recorded in Vienna’s Musikverein.

This is a sort of ’sampler’ Beethoven 5. Rattle’s much-heralded VPO symphony cycle doesn’t begin until 2002 and will include a ’new’ Fifth. ’Live recording’ says the booklet, yet there is little audience ambience to suggest this is the case. Maybe a few chosen people were gathered in the stalls; perhaps a decision was made to record each movement whole and not edit – ’go for it’ – certainly there’s spontaneity but little evidence of a full audience with all that entails noise-wise, although there are some extraneous sounds. The recording is excellent, spacious and well balanced; good not to have additional resonance added to this venue’s acoustic as has happened from other labels.

Rattle’s view of the music vies between ’ancient and modern’ performing practices, leaning, in turn, to Classical then Romantic gestures. Speeds are metronomically fleet yet Rattle wants to mould, even sentimentalise, phrases; expression orientates to staccato and sustained legato via a narrow bandwidth. Full, vibrant tuttis (brass and timpani to the fore) rub shoulders with minimal-vibrato strings (which can seem distant, although distribution between antiphonal violins is even) and lean wind sonorities. I like Rattle’s drive, ear for texture and sense of culmination, albeit stylistic bed-hopping compromises the latter en route.

This rather dapper, sometimes glib Fifth precludes a sense of struggle – the familiar ’dark to light’ scenario – with little perception of danger, shadows or eventual victory. Repeats are in place save for the ’uncertain’ reprise of the scherzo (Beethoven failed to mark a conventional repeat … maybe he didn’t); I wouldn’t want to hear Rattle’s weightless, clipped way with the double bass-led passage (from 1’46”) twice.

Rattle’s concern to elicit detail is admirable, although, in the finale, the piccolo’s ’cheeky-chappie’ impersonation sounds impertinent in the context of ever-growing triumph. Or perhaps we’ve got too used to a ’programme’ for this symphony and its wartime connotations … and then there’s ’tradition’ of course, that of Furtwangler, Toscanini, Klemperer et al. George Szell would get my vote, his Philips Concertgebouw recording [464 682-2, now with Sibelius 2]. If Rattle lacks a certain gravitas, he does offer an individual and interesting viewpoint that should be heard, even if his seeking-out some sort of ’authenticity’ can’t disguise that he knows and probably loves what a whole range of twentieth-century conductors have brought to this music. Will he consciously re-think the music before he records it again?

No problems with the Violin Concerto, which surprisingly is Chung’s first recording of it; incidentally, I have hyphenated Kyung-Wha, which EMI do not, yet each reference I have consulted suggests it should be as here. The recording is again lucid and affords a welcome natural balance to her. Rattle’s blending of string textures between 1’17”-1’45” in the first movement is particularly haunting in its stressing of usually-unheard lines. He’s more than an accompanist; this is a collaboration, the VPO sweetly responsive and glowing.

Chung is at her finest in moments of introspection and lyricism, where her expressive and contoured playing comes into its own, especially in the opening movement’s coda; she makes a fine job of Joachim’s cadenza, exploiting the fantasy aspects of it. In the bravura passages she may not always have the dazzling technique that the music demands, but her depth of purpose, commitment and seasoned professionalism see her through. If that sounds cautionary, I should stress that there’s much to admire and return to … just that there’s lots of recordings of the Brahms out there, though not many, if any with a Janus-like Beethoven 5, which Rattle recreates so as to halt its evolution but knows where it has been before it has arrived!

A unique if curious CD with an equally curious booklet note offering a bit of history, artist eulogy and enthusiastic press comment. Make up your own mind!

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