Sir Charles Mackerras Conducts Beethoven Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

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)

Janice Watson (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Detlef Roth (bass)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Scottish Chamber Orchestra [Symphonies 1-8]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Recorded August & September 2006 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: HYPERION CDS44301/5 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 36 minutes



Sir Charles Mackerras has a refreshing approach to Beethoven’s symphonies. He takes full awareness of musicological discoveries in order to represent Beethoven’s intentions correctly but usually (though not always) uses a ‘modern’ orchestra. He takes care to represent the correct timbres of the period, evident in this recording where 18th-century tonal characteristics are represented. For example, the trumpets sound rounder and less penetrating and the horns are suitably brazen when required. The timpanists (of both orchestras) seem to be using hard sticks – also an 18th- and early-19th-century attribute. These features, added to the use of an orchestra which, in the first eight symphonies, is no larger than what would have been available to Beethoven, ensures a very reasonable representation of ‘authentic’ textures. The use of a larger orchestra for Symphony No.9 is also suitable, since a greater number of instruments were known to have been used in early performances of this work.

With regard to tempo, Mackerras generally respects the metronome marks, sometimes adhering to them exactly. Some movements are slower than the metronomic requirements, but only slightly; these are very much performances of today, faster than would have been heard in the middle of the 20th century, and Mackerras nearly always adheres firmly to a tempo once he has set it.

Mackerras has a fairly simple philosophy regarding the composer’s repeat markings: obey them. There are just two minor exceptions, but they are both justified. The first concerns the second part of the trio section second time round in Symphony 7. This omission makes perfect sense (Felix Weingartner once explained in great detail the necessity for its omission). Basically Beethoven has both parts of the scherzo and of the trio repeated the first time round but second time round he omits the repeat of the second part of the scherzo. To then repeat the second section of the trio again would throw the structure askew, especially as Beethoven continues his ever-decreasing system by requiring no repeats at all in the final statement of the scherzo. But then Mackerras always did have an innate instinct for rightness in these matters.

The scherzo of Symphony No.5 is the only other example of a repeat not being made but it is not a matter for complaint because it unlikely to have been marked in Mackerras’s score. Originally, Beethoven had the whole first statement of both scherzo and trio repeated but later he deleted the da capo marking, perhaps feeling that the further mysteriously quiet restatement of the scherzo was sufficient. Scholars often recommend Beethoven’s first idea being reinstated: presumably because the finale also has an extensive repeat. This is a difficult matter to resolve and many conductors balance the proportions (successfully) by making no repeat in either scherzo or finale. In these two movements Mackerras is content to obey the score as it stands in most editions.

This whole business of making small points more boldly in the new recordings is very interesting. Could it possibly be that the presence of an audience gives a subconscious prompting that causes the conductor to want to underline dramatic points in order to display them to listeners? Would all these emphases go away if Sir Charles were to return to the studio to record yet another set of the symphonies?

In listening through the Edinburgh performances I kept returning to the Liverpool set. The differences mentioned above were consistent, but it is a fascinating insight into the way in which this notable conductor’s feelings about the music were being subtly investigated. The general philosophy of the interpretations has not changed, and the best example of altered performing technique not affecting the interpretative approach is to be found in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony – clearly slower in the later performance, but with an identical musical impression of the interpretation.

All the Edinburgh performances were live and each was allotted a separate concert. Audience noise is limited to slight murmuring before, between and after movements (and some coughing) – there is no applause.

Symphony No.1 is swift, clear-cut and convincing enough to recall the great performances of the past, such as those by Toscanini and Fricsay. But did the recording engineers have time to balance this first live performance before it got going? The brass and drums are noticeably less positive in the first two movements than in the third and fourth – therefore the music gets more exciting as it progresses. There is one mild disturbance when the orchestra enters uncertainly at the start of the trio section in the Minuet – as if the players were expecting the conductor to change speed or make some sort of point. This is a rare example of orchestral indecision within the context of a very positive series of performances.

Symphony 2 is gritty and powerful, the second movement has the forward momentum so lacking in many a sleepy performance and Toscanini is again called to mind, although Mackerras is not so daringly swift. Similarly, the finale has great drive – somehow the average speed chosen gives the impression of being swift.

The ‘Eroica’ disappoints a little because I have heard the conductor give a fiercer, more rugged concert performance. Somehow the Scottish Chamber Orchestra seems not to hit the major chords hard. In Liverpool there was greater force – the ever-more insistent trumpet and drum interjections in the coda of the first movement are much more strongly pointed. But I feel that Mackerras really thinks of the music in terms of the swift and dramatic live version where I was privileged to be present. Period instruments were used and the timpani were allowed to make their point with great force. Of course modern instruments can make the same effect – I recall Hermann Scherchen giving a fierce reading – as swift as Mackerras and with similar hard percussion and brazen horns. Liverpool gives a better representation of the conductor’s vision but neither version seems quite to capture the full essence of what I believe to be the conductor’s true reading. So I was fortunate to hear something like it on that live occasion.

In the sung finale I prefer Terfel in the earlier recording as compared with Roth; but on the other hand Skelton is a superior tenor in the Phiharmonia version. The faster tempo here does perhaps push him towards sharpness but that is not important in a solo that is as heroic as any I have heard. In fact, from here on the interpretation really takes off and the nature of live performance surely lies beneath the magical moment when the first verse of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” returns with full chorus and is absolutely thrilling – it certainly made the proverbial chill run up my spine. This is overwhelming music-making and the sense of unbridled joy continues right through to the powerful coda.

The live, BBC, recording of the symphonies is more than adequate. I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect a “hi-fi spectacular” although that is what great music deserves. There are a few sonic inconsistencies and although my conclusion is one of recommendation I must point out that there are some areas of greater clarity in the Liverpool set. Either production gives an excellent representation of Mackerras’s mature, and frequently very exciting, way of performing Beethoven.

In his introductory note (there is a full essay on the symphonies by Misha Donat) about the latest recording, Brian McMaster (Director of the Edinburgh Festival until 2006) refers to the performances as a “valediction to a lifetime of making music”, but surely his use of this phrase implies finality? Since it is so obvious that Sir Charles Mackerras is still refining his interpretations I am left looking forward to reviewing another set of his Beethoven interpretations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content