Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica); Symphony No. 8

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica); Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Minnesota Orchestra/ Osmo Vänskä
CATALOGUE NO: BIS SACD-1516
Symphonies Nos 3 (Eroica) & 8

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Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä

BIS SACD-1516 (hybrid CD/SACD)

76:16 mins £ £ £

As in the first instalment of his Beethoven symphonies cycle (see March 2005), Vänskä coaxes some superb playing from his Minnesota Orchestra. Particularly striking is the pianissimo sound: I don’t think I’ve ever heard the balletic opening bars of the Eighth Symphony’s second movement done with such lightness and elegance, or the finale’s palpitating main theme so delicately. At the other end of the scale, Vänskä can sometimes be a shade too forceful, producing extremes of dynamic contrasts. Take the opening bars of No. 8: Beethoven marks them simply forte, but Vänskä launches the piece with all guns blazing, and the quiet answering woodwind phrase sounds almost as though it doesn’t belong at all. Other conductors – Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, or Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic – leave something in reserve for the start of the recapitulation, where the same theme appears in the cellos and basses with one of Beethoven’s rare fff indications. However, it’s a small point, and Vänskä’s performance of this work can certainly hold its own with the very best.

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The Eroica is impressive, too, with splendid playing from the three horns in the scherzo’s trio, and a deeply-felt account of the funeral march slow movement, its theme played genuinely sotto voce. Only in the outer movements does Abbado perhaps have the edge, with his swifter tempos lending the finale in particular an impetuosity that neither Vänskä nor Rattle quite matches. But these finely recorded new performances demand to be heard – highly recommended. Misha Donat