Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4 & 8

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 8
PERFORMER: London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
CATALOGUE NO: 0587 (hybrid CD/SACD)
With this recording, the London Symphony Orchestra’s cycle of the Beethoven symphonies under Bernard Haitink, recorded in the Barbican in the last couple of years, is complete. It has been a great though naturally not a uniform success: all the performances are characterised by a freshness of approach and a lack of routine, but without the wilful-seeming ‘individuality’ that some conductors go in for when they approach this immense challenge – an increasing tendency with an ever-growing archive of great recordings of these works against which to be measured.

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Recorded by ‘LSO Live’, there has been no more live member of this series than this almost unbelievably ebullient recording the Fourth and Eighth, which have traditionally been considered relaxations after the strenuous odd-numbered symphonies that precede them. The idea persists that Beethoven broke new ground with the Eroica and the Seventh, but not with the Fourth and the Eighth. It has always seemed to me, and never more so than after these life-enhancing accounts, that if subversiveness, jocular aggression and wilful disappointment of expectations are anything to go by, then these two even-numbered symphonies win hands down. In a fine performance, they both contrive to catch you off-balance – however well you think you know them. Neither of them has the sheer demonic force, even violence, of the last movement of the Seventh (an especially Dionysiac account from Haitink), or the heroic confrontation with a hostile destiny of the Third and Fifth, but I have found that there are ways in which they offer more permanent, because more subtle, satisfaction.

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You could say much the same about Haitink, whose interpretations of the classics have often seemed to be restrained, very well presented, perhaps a shade dull. But this whole invigorating series of the Beethoven symphonies, and especially this disc, have given the lie to that. There is a late-found abandon and recklessness in the music-making here which shows that a complete confidence exists between the LSO, in magnificent form, and its conductor, at last burning his boats. If that is taken to imply a manic drive through these works, with ruthlessly rapid tempos, it isn’t meant to. Haitink’s tempos have shown a marked tendency to accelerate over the decades, but the miraculously beautiful and long-drawn slow movement of the Fourth shows that he is still capable of relaxation, expansion. In fact the less hectic movements in all the symphonies show how undogmatic Haitink is in his approach, where some of the ‘authenticists’, by whom he has clearly been influenced, seem insensitive and even rigid. I listened, as reviewers are prone to, to both the symphonies here in one go, and by the end felt both exhilarated and disoriented.Yet there is no exaggeration, only a charge of energy in every chord and in the shaping of every phrase. This disc is the triumphant climax of the series. Michael Tanner