Beethoven: Symphony No 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No . 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Archiv
WORKS: Symphony No 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No . 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Luba Orgonasova (soprano), Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Gilles Cachemaille (bass)Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
‘It seems almost incredible,’ writes John Eliot Gardiner in the press handout accompanying this set, ‘that these, the most celebrated symphonies ever composed, are performed regularly from texts that correspond neither to Beethoven’s first nor last wishes, as evinced by the autograph scores or by the first printed editions with corrections in Beethoven’s hand.’


These new recordings have used Clive Brown (Fifth Symphony) and Jonathan Del Mar (all the others) to re-examine all the extant source material and to correct the ‘standard’ texts of Breitkopf & Härtel which, everybody assumed, transmitted the Urtext of Beethoven’s symphonies. The results are spectacular, like the recent cleanings of the Sistine Chapel or the Cappella Brancacci in Florence. Beethoven’s symphonies have emerged cleansed of wrong notes, wrong phrasings, wrong dynamic marks and even wrong tempi. The most glaring wrong tempo comes in the finale of the Ninth, with the alla marcia tenor solo, where the metronome marking which Beethoven dictated to his nephew, Carl, was misread so that the passage has always been taken far too slowly. (Details may be consulted in the exemplary booklet.) The most interesting, large-scale textual change concerns the Scherzo/Trio of the Fifth, now restored to its original form: scherzo/trio/scherzo/trio/transition to finale (this is the form in a set of manuscript orchestral parts corrected by Beethoven, now in the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde).

But a large part of the cleansing process must be attributed to the remarkable Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the clear, incisive, taut readings it gives under Gardiner’s guidance. Again and again I felt as if I were hearing these warhorses for the first time. Never have Beethoven’s brilliant timpani parts seemed so aggressively original – even violent. Never have the woodwind and brass meshed so effortlessly with the strings: the balance of these CDs is impeccable.


On all accounts, therefore, this set is a triumph and certainly the most important Beethoven recording since the arrival of CD: important for getting the texts right (something we now regard as obvious in Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies); important for the revelatory sound of these original instruments; and especially important for the clean, unsentimental, brilliant readings by Gardiner and his orchestra. Not least, DG has given us a marvellously rounded, yet detailed sound, despite the fact that the nine symphonies were recorded at different times and places. Never was the advent of CD more triumphantly vindicated. HC Robbins Landon