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

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI Classics for Pleasure
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: Joan Rodgers (soprano), Della Jones (alto), Peter Bronder (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass); RLPO & Choir/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: CD BOX LVB 1 Reissue (1991-8)
The CD of Symphonies Nos 2 and 8, reviewed in June, completed the EMI/Mackerras series of the complete Beethoven symphonies, begun (with the Ninth) in 1991 and now reissued as a single box. This set is a bargain and will undoubtedly go down in recording history as a milestone, and for a variety of reasons. First we can hear, complete, the new critical edition of the music by Jonathan Del Mar, which cleans up the scores. Second, here is Mackerras following Beethoven’s scores with spectacular engagement. The result is a powerful, raw and even explosive sound, the fff lunging at you, the trumpets braying as you have never heard them before. Third, the balance, with a new focus on the wind and brass (much more ‘forward’) makes the scores sound fresher and more direct.

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The recordings confirm all this. They have nothing to do with the slick, smooth texture of Karajan’s versions, nor with the huge and often ponderous readings of Klemperer. Mackerras tries to follow the very controversial but now generally accepted swift metronome marks Beethoven later added to the music.

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The nearest rival in honesty and fidelity (although not yet with the Del Mar revisions) is Günter Wand (on RCA). On period instruments, Gardiner’s already famous set on DG using the new Del Mar editions commands deep attention and is certainly the finest period performance. The once idolised Toscanini set sounds dated and the studio sound is grim. If you don’t insist on the Karajan/Klemperer massive approach and you don’t like period instruments, Mackerras is a very strong contender. A fine achievement. HC Robbins Landon