Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C; Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastoral)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in C; Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastoral)
PERFORMER: Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia/; Béla Drahos
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553474
Everyone knows that CDs are over-priced and that the record business is in a state of crisis, largely (in my opinion) brought about by the mindless re-recording of standard repertoire. Naxos’s budget Beethoven symphony cycle (of which these two discs are the first instalments) is therefore a kind of touchstone: if it is an artistic success, it may open the portals to a much-needed reconsideration of the whole question of price and repertoire.

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Unless you require period instruments, or you want a famous historical interpretation, this new series is ideal. Béla Drahos has trained his orchestra in Budapest brilliantly, the performances are scrupulously faithful to the scores and the tempi are flexible and up to date. The balance boasts lots of woodwind, brass and timpani – the very reverse of the Karajan sound – and I particularly enjoyed the sense of lightness and sophistication of Symphonies Nos 1 and 6. The only concern I had was the prominence, in a rather reverberant acoustic, of the wind instruments, especially in the Pastoral. But I concede that this may be the way Beethoven wanted it to sound: if he includes trombones, he wants them to show that his orchestration is especially modern. And that means, perhaps, that their presence should be underlined.

In Volume 2 the rough places in Beethoven’s scores are deliberately left rough (exception: the silly, old-fashioned change to the trumpet line at the end of the coda in the Eroica’s first movement. I thought no one did that any more – Beethoven’s score is perfectly acceptable), and the violent dynamic marks are scrupulously observed.

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These persuasive readings will win this Hungarian Naxos series many admirers. If you are starting a collection, this is the Beethoven cycle to have.