LABELS: RCA Red Seal
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: Soloists; choirs, NDR SO/Günter Wand
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 89109 2 Reissue (1985-8)
Each time I come back to Wand’s complete Beethoven cycle I wonder if it will sound as good as it did the last time. Almost invariably it sounds even better. Much earlier in his career Wand was notorious as a purist; his ‘literal’ approach to Beethoven’s scores was compared unfavourably with the spiritual freedom of his older compatriot Wilhelm Furtwängler. But Wand’s subsequent career can be seen as a demonstration of how mastery of the letter can lead to revelations. In the first movement of the Eroica, for instance, it’s striking how rhythmic drive is balanced by beautiful, heart-lifting melodic phrasing. Wand can make Beethoven’s music sing without pulling the tempo about – still, for me, a big problem with Furtwängler’s Beethoven. Wand isn’t inflexible – far from it; but his belief that the Beethovenian drama is composed against a single background pulse is one of the factors that makes his performances so compelling. In the finale of the Seventh Symphony there isn’t the driving frenzied energy of Carlos Kleiber’s famous recorded version, but something like a cosmic heartbeat animates the entire movement – that and Wand’s wonderful phrasing. In the final pages of the Seventh it’s as though light steadily floods the orchestral texture. I don’t know how he does it, but so far it hasn’t failed to lift my spirits. One could go on listing highlights – the sustained quiet rapture of the ‘Scene by the Brook’ movement from the Pastoral Symphony, the ardent but contained lyricism of the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement, the sense at the hushed opening of the Ninth that a great musical journey is beginning. Enough to say that this is probably the finest Beethoven symphonic cycle of modern times, and perhaps one of the finest ever.
The later live Fourth Symphony makes an interesting comparison: a little more expansive, the touch a shade or two lighter, it’s full of moments when the deepest substance of the music seems to be laid bare. Then comes the Mozart to show us where Wand got his ideal of lightness and grace (Wand was extraordinarily persuasive in Mozart’s so-called ‘entertainment’ music). Both issues are unmissable; the Beethoven cycle ought to be required listening. Stephen Johnson