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: Barbara Bonney (soprano), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Kurt Streit (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone); City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Vienna PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 5 57445 2
Rattle’s long-awaited Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic is on the whole a triumph – a superbly played account by one of the world’s great orchestras, under a conductor whose historically aware performances never fail to stamp the music with real personality. The obvious comparison is with the fine DG version from Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is likewise based on the new critical edition by Jonathan Del Mar, whose painstaking research enables conductors to make informed decisions based on all the available sources. In recent years there has in any case been a predilection for leaner, less granite-like orchestral sonorities, as well as a move towards taking Beethoven’s controversially fast metronome markings into account. It’s true that those markings need to be treated with caution: with the exception of the Ninth Symphony, they were added several years after the event, and it’s possible that Maelzel’s new-fangled metronome wasn’t wholly accurate.
One advantage the Rattle set has over Abbado’s is the greater immediacy of its recorded sound, with textural clarity aided by having first and second violins answer each other from opposite sides as they would have done in Beethoven’s day. (It beats me why Abbado fails to do this: even the much more traditional recent recording by Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle adopts the antiphonal layout.) The driving pace of the Second Symphony’s opening Allegro, the drama and urgency of the dissonant approach to the recapitulation in the finale of No. 4, the biting sound of the tremolo ‘open’ strings in the recapitulation of the Seventh Symphony’s Vivace, the snarling stopped horns in the Eroica’s funeral march – these are among the many moments in Rattle’s performances that go some way towards recreating the sheer physical impact the pieces must have had on their early audiences. No less impressive is the glowing warmth of the VPO’s playing in the slow movements – a sound that accords perfectly with Rattle’s often quite Romantic approach to the music.
Where Rattle departs most radically from the revisionist view of Beethoven – and thankfully so, in my view – is in the Adagio of the Ninth, where his extremely broad initial tempo brings out the music’s devotional quality and allows for greater contrast with the more flowing second theme. Rather less convincing is the sluggish tempo of the ‘Turkish march’ episode in the finale, which leaves tenor Kurt Streit struggling to convey the sense of happiness embodied in the text of his solo. The deliberate pace here also involves an ungainly acceleration for the ensuing fugal episode.
There are further tempo fluctuations in No. 7 – highly effective in the opening movement’s recapitulation and coda, where Rattle relaxes the pace for the music’s mysterious changes of key; more contentious, perhaps, in the second movement, whose major-mode episodes are noticeably slower than the surrounding material, despite the fact that they maintain the same hypnotically repeated dactylic rhythm. Rattle takes an unusually expansive view of the Pastoral, too – a work he regards as being perhaps the most spiritual Beethoven ever wrote. However, the storm – the Symphony’s one moment of high drama – surely needs to impart rather more urgency and tension than here. But these are small points. For all the merits of the Abbado set (among them an even stronger line-up of soloists in the Ninth, and a chorus less prone to verbal exaggeration; and greater energy in the outer movements of No. 7) Rattle’s must now be the strongest recommendation among modern Beethoven cycles.