Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Hänssler faszinationmusik
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
PERFORMER: SWR Stuttgart RSO/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.086
These are typically thought-provoking performances, and there’s no doubting the visceral excitement they convey. If nothing else, their physical impact makes one appreciate why Beethoven’s contemporaries objected to the music’s sheer noise factor, particularly when it came to the Seventh Symphony. This is actually one of the most successful of Norrington’s performances, with the second movement taken at a genuine Allegretto, and the outer movements splendidly energetic. Yet that Allegretto, with its strong downbeat accents and its added hairpin dynamics, actually sounds heavier than it does in Abbado’s steadier performance, with its genuine pianissimo sound (a quality generally lacking in Norrington’s accounts).

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Norrington’s fussy dynamics also mar the mysterious transition between the scherzo and finale of the Fifth Symphony, whose hushed expectancy is far more successfully conjured up by Rattle and the VPO. Like Abbado (but unlike Rattle), Norrington opts for the ‘full’ version of the scherzo, with two appearances of the trio section. Beethoven decided at the last moment to abbreviate the piece, and instructed his publishers accordingly; and although he may later have regretted his decision, his initial instinct, that the longer scherzo lessens the effect of its return during the finale, was surely right. In any case, if fidelity to the text is your priority the cut has to be respected.

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Norrington’s Pastoral is generally outstanding, with a first movement that really communicates joy on arriving in the countryside, and a terrifyingly vivid storm. But the Eighth Symphony’s quirky second movement – again very fast – lacks lightness and elegance, and in the finale the orchestra struggles to keep up. Abbado is marginally slower in the Allegretto, but he has the balletic grace that eludes Norrington, while his finale is at once thrilling and admirably clear. In sum, these new performances are intriguing and often compelling, but they don’t tell the whole story. Misha Donat