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; Coriolan Overture; Egmont Overture

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Decca
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; Coriolan Overture; Egmont Overture
PERFORMER: Arleen Auger (soprano), Catherine Robbin (contralto), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Gregory Reinhart (bass); London Symphony Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music/ Christopher Hogwood
CATALOGUE NO: 452 551-2
The Swiss-born Peter Maag, whose name has adorned many a vinyl disc, is one of those conductors — like Wand and Goodall – who go into their wilderness years as they hit forty and surface once again four decades later for an Indian summer. Sheer survival seems to be an essential career ingredient.

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Maag’s orchestra on this Beethoven set is not a familiar name but plays well with impressive unanimity of ensemble in a variety of settings, some of them extremely resonant. His readings and tempi may not suit all tastes (echo effects not in the scores irritate), but some are musically viable and he has an ear for detail. The Eroica is a good example. His lyrical approach focuses less on its dramatic tension (the over-resonant Auditorium Modigliani in Padua doesn’t help), yet a huge warmth and evident commitment from both conductor and players shine through in both symphonies.

The Ninth (together with Nos 5 and 6) was recorded live in concert; the woodwind sound too distant until the scherzo. Some more of Maag’s idiosyncrasies occur here: for example, a huge eight-bar rallentando where Beethoven asks for a small one in the last bar at the end of the trio. The finale gets off to a rather sluggish start with the famous cello and bass recitative lacking the vocal shape it is supposed to imitate. The soloists are capable, the choir (one scrappy alto start apart) withstand the composer’s unintentional cruelty to the human voice.

The difference between Maag and Hogwood is like chalk and cheese: interestingly in the Ninth, although there is only one and a half minutes between the two in total, Maag is seven minutes slower in the Adagio! Hogwood feels a crotchet pulse and goes with the metronome marks, whereas Maag adopts a quaver pulse. In the finale, Hogwood’s cellos and basses are urgent in their shaped recitative; the vocal soloists and LSO Chorus are assured in the exellent acoustics of Walthamstow Assembly Hall. The march differs: Maag is traditionally swift, where Hogwood sticks doggedly to Beethoven’s steady metronome mark, itself controversial. The result takes some getting used to, especially in the ensuing fugue and chorus, but this is what authenticity in performance practice is all about. Hogwood’s arrival in the countryside (first movement, Pastoral) is more excited and fresh than Maag, who has evidently been there before and says so with turgid tempo. The two interpretations of this movement alone are worlds apart and reflect a vast generation gap of musical thought.

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Maag is not to be dismissed, however, particularly in his reading of the Fifth with its dramatic opening movement, an exhilarating scherzo after a mysterious start, and a fiery finale. Hogwood, on the other hand, restores the repeat unwittingly omitted from the scherzo by the original publishers, and his valveless brass and skin-covered timpani are heard to magnificent effect in the finale. Overall, the playing in the Hogwood set is clean, the sound bright and clear, with the additional bonus of suitably idiomatic readings of the Coriolan and Egmont overtures. So it’s a matter of preference between two schools of musical thought and performance practice, the one traditional, the other current. If you can afford both, it’s worth comparing them by listening to each symphony in tandem. Christopher Fifield