Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9 plus rehearsal feature

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven; Carter; Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Arthaus Musik
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9
WORKS: Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1-9
PERFORMER: Christiane Karg (soprano); Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano); Michael Schade (tenor); Michael Volle (baritone); Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir and Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
CATALOGUE NO: 107 537

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December 2012 the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under its chief conductor Mariss Jansons, gave a complete cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies in Suntory Hall, Japan having rehearsed them exhaustively in their home hall, the Herkulessaal in Munich. They’ve been issued in two formats: on DVD, live in Tokyo, with a rehearsal session from Munich; and on CD, seven in the same performances (I think – the DVDs aren’t dated) and two in Munich. The CDs also include six ‘Reflections’ by contemporary composers, commissioned by Jansons, and performed over four years. The performances on DVD
are very similar to those on CD.

Jansons adopts, as do many conductors of his generation (he is just 70) an approach which takes into consideration the historically informed approach of the last 30 years, but is still aware of what performances were like in the great German tradition, different in many respects as its greatest exponents were. When rehearsing the Eroica, his favourite Beethoven Symphony, he stresses that it is ‘transcendental’ and ‘larger than the planet’, not the kind of thing to be heard from Roger Norrington. Still, tempos are usually on the brisk side, most noticeably in the slow movements; and oddly Jansons takes the scherzo of the Seventh at a rattling speed but slows down to the point of ponderousness for the trio section, an antique practice. He almost always takes repeats, which at slower tempos might be tedious. And he certainly gives prominence to the winds over the strings, sometimes to an extreme degree. On DVD, one becomes attached to the perky oboist, a most expressive player, who is replaced for the last three Symphonies.

Beethoven’s disruptive humour is something that I think Jansons recognises, but doesn’t achieve. The Eighth Symphony, that glorious work of mischief and energy, gets driven hard and sounds grim. The humour of the Merry Gathering of Peasants in the Sixth seems to escape his notice. What he likes best, to judge from results, is heroic climaxes and dramatic punctuation.

The six specially commissioned pieces are from composers in six countries, varying in age from early 70s to late 30s. Most of them are fairly aggressively modern, with electronic devices and plenty of string slithering. Two sound much more traditional. They vary in length from nine minutes to 20. I didn’t much enjoy any of them, and I don’t think anyone will choose these CDs on their merits. If you want vigorous conducting, immaculate but lean playing, and unfailingly sprightly tempos in the Beethoven, this set is for you.

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Michael Tanner