COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
LABELS: Berliner Philharmoniker
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-9
PERFORMER: Annette Dasch (soprano), Eva Vogel (mezzo), Christian Elsner (tenor), Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass); Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 160091 (5 CDs +2 Blu-rays + 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray)
Faced with greatness of this order, it is hard to know what to write without lapsing into gush or seeming to lapse into hyperbole. I have to start by saying that this is the greatest performance of the Beethoven symphonies as a cycle that I have ever seen and heard. As it is on both CD and Blu-ray, you can just listen to it, or – and I find it more rewarding in this case – you can watch it as well. The performances are not perfect or definitive; neither word would mean anything in a context as exalted as Beethoven’s symphonies. They all are, though, intensely alive in every bar, freshly thought out and felt, almost never wilful, and perhaps above all immensely invigorating.
It is amazing to think that this is the Berlin Philharmonic. It has nothing in common with the orchestra of 30 years ago, when still conducted by Herbert von Karajan, except its extraordinary virtuosity. Simon Rattle has done something completely different from what he did with the Vienna Philharmonic in his previous, unsatisfactory recording of the cycle. This new version – which is lavishly packaged and presented, with lots of supplementary material including 50 minutes of Rattle talking about the symphonies, mainly helpfully, sometimes archly – has the Berlin Philharmonic sounding more like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment than you would have thought possible. The strings, superb as they are, produce a fairly lean tone, and the winds are far more prominent. Vibrato is far less than we expect from this orchestra.
Watching as well as listening, we see how intensely individual the players are, but they listen to one another so hard that the result is like that of a great chamber ensemble. Rattle explains that the earlier symphonies are played by a smaller orchestra than the later ones, very sensibly. Yet even in the early symphonies, the scale of dynamics is big, and by the time we get to the Pastoral the storm (which Rattle insists, erroneously, ‘has nothing to do with the weather’) is of a volume which would have had Wagner covering his ears.
The single most striking feature of all these performances is the unbelievable energy of Beethoven, instantly obvious in every work. There is often a powerful sense of the music moving in contrary ways, generating a grinding energy manifest in both light and heat – listen, for instance to the inner movements of the Eighth and be staggered by Beethoven’s audacity, released in this performance as in none other. To listen to these works from beginning to end is to be energised as no other music can achieve. It is a privilege to have heard this set, one which I intend to reward myself with many more times.