WORKS: Symphonies No. 1; Symphonies No. 2; Symphonies No. 3; Symphonies No. 4; Symphonies No. 5; Symphonies No. 6 Symphonies No. 7; Symphonies No. 8; Symphonies No. 9; Overtures; Missa solemnis
PERFORMER: Soloists; Oslo Cathedral Choir, Hanover Band/Monica Huggett, Roy Goodman
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1760
From the very first chord of Beethoven’s First Symphony, with its mixture of percussive pizzicato strings and bright winds, this generously-put-together, seven-CD set of reissues from the Eighties gets off to a lively start. Nimbus’s resonant sound, with distant woodwinds, is very much a matter of taste. They use the London churches of All Saints’, Tooting, and St Giles Cripplegate at the Barbican for the orchestral music, and the Great Hall of Birmingham University for the Missa solemnis.
Authenticity includes the now familiar spare vibrato on gut strings (most evident in the slow movements), valveless horns, leather-headed timpani and so on, as well as pushing sustained notes through a crescendo to their conclusion. Except for Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 5, the orchestra uses Jonathan Del Mar’s performing editions. Tempi are swift, the sound fresh, the playing for the most part alert and affectionate, though the over-resonance is never more apparent than in the finales of Nos 2 and 4 and in the orchestral recitative in No. 9 (Choral) where the starts of phrases and clean harmonic juxtapositions are often blurred. The Larghetto of No. 2, on the other hand, is rich with detail and variety of tone colour, the articulations having enough space to register.
As with Nos 7 and 8, the Eroica gets a taut reading, the outer movements swift and invigorating, the scherzo full of excitement and a trio with the three horns playing on the knife-edge. The scherzo in No. 5 has the newly discovered repeat; its coda strikes a novel balance between quiet string pizzicato and prominent bassoon, and although the transition to the finale may be short on tension, the piccolo’s ill-tuned top Cs add spice.
In the splendidly played Pastoral the birdcalls are beautifully phrased, the village dance has all the necessary galumph and the storm is explosive.
In the finale of the Choral the march seems to plod along, yet is actually faster than Beethoven’s metronome mark. Though the solo quartet is good, the Oslo choir sounds occasionally strained or under-powered. Not so in the Missa solemnis, which benefits from the more forward sound of the Birmingham venue and in which not only do the soloists excel, but the string tone (and Roy Goodman’s sweetly played solo in the Benedictus) has more bloom.
Of the overtures there are gripping accounts of the Egmont, Coriolan and Leonore No. 2, convincing performances of The Ruins of Athens and King Stephen, and bravura playing by the woodwinds (if occasionally swamped by brass or fogged up in the reverberant acoustic) in The Consecration of the House. Christopher Fifield