With the Beethoven year 2020 just around the corner, Deutsche Grammophon has, as anticipated, set forth by issuing a newly recorded symphony cycle with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Over the past fifty years or so, the orchestra has recorded the complete symphonies with Karl Böhm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (DG), Claudio Abbado (DG), Sir Simon Rattle (EMI) and Christian Thielemann (Sony / C major).
Alongside audio recordings, the Bernstein and Thielemann cycles have been released also on video. In addition, the Bernstein cycle was recently issued as a high-resolution remaster on Pure Audio Blu-ray. With all these cycles around, one could and one should ask, why do we need yet another set of these more than well-covered masterpieces.
The orchestra’s back catalogue features an impressive continuum, ranging from Austro-German traditionalism of Böhm and Thielemann to Rattle’s period-style radicalism, based on Jonathan Del Mar’s acclaimed critical score editions (Bärenreiter). From the emotional upheval of Bernstein’s passionate cycle to Abbado’s dazzlingly suave 1980s take, everything seems to be already covered.
But is it though? As the orchestra embarked upon recording a new Beethoven cycle in 2017, with Andris Nelsons at helm, an intriguing perspective shift occurred. Embracing the spirit of a post maestro myth era, which, hopefully, is finally dawning, Nelsons and the orchestra set out to make, first and foremost, a Wiener Philharmoniker take on Beethoven.
As described by the legendary Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula, a conductor is an enabler, whose task is to help the musicians, not to stand on their way. And that is precisely what Nelsons does here. As a result, the new cycle celebrates the Viennese Beethoven traditon, fusing together all those wonderful performances of their past, yielding to an upliflting whole.
Ironically, the DG marketing team nevertheless set out to decorate the book-shaped album with a series of photos of Nelsons, instead of the orchestra, or the composer, who makes his only appearance on page 24 of the booklet. Yet this is a book that should not be judged by its cover.
Recorded within a two-year period at the Wiener Philharmoniker’s marvellous home, the Vienna Musikverein, Nelsons and the orchestra began with the middle symphonies, 6-8, all recorded in 2017. The Ninth was recorded in 2018 and the Symphonies 1-5 last spring, all in conjuntion with concert performances.
On disc, the symphonies appear on five CDs and on a Pure Audio Blu-ray in 24 bit / 96 kHz.
Beethoven entered his symphonic path with a (teasing) homage to Haydn. With his Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 (1799-1800), Beethoven took delight in providing his audiences with a series of surprises, while displaying his fluency with the symphonic form.
With the performance recorded here, there is indeed exemplary fluency in the playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker with Nelsons. Yet, there is less of that tongue-in-cheek wit, ever so essential with this symphony. In terms of technique, it is a soaring take. But with dazzling, period-minded performances, such as the delightful 2015 one by Berliner Philharmonker and Rattle around, one has some resevations regarding to this new Viennese one.
In contrast, Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 (1801-02), is, without question, the high point of the cycle. A quantum leap from the Haydnesque sphere of its predecessor, Beethoven was heading towards uncharted territory with his new piece, the most uplifting of symphonies.
On disc, the orchestra and Nelsons embrace the broader sonic sphere of the symphony with commitment and spirit, delivering an outstanding performance. The opening movement builds up to a thrilling adventure in sound, filled with a wealth of fine detail, such as the fabulously realized pre-echo of the Ninth symphony.
The second movement, larghetto, radiates pastoral air, while the scherzo comes off as an aptly rough contry-dance. Concluding with an engrossing finale, the performance is an absolute gem.
Another quantum leap ensues, as we enter into the realm of Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803-05). What a shock this symphony must have been upon its 1806 Vienna premiere. Doubled in length and zenithed in expression, the Eroica smashes the mould of a classical symphony, paving the way for a whole new era.
Here, we are provided with a solid 21st century Eroica. Instead of pushing the music to its extremes, Nelsons and the WPh let the music resonate at its own, innate pace. The rich Viennese sonics are clad in transparent textures, to a intriguing effect.
Maybe the most convincing movement here is the marcia funèbre, which benefits enormously from the contrapuntal clarity of the performance, enchanced by the well-engineered recording.
The subtle revolution of the Symphony No. 4 in B flat Major, Op. 60 (1806) is, alongside Symphony No. 2, the highlight on this set. With Nelsons, the orchestra embarks upon its quest with a wonderful realization of the brillaint, sustained introduction, followed by a ravishing account of the allegro vivace.
The adagio movement is like a sounding oasis, admirably proportioned and dazzlingly performed. Contrasted by the lively scherzo, followed by energetic finale, the symphony is wondrously performed, to an inspiring effect.
Being, quite likely, the most frequently recorded symphony in history, the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807-08) is not an easy thing to master. With a market saturated by seemelingly endless flow of new recordings and re-releases, it is not always easy to give a fair judgment to a particular recording.
As such, the present recording is a fine one, with everything in its place. Still, with all those memorable recordings available, ranging from Herbet von Karajan’s gripping 1962 Berlin accout (DG) to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s revolutionary farewell recording with the Concentus Musicus (Sony), Nelsons and the WPh remains as an appeling one-off, rather than a thing to revisit. However, facing the test of time, who knows how this recording will fare after twenty years or so.
The Pastoral, or Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (1807-08), is, in its turn, probably the most compelling account among the middle symphonies. Here, the orchestra and Nelsons embrace the proto-Berlioz dramaturgy of Beethoven’s idealized portrayal of countryside with vigour and fine detail, yielding to most uplfiting musical journey.
From the opening bars on, the listener gets swept into the tranquillity and merrymaking, as envisioned by Beethoven. From the open-air mood-painting to woodwinds imitating birdsong, the fabulous musicians of the Wiener Philharmoniker are in perfect accord with the score.
The rustic scherzo comes off splendidly, with riveting earthiness. The storm of the fourth movement is more majestic than wild, performed with admirable clarity. The finale is beautifully paced by Nelsons, resulting in seamless symphonic arc.
In similar vein, Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-12) comes off very well, with wondeful balance between well-pondered sounding architecture and uplifting spontainety.
The sonic canvas of the opening movement turns into a thrilling journey, while the allegretto is clad in intense dark hue. With an aptly brisk scherzo and spirited finale, the symphony is brought to its invigorating close.
The marvellously witty Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (1812), although performed with finesse by the orchestra, gets maybe a bit too straightforward reading here. While the WPh sounds gorgeous, the brilliant quirkiness of the music tends to be somehat tame. Well balanced, there is examplary clarity in the music, though, leading to a sonically admirable outcome.
In many ways, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24) is an apt summa of the whole Wiener Philharmoniker and Nelsons cycle. While it may not be the most earth-shaking Ninth around, the performance nevertheless provides a very satisfying experience, enhanced by repeated hearings.
With Nelsons, Beethoven’s score gets to speak for itself. There is no gimmickry nor excess in the performance. The musical material unveils in natural manner, engaging the listener in an intense dialogue with the very essense of the music itself.
In the closing choral movement, the solo voices, the chorus and the orchestra are carefully balanced throughout, paving the way for a ravishing symbiosis of the text and the music.
The Wiener Singverein, well coached by Johannes Prinz, sing with compelling intensity and seasoned virtuosity. The four soli, Camilla Nylund, Gerhild Romberger, Klaus-Floran Vogt and Georg Zeppenfeld form an excellent ensemble, resulting in joyous teamwork.
As a whole the new cycle is one that grows with time. For newbies, it serves as a splendid introduction, whereas connoisseurs may take delight in its straightforward approach, devoid of mannerisms. Not a bad start for Beethoven 2020, not at all.
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Johannes Prinz, chorus master
Camilla Nylund, soprano
Gerhild Romberger, alto
Klaus-Floran Vogt, tenor
Georg Zeppenfeld, bass
Recorded at the Vienna Musikverein, 2017 – April 2019
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7071 (2019), 5 CD, 1 Blu-ray audio
© Jari Kallio
Photo © Terry Linke / Deutsche Grammophon