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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies – No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1800) [25’20]; No. 2 in D (1803) [31’40]; No. 3 in E flat, Op. 66, ‘Eroica’ [43’46]; No. 4 in B flat [31’07]; No. 5 in C minor [33’29]; No. 6 in F, ‘Pastoral’ [40’38]; No. 7 in A [37’53]; No. 8 in F [23’35]; No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, ‘Choral’ [61’28].
Camilla Nylund (soprano); Iris Vermillion (mezzo); Jonas Kaufmann (tenor); Franz-Josef Selig (bass);
Gächinger Kantorei, Stuttgart;
South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart/Roger Norrington.
Recorded live at the Europäisches Musikfest, Stuttgart, 2002. Includes bonus disc (German only, including music examples) of Roger Norrington on the Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-8.
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC FASZINATIONMUSIK 93.089 [five discs + bonus disc: 334’06 + 79’50]


Hearing Sir Roger’s Beethoven symphonies as a cycle rather than piecemeal has its rewards. One can immediately admire the conviction, the obvious belief in a viewpoint. At their very best, the performances can emerge as a breath of fresh air; at the very worst, they are thought-provoking (no bad thing). The rethinking of standard repertoire at the behest of their Chief Conductor has seemingly energised the Stuttgart orchestra to great heights, for they play with great elan and, at times, real virtuosity. These are live performances, and there can be an edge-of-the-seat energy to them yet very little loss of accuracy. Certainly there is no doubting the enthusiasm of the audiences for the end result, cheers appearing regularly after final chords. The orchestra is mainly modern instrument, with some wind playing copies of period instruments and valveless brass. Strings use less vibrato than is the norm, resulting in a convincingly ‘period’ feel.

The first symphony’s introduction is swift and punchy, summing up much of what is to follow in this Nine. Norrington consistently highlights the drama; textures are trumpet-dominated. The second movement (I cannot write ‘slow movement’) is one-in-a-bar. The final two movements are terrific, the Menuetto’s marking of ‘Allegro molto e vivace’ seeing Norrington in quicksilver form. Always on its toes and together, it leads well to the scampering scales of the finale (with its real call-to-arms at its outset). There is a quasi-operatic slant to this finale (Beethoven’s Marriage of Figaro???!!) No surprise that the South West German branch of the Sir Roger Norrington fan club are themselves in good voice at the end.

For long it has been incomprehensible to me why the Second Symphony is so infrequently heard. Is it seen as the weak link of the nine?. Surely it is no such thing, and after an arresting Adagio, the punchy and vital allegro tells me that Sir Roger agrees. Drama is high on the agenda here, the suspensions close to the end of the first movement being laid remarkably bare. The slow movement flows, perhaps too much (this time the marking is ‘larghetto’) and it does on occasion sound rushed. There is a distinct loss of suavité, unfortunately, and certainly of lack of interpretative depth. Much better, then, the quickly shifting give-and-take of the Scherzo, with its allusions to the hunting horn. Norrington’s punchy approach actually veers towards violence in the finale, quite a shock if Beethovenian Haydn is on one’s mind here. A rewarding reminder of the stature of this piece.

A recent live traversal of the Eroica by another period specialist with modern forces (Brüggen with the Philharmonia: S&H link) proved instructive. Norrington brings his own strengths to this noblest of symphonies, without scaling Brüggen’s heights. Lean, spare and clean lines and a healthy forward tread ensure the dynamism while a clear structural view ensures comprehensibility. Of course, the exposition repeat is observed. If the slow movement is on the swift side, it remains a dramatic statement. Some passages could perhaps be more determined. A surprise comes at 10’35, with the second horn half-stopping his/her solo, a remarkable aural effect. The hushed close leads to a very on-the-ball Scherzo and a Trio with nicely brash horns straight from the chase. The finale promises well, but sags before the end, running out of steam. A shame, and a trait we will revisit.

The Fourth is the first disappointment. The Introduction lacks mystery, the allegro vivace is almost brutal, the Adagio fast and relentless Brutality returns with the brass-dominated ‘explosions’ of the finale.

Revisiting the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, I stand by my earlier review of this disc (CD93.086). The performances, Norrington at his swiftest, exude a superficiality that is initially exciting but ultimately unrewarding.

The Seventh, after an eloquent Sostenuto, provides a fairly exciting Vivace. Quite why Norrington pushes the pulse unnecessarily (read ‘rushes’) towards the end of the movement is beyond me. It sounds contrived. For someone who clearly favours the rapid approach, it is strange that the finale of the seventh fails to generate the requisite voltage. The punchy, fresh approach works much better in the outer movements of the Eighth, where one can positively feel Beethoven’s creative juices flowing. The first is breezily refreshing, the finale dynamism defined. Alas, the Allegretto scherzando is hardly ‘scherzando’ at all, a predominantly sour-faced scamper through the notes. The Menuetto sounds more like a well-rehearsed exposition of Norrington’s ideas on period performance than Beethoven himself.

The Ninth, the greatest of them all, fares well. The first movement is dynamic, keeping good pace with the swift changes of dynamic and emotion. Certainly, this is a high-voltage account and that is continued into the Molto vivace second movement. Amazingly agile, the bullet-like timpani is the star here. Alas, the rapid speed of the ‘Adagio molto e cantabile’ results once again in a peripheral reading that, despite many delights, fails to plumb the depths. The finale, too, appears to skim across the surface. The opening is crass and there is little mystery when the lower strings announce the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme. Of the vocal soloists, Franz-Josef Selig gets a bit lost in his melismas, and Kaufmann is notable for his well-rounded tenor. All four work well together as a group, but just how large is the chorus?. It sounds small, but amplified by recording techniques.

The ‘extra’ disc is of lectures (in German) given by Norrington. Although they regurgitate some of the information in the booklets, they are not at present available in English elsewhere.

Difficult to give an overall rating for the set. The first three symphonies are probably the most convincing of the nine. As I said about Nos. 5 and 6 (but it turns out to refer to the entire exercise), Norrington, if nothing else, is guaranteed to provoke a reaction, good or bad.

Colin Clarke



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