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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies
Renate Behle (soprano); Yvonne Naef (alto); Glenn Winslade (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass)
Rundfunk Chor Berlin
SWR Sinfonie-Orchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg/Michael Gielen
rec. 1997-2000. DDD
Full Contents List at end of review
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD93.285 [5 CDs: 6:04:00]

In the summer of 2012, Hänssler released the audio portion of Michael Gielen’s Beethoven symphony cycle, sourced from a trio of DVDs on Euroarts. As will become evident, the set’s impact on me was immediate, so I decided to take some time to reflect, as the coming year was to see several other sets issued and reissued. Amongst others, Eugen Jochum’s third traversal was made available in EMI’s Icon series, Béla Drahos’ Naxos readings were boxed along with overtures and concertos, and, most impressive of all, Glossa treated us to Frans Brüggen’s second cycle, in excellent sound and still as beautiful and as raw as his Philips recordings of twenty years ago. Despite the many merits of these issues, I kept returning to Gielen, when the HIPP sound’s transparency or the more archaic opulence proved temporarily off-putting.
 
The point was reached when only one cycle entered my player as much as this new one from Gielen. In 1961 and 1962, René Leibowitz recorded what has long been my yardstick for measuring Beethoven symphony cycles. He brings a no-nonsense approach to the justly revered but often preciously interpreted pieces that I have always found refreshing, making the set my palate cleanser when all others have disappointed me in one way or another. With the CD release of Gielen’s second survey of the symphonies, this is no longer the case. I had not imagined that Leibowitz’s penchant for combining the best elements of emotion and detail could be bettered; I was wrong. In my opinion, all things considered, Gielen’s is now the most consistently satisfying Beethoven symphony set available, from any era.
 
First, it seems important to clear up what I perceive to be a myth about these performances. To my surprise, I have seen them called conservative. This could not be further from the truth. If we accept that a performance of a work can be conservative or its opposite - liberal? - then Gielen goes against any establishment you’d care to cite in everything he records, or rather, he cherry-picks from various approaches. Like Leibowitz, Gielen is a composer, and he brings a composer’s sensibilities to his interpretations. A firm sense of the work’s architecture, or structural integrity, is always juxtaposed with an absolute treasure trove of surprisingly rendered inner detail, which is most certainly not the case in many traversals of this hallowed ground. It should be stressed, though, that neither conductor is afraid to allow dramatic concern to coexist in tandem with this structural predilection.
 
Two considerations that now place Gielen’s cycle apart from other similar ventures involve recorded sound and what I’ll call scholarship, in the broadest sense of the term. Both are employed in consistently fascinating ways throughout this cycle. Hänssler allows Gielen’s live recordings a bloom and resonance that eclipses every other cycle I’ve heard. While Leibowitz’s Decca-engineered tapings were state of the art for the time, these 1997-2000 recordings are simply more spacious and warmer. As with ECM’s Andras Schiff performances of Bach and Beethoven, the listener is somehow simultaneously placed up close and at an appropriate distance. No, it’s not a particularly realistic perspective, nor should it be, and yet, there is nothing overtly artificial-sounding here, as was the case with so many spot-mikings of days gone by. In fact, the impression is one of naturalness, despite the fact that you would never hear this sound in a hall, no matter where you sit. I am always suspicious when people evaluate recordings as if they were documenting the experience of attending a concert, which can never be the case. All that said, this treatment is typical of Hänssler for Gielen, whose Mahler symphonies, not to mention his absolutely spellbinding version of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, benefited from similar production values.
 
Then, there is Gielen’s approach to historically informed performance practice, an issue still enjoying some scorching debate. Gielen is by no means an “authenticist”, but there are certainly elements of the historicist movement that obviously colour his interpretations. Like Leibowitz, Gielen’s tempi are fairly swift, mainly conforming to Beethoven’s prescriptions, but not rigorously so, as might be said of the constantly driven Norrington’s Stuttgart cycle on Hänssler, of Gardiner’s 1990s traversal, or even of Chailly in his highly problematic recent cycle with Leipzig. While Norrington’s approach works quite well on many levels - he’s a wise Beethoven interpreter - Gielen finds room to breathe, or to let the music breathe, where others drive it relentlessly forward. Even so, Gielen keeps the energy up where appropriate. He shares the historicists’ penchant for taking all repeats as well as emphasis on the brass, coaxing a powerfully raw sound and impressive swells from his players quite similar to the then unusual relationships Harnoncourt coaxed from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the early 1990s. Here though, it is balanced by the warmest and most lush string sounds imaginable, loaded with juicy vibrato, though the ebbs and swells of “period” phrasing are also often manifest, a startling and winning combination. Despite these allegiances to recent scholarship, Gielen has no qualms about augmenting brass parts as many have done before him, as in the Ninth’s Scherzo. No, there is nothing conservative about these performances. They represent a balance, a unity of purpose that draws, moment to moment, from both sides of the emotional/scholarly dichotomy, in whatever guise will produce results fostering Gielen’s vision of what the music should entail.
 
These conceits would be inconsequential on their own, but they are heard in the service of something else that Gielen brings to the table, something quite personal to his approach and very difficult to articulate, but it was also integral to his Mahler cycle. He allows the music to represent the journey from youth to maturity, not in any strictly programmatic or even strictly linear sense, but in the abstract, dare I say the universal, or at least the multivalent, sense of travelling the circuitous road from innocence to experience that Blake elucidated so beautifully. This mystical approach, so infrequent but so important, is one that those conforming to “authentic” performance practices, or their polar opposite, often neglect. For me, it makes the cycle the success it is. Leibowitz was heading in the same direction, as his brisk tempi indicate, but Gielen takes everything a step further. There is no way to catalogue this aspect of the cycle with anything approaching completeness, so perhaps a few moments will illustrate the multi-leveled nature of the progression. Listen to the way the slow introduction to the first symphony becomes the movement proper. Gielen renders the introduction with a combination of youthful vigour and proto-romantic flexibility that seems strange on first hearing but, given the volatility of the movement to follow, makes sense on repetition. Hard-malleted timpani strokes, as Beethoven might have heard, in tandem with strident brass, are brought to the fore; the downward scalar passage that leads into the main theme is not rushed, and the theme’s jagged motif takes a moment to get up to tempo, and a brisk one it is. In the proverbial fell swoop, Gielen captures the hot point of flux that is Beethoven’s music in 1800, a classicism in dialectic. A similar point of definition in context, or of mutability, occurs as the second symphony’s final movement lurches to life. The opening strings-and-winds motif, with its revolutionary inter-registral leaps and knife-bladed violence, is given more weight than allowed by those wanting to pass it off as neo-Mozartian fluff; immediately, with the slightest increase in tempo, the strings do indeed re-enter classical land, the juxtaposition rendered by Gielen with stunning power and import.
 
In offering up these micro-detailed moments as indicators of Gielen’s unique aesthetic, I do not mean to imply that they are somehow intrusive. To his credit, the opposite is true, and as with the recordings themselves, there is an inevitability about the way the music unfolds that puts each movement’s innovations into the proper perspective. The first symphony’s youthful excitement emerges undimmed, despite glances forward, and the third brims with vigour and vitality offset only by orchestrational maturation as the strings, winds and brass engage in their neo-classical dialogue using proto-romantic harmonic language. If you like such interaction, listen to the fifth’s first movement development section, as I’ve never heard the winds presented so clearly while still maintaining string clarity. Gielen takes obvious and nearly prankish delight in the same symphony’s scherzo, with its orchestral whimsies, but the transition to the final movement is appropriately shattering.
 
To say that any good Beethoven symphony cycle should be judged by its Ninth is unfair but somehow also correct. Whereas a mediocre Ninth can stand on its own, the same diminishes the parent cycle’s overall achievement, as witnessed in Paavo Järvi’s often excellent set. To these ears, a Ninth needs to carry the burdens of weight, clarity and emotional import squarely on both shoulders, but they often fail in at least one aspect. The fact that Gielen manages all three is outweighed by his rendering of the music as a summation of Beethoven’s development. While the opening drone is allowed a certain haziness, its accompanying two-note string motifs are given with sharply regular clarity as past and present histories are embraced in a single gesture. The crescendo and subsequent cataclysmic utterances are given all the weight and heft one might expect from Furtwängler or Weingartner while the tempo remains youthfully brisk. The second movement is taken slow enough to allow every detail to emerge, most of all those dotted rhythms, while still encouraging forward momentum. The third movement’s tempo may, in fact, be ideal, most conductors either taking the tempo marking too literally or allowing the emotional content to impede the music’s ebb and flow. Gielen’s sense of contrast is superb as he brings out each melodic line and orchestration - this is one of Beethoven’s best in that regard - without ever compromising form or flow; just listen to the bassoon’s doubling strings in the D-Major section and the delicate pizzicati throughout. 
 
No conductor can satisfy everyone in the fourth movement, that multi-headed beast alternately roaring and praying, bating and switching its first critics into paroxysms of incomprehension and pity for the deaf composer who’d obviously lost control of his faculties. Suffice to say that, as might be expected from a conductor exhibiting “modernist” tendencies amidst historical concerns, Gielen has no fear of contrast, even of the starkest variety. In polar opposition to an approach such as Skrowaczewski’s, the lower-strings recitative is rendered strictly, in stark opposition to the bass’s similar declamations, here given operatic scope by Hanno Müller-Brachmann. He and tenor Glenn Winslade are of a single voice, the latter proving quite satisfactory in his heroic role during the B-flat march. That march, it should be said, seems just a shade faster than those enamoured of Karajan or Blomstedt might prefer, but it represents neither the whirlwind of Gardiner nor the plodding nightmare of Norrington’s first traversal. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a sound that is both intimate and full, so that its delivery of the words “Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen” takes on the close but far-reaching communal power of a chorale.
 
Yet, Gielen’s master-stroke lies beyond the private and public worlds of reflection and declamation that characterize his Ninth. Just before the gargantuan fugue that brings the movement’s themes together, there is a sustained sonority, a rapt dominant on which the chorus intones, “Über Sternen muß er wohnen”. This is one of the most enigmatic moments in Beethoven’s music, suffused with energy and movement but somehow static and deeply introspective, prophetic of many things, the tone colours of Schoenberg and the proto-minimalism of Reich and Riley coming immediately to mind. Gielen’s entire approach to conducting is distilled in these few bars; the winds pulse just softly enough to be felt and not heard, the text is distinct without each syllable coming too close to the surface, and the strings take on a glassy sheen over the timpani’s sublimated power. This transcendent moment of delicate balance encapsulates, but exists beyond, the historical dialectic underlying Gielen’s vision of Beethoven and of all music. I’d go so far as to speculate that for Gielen, music is an ideal rather than a cultural landmark, its permeable boundaries existing in an ultimately unreachable realm, over the stars where its creator must surely dwell. The celebration that follows is at once for the triumph of brotherhood and for the similarly inclusive unity Gielen brings to these symphonic cornerstones.
 
Marc Medwin 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies
 
Full Contents List 
CD 1 [69:37]
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 [24:45]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major (Eroica), Op. 55 [44:35]
rec. 16-18 February 2000, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
 
CD 2 [72:27]
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 [31:52]
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 [40:35]
rec. 16-17 June 1998, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
 
CD 3 [57:10]
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60 [32:23]
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 [24:32]
rec. 21-22 January 2000, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
 
CD 4 [73:54]
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 [31:08]
Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastoral), Op. 68 [42:30]
rec. 29 November-1 December 1997, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
 
CD 5 [64:32]
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Choral), Op. 125 [64:35]
rec. 15-16 July 1999, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany 

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