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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony no. 8 in F major, op. 93 (1812) [27:59]
Egmont overture, op. 84 (1809-10) [9:10]
Coriolan overture, op. 62 (1807) [9:06]
The Ruins of Athens, op.113 (1811) [5:21]
Leonore overture no. 3, op. 72 (1805-6) [15:06]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. Air Studios, London, October 2013

Beethoven was familiar with Shakespeare and his Symphony 8 is very much like Falstaff. It appears grand, but this is an inflated grandeur, full of humour, especially the self-mocking kind. Here it’s splendidly played by the London Symphony Orchestra yet I feel Yondani Butt takes it all a little too straight. With rhythms crisply articulated, his first movement (tr. 1) is spirited and sprightly. It has weight but also thrust. The second theme (0:43) is pleasingly contrasted in its nonchalance but a bit mousy. Come its fortissimo third section (1:20) the tutti effect is just too massive and thereby overbears the immediate piano contrast (1:23). In his disciplined development (3:59) Butt’s dynamic contrasts are neater. The whole section is athletic and exciting, here sounding surprisingly young man’s music for a 42-year-old Beethoven. The clarinet solo in the coda is a touch smoochy, but the ending is fittingly triumphant if a little tense.
I compared the same orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink in a live performance from 2006 (LSO Live LSO 0587). I prefer Haitink’s lighter touch without detriment to the work’s liveliness. His second theme is more whimsically feathery, pointed and dance-like, its third section of mock grandeur in comparison with what seem in Butt flashes of fury. In the development, without losing excitement, Haitink points Beethoven’s interest in spinning the thematic material across the instruments. In doing so he clarifies the vertical as well as Butt’s horizontal interest.
Butt’s second movement (tr. 2) opens reasonably niftily and with a smile. Nicely shaped, it has some charm, though I find the sforzandi a mite heavy. The second theme (1:02) is rightly stronger, the hemidemisemiquavers surrounding its second section (1:15) are suitably vigorous and its third section (1:36) refreshingly suave. The coda puffs up effectively. Haitink is again lighter and faster, taking 3:54 to Butt’s 4:33, to overall perkier, truer scherzando effect where Butt is rather more studied.
Butt’s ‘Minuet and Trio’ at 6:20 is remarkably slow. Haitink takes 4:23 and even Klemperer in 1957 only 5:16. Butt’s breadth does give what Beethoven terms Tempo di Menuetto, suggesting a recollection of a Minuet, an attractive languor but also too portly a quality to the sforzandi. The orchestration is very clear but everything is too deliberate, though the dynamic contrasts are well realized. Butt’s approach does come into its own in a wonderfully reflective ‘Trio’ of horns’ duet and clarinet commentary, aided by violins and violas in the second section. He pinpoints all the effects well so you wonder what on earth the soft pizzicato rustling cellos which threaten to become more prominent are about. At the other end of extreme tempo Haitink is jollier, more convivial, a peasants’ Minuet perhaps. His sforzandi stimulate the music’s progression where Butt’s weigh it down. His ‘Trio’ still manages to be idyllic and you note the unusually soaring quality of the clarinet part.
Butt’s finale is both rigorous and zealous, revealing what a meticulously worked and concentrated movement this is. The second theme (tr. 8, 0:43) is smooth yet rather withdrawn, the first of two developments (1:22) teasing then sturdy. The first recapitulation is light. The second development (4:03) begins in a more anxious mood, then is more mysterious before promising resolution. Yet the movement’s joie de vivre has somehow vanished. At only a slightly faster tempo, 7:24 against 7:43, Haitink catches this in a more animated, bubbling fashion with a more assured second theme.
What makes Egmont Beethoven’s most played overture is its electrifying coda in which its hero has a vision of eventual triumph over oppression. Other than that there’s really little to it melodically. It’s all atmosphere, but how magnificently created. Butt does the coda very well with sterling work in particular from the horns and violins screaming in high register. The introduction is also effective with its stern, arresting opening chord. There’s also the polarity of unyielding, brutish strings and the woodwind’s pleading vision of peace and concord. The strings quiver in nervous tension, the woodwind attempt dialogue and there’s an air of expectation, of the possibility of a happy outcome. Yet come the cellos’ sombre theme which opens the main body of the overture (tr. 5, 2:19) Butt’s careful grading of progression doesn’t really explode in the tutti. There’s no sweep or momentum. The two orchestral chords which many times slap down the woodwind’s appeals aren’t trenchant enough. I compared the 1957 performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer (EMI 4042752). The timing is the same but from the introduction Klemperer provides more rawness of feeling and intensity, with gritty tuttis. Life is undeniably a struggle and those repeated two orchestral chords emphatically deny any compromise, yet also the coda’s escape from this is still more thrilling.
In Coriolan Beethoven offers more melody and variety and so does Butt. Its second theme (tr. 6, 1:25), the pleading of the hero’s mother, is smooth and feminine yet with its own steely strength after the opening nervy theme frets in continuous turmoil. The third appearance of the second theme turns most pleadingly to the minor, whereupon Coriolanus capitulates even though this will mean his death. The opening chords’ rhetoric subsides into tenderness yet Butt shows us this is also dissolution. Klemperer here, timing at 8:00 against Butt’s 9:06, has more urgency, bite and momentum. His second theme is less beauteous than Butt’s yet is closer in sweep, rhetoric and character to the first, illustrating the similarity between mother and son.
Butt presents The Ruins of Athens in a way that is overly portentous for the quality of its content. The 1987 account by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Stephen Gunzenhauser (Naxos 8.550072), less opulently played and recorded, catches better the March theme (1:18 in Butt) being the inspiration for the overture’s main theme (1:48 in Butt) and the Rossini like impetus that carries the piece along. On the other hand Butt’s first presentation of the main theme is buoyant and its later development is whipped up well. His central section’s duet between oboe and bassoon is nicely done, displaying two individuals sharing a common celebration but giving it their own distinctive slant.
For me Butt’s Leonore overture No. 3 is a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees. He slowly scrutinizes every detail, but this makes the theme of the introduction (tr. 8, 0:50) seem lost and pleading. In contrast with Klemperer (his 1954 recording preferable to his 1963) there’s always security of utterance. The flute solo which Klemperer shows is the flying bird, symbol of freedom, from Butt seems just orchestral colouring. His progression is limp. Butt’s trumpet fanfares, though recessed, need to be more distanced, as with Klemperer. Butt’s flute’s false recapitulation (9:52) is more animated but not part of a like progression. The magnificent amassing in turn of all the strings in quaver runs in the Presto coda, exciting in Klemperer, is from Butt neat but devoid of passion. In sum, though well played and recorded, these accounts are interpretively rather too stodgy.
Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Symphony 8