Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Symphonies And Overtures
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo-soprano)
Steven Davislim (tenor)
Neal Davies (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
rec. Air Studios, London, October 2013 (CD 1 & 5), 13-14 October 2010 (CD 4); Abbey Road Studios, 2011 (CD 2); 29 October 2011; Henry Wood Hall, London (CD 3), CD 6 dates and location not given.
NIMBUS RECORDS NI1713 [6 CDs: 344:06]
This set of Beethoven’s complete symphonies appeared as single discs over a number of years, and many were covered on these pages as they were released. Symphony no. 3 (review), nos. 4 and 5 (review), 6 and 7 (review) and 8 (review) may or may not have attracted your attention, but the final appearance of this box set makes these recordings a good deal more competitive in a market richly populated with big name bargains.
Conductor Yondani Butt died in 2014, and these Beethoven recordings were part of a late flourishing in output via the Nimbus Alliance label, with orchestral works by Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky all adding to a respectable discography of famous repertoire.
The London Symphony Orchestra is of course a highly distinguished band of musicians, and this Beethoven set sounds every bit as good as you would expect. I’ve been working my way through each disc and have to say there are few things about each performance that I would call weak. The main problem with this set is that it lacks qualities that make it stand out from the crowd. It’s a set out of its time – being the kind of recording which would probably have been widely celebrated if it had been made half a century ago. There is, it has to be said, no real household name at the helm to give it genuine ‘street cred’, nor is there the attraction of some new edition of the scores, some kind of ‘authentic performance’ angle or any element that calls us to a place in which we might expect to make new discoveries. This is of course unfair to a certain extent, and one wonders what kinds of opinion would emerge from critics if they were told on a blind audition that these were newly discovered recordings by ‘Grand and Renowned Conductor X (or Y).’
The first two symphonies appear to have been the last recorded, and in line with the rest are given good sturdy performances in fine sound, the studio acoustic providing a decent amount of air around the musicians and allowing sonorities to flourish. There is a general feel of both orchestra and conductor being comfortable in their respective skins in these works, and unfussy readings lead to effective and attractive versions of both works.
There are superficially few complaints to be had about the Third Symphony, though there certainly more exciting versions of the opening Allegro con brio to be had. Butt refuses to be railroaded into extremes of tempo, preferring to allow Beethoven’s contrasts their space, but risking a loss of tension in the process. The famous Marcia funebre is amiable rather than tragic, and the variations of the Finale take a while to take off, though there are some good moments as the strings are reinforced from the artillery of the winds.
The Fourth Symphony is nicely shaped, with energy to back up the atmosphere Beethoven builds up with his slow introduction, and sweet simplicity in the Adagio. The Fifth Symphony is so famous as to have become its own cliché if we’re not careful, but this is another decent performance, the timpani booming out perhaps a little heavily and the whole thing lacking that white-hot intensity Karajan managed to obtain in his 1960s Berlin Philharmonic recording, but still no real complaints to be had – especially with the blazing moment of climax at the opening of the final Allegro, piccolo perfectly audible in the mix.
The Sixth Symphony with its lyrical character is nicely served by Butt’s respectful tempi, and there is a lovely mood with the muted strings for the Andante molto mosso second movement. The storm scene has plenty of impact and a good sense of anticipation and turmoil, the thankful Allegretto perfectly pastoral in character. The Seventh Symphony is suitably darker, Beethoven’s tread searching and quite introverted for the most part, but with plenty of nice touches in the Presto, and a final Allegro con brio that moves along just fast enough to carry its own weight, though it could use a little more urgency, at times feeling like a country trot rather than a galloping chase.
The Eighth Symphony is a decent performance – warm and welcoming rather than urgent and dramatic. The Tempo di Menuetto is slower than we’ve come to expect it these days, Butt finding plenty to explore in the accents and phrasing, but ultimately losing that dancing rhythm which delivers the music’s wit and sparkle. The Ninth Symphony remains the most demanding of the set and indeed of the entire symphonic repertoire, and once again we have a good if not a really gripping performance. There is an exploratory feel to the first movement that suggests risk avoidance rather than inventive interpretation, though there is plenty of lively lightness of touch in the following Molto vivace. The Adagio molto e cantabile creates a point of repose rather than suggestions of poetic profundity, and the final movement is decent rather than really well-defined. The choir is fine if a bit shouty in places and the soloists are also pretty good, though Neal Davies’s confident opening solo is so rich in wide vibrato that the actual notes are hard to pick out at times.
Presentation is good for this set, with complete booklet notes from the original releases and fold-out CD trays in a double-CD size jewel case. Comparing versions at roughly the price point of this set you can have Herbert von Karajan’s 1960’s Deutsche Grammophon Berlin Philharmonic set, Sir Simon Rattle’s Vienna Philharmonic set on Warner Classics and Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin from the same source. For a just a little more cash there are sets such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Chamber Orchestra of Europe on its Warner Classics re-release, and for a little less there are stripped-bare budget bargains such as George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on the Sony Classics label.
It’s worth shopping around and having a listen in advance if you can, but if you can’t be bothered and decide to throw your hat in with Yondani Butt and the LSO then you’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to live with.
Symphony no. 1 in C major op. 21 [26:38]
Symphony no. 2 in D major op 36 [38:34]
Symphony no. 3 in E flat Eroica, op.55 [50:01]
The Creatures of Prometheus - Overture, op.43 [5:24]
Fidelio - Overture, op.72 [5:24]
King Stephen - Overture, op.117 [7:14]
Consecration of the House - Overture, op.124 [10:29]
Symphony no. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 [31:53]
Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [33:32]
Symphony no. 6 in F Pastoral, op.68 (1808) [40:48]
Symphony no. 7 in A major, op.92 (1812) [36:33]
Symphony no. 8 in F major Op. 93 [27:23]
Egmont Overture, Op. 84 [9:10]
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 [9:06]
Ruins of Athens Overture, Op. 113 [5:21]
Leonore Overture no. 3, Op. 72 [15:06]
Symphony no. 9 in D minor Op. 125 [70:07]