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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [32.12]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804/08) [34.15]
Wiener Symphoniker/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, March 8-9 2017, Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria
WIENER SYMPHONIKER WS014 [66.25]

Under Philippe Jordan the Wiener Symphoniker has released its new album of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies as part of its ongoing cycle of Beethoven symphonies, a project described by the orchestra as its ‘Road to Beethoven’.

When Jordan became music director of Wiener Symphoniker from the 2014/15 season he was continuing a famous conducting tradition. Previous chief conductors have included such eminent names as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Swarowsky, Josef Krips, Herbert von Karajan and Wolfgang Sawallisch with the position of music director held by Carlo Maria Giulini and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Guest conductors on the podium have included Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber, Sergiu Celibidache, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado.

In great demand, Zurich born Jordan is also music director of Opéra National de Paris and is due to leave Wiener Symphoniker to become musical director of Wiener Staatsoper from the 2020/21 season. In 2015 on its own label with Wiener Symphoniker Jordan released fine live accounts of Schubert’s symphonies Eight (‘Unfinished’) and Nine (‘Great’) recorded in 2014/15 at the Musikverein, Vienna (review). Staying with the theme of great Viennese composers, Jordan and Wiener Symphonikerin 2017 turned their attention to Beethoven with live Musikverein performances of the First and Third ‘Eroica’ Symphonies (review).

Following this release, the partnership will release the Second and Seventh Symphonies in autumn 2018, and then in spring 2019 the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies. The cycle will culminate with Ninth Symphony ‘Choral’ which is planned for release in autumn 2019. As can be seen from the projected release dates the cycle will be ready in time for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven in 2020. Surprisingly, given its long history and roster of music directors this is the first time that Wiener Symphoniker has recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies.

Written in the summer of 1806 the Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Count Franz von Oppersdorff a Silesian nobleman who commissioned the work. Robert Schumann viewed the work as “a slender Greek maiden between two Northland giants”, given its position between the ‘Eroica’ and Fifth. Beethoven actually stopped work on the Fifth Symphony to compose this B-flat major score. It was the following year when Beethoven conducted the Fourth before the public at a Liebhaber-Concert at University of Vienna. Opening with an Adagio section the mood is sometimes said to evoke a dark prison scene from an opera. This is followed by a buoyant Allegro vivace section with Jordan’s reading radiating an uplifting celebratory feel. Delightfully lyrical, the Adagio movement with its pastoral feel is full of sensitive playing - all disarming calm and contentment. The third movement Allegro vivace which combines elements of the scherzo and minuet is rather unevenly played as one senses Jordan is experiencing challenges with rhythm and tempi control. Marked Allegro ma non troppo the dazzling finale feels eminently exhilarating under Jordan’s baton.

After a gestation period of several years the Fifth Symphony was finished in 1808. Dedications to both Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky appear on the printed score. Beethoven himself introduced the symphony the same year at Theater an der Wien. Most of the members of the Wiener Symphoniker will have performed this enduringly popular symphony countless times yet their playing sounds eminently fresh. Marked Allegro con brio, in the bold opening movement Jordan creates a resolute rather serious tone. His is a powerful performance of striking intensity. One of my favourite movements in all Beethoven’s symphonies is the Andante con moto where Jordan fashions a proud sense of engagement with an inner glow redolent of a magnificent Tyrolean setting. Yet in my view no conductor has equalled on record the same level of spine-tingling intensity that Karajan and his Berliner players bring to the Andante con moto in their 1962 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin account on Deutsche Grammophon. In the third movement Allegro, cast in a scherzo and trio form, Jordan conveys a positive feel and the finale marked Allegro is as exhilarating as I have heard, providing a satisfying sense of resolution.

Unlike many of the older recordings of these symphonies, for example Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berliner Philharmoniker (Fourth Symphony recorded 1943 and Fifth Symphony recorded 1943 and 1947) these live accounts from Wiener Symphoniker sound moderately different from ‘big band’ Beethoven with Jordan presiding over less weighty contemporary performances using period-informed insights containing leaner textures, judicious use of vibrato and pointed articulation, employing Beethoven’s original markings and preserving the repeats. Some might yearn for the rich tonal power of the Furtwängler accounts especially the deep resonance of the low strings that typically underpin his performances. But certainly don’t think of these accounts from Wiener Symphoniker under Jordan as merely lightweight: these are performances of real gravitas, steeped in its characteristic Viennese sound tradition.

Recorded live in concert in the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein the sound quality is a credit to the engineering team, being quite bright, clear and well balanced. I could detect virtually no extraneous noise and the applause has been taken out. The booklet essay ‘Shadow Player and Sky Stormer’ by Walter Weidringer is first class, being interesting and informative although the small size of the print sorely tested my new glasses’ prescription.

Where the Beethoven symphonies are concerned, with such an outstanding if bewildering choice in the record catalogues it can become difficult to settle on one specific set. There are a few conductors who have recorded more than one cycle with Karajan having four. My first choice recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies both from the Berliner Philharmoniker are contained in complete sets firstly under Sir Simon Rattle recorded live in 2015 at Philharmonie, Berlin on the orchestra’s own label (review) and secondly the 1962 accounts from Herbert von Karajan recorded under studio conditions at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon (review).

Philippe Jordan and his Wiener Symphoniker lavish great care and attention on these Beethoven performances. Although not my primary choices these unaffected accounts are of high quality and I’ll certainly play them often.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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