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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphonies 1-9
Edith Wiens (soprano), Hildegard Hartwig (alto), Keith Lewis (tenor), Roland Hermann (bass)
Hamburg State Opera Chorus; Chorus of North German Radio
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Günter Wand
rec. Hamburg, 1982-1988 RCA RED SEAL 19075818872 [5 CDs: 356:35]
These NDR Symphony Orchestra recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies conducted by Günter Wand have appeared in various guises over the years and now, 30 years on from their completion, they now emerge in the compact form of RCA’s ‘Masters’ edition, neatly packaged in a clamshell box with well-annotated card sleeves for each disc but no booklet notes, at a price that works out at roughly ₤ 3.50 a disc tops, or less if you shop around. The sequence the works are ordered happens to be identical to another fine cycle, that with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on the BIS label (review).
While not all of the symphonies from this set have been covered on these pages, John Quinn reviewed the Third and Eighth symphonies back in 2005, and the Ninth Symphony popped up in an ‘Essential Recordings’ tribute to Günter Wand, also reviewed by John Quinn. Symphonies 4 and 5 were reviewed by Jonathan Woolf in their re-mastered re-release from 2003. What you glean from these and other reviews is that this set of Beethoven symphonies is well crafted, solid and reliable, without controversial tempi or interpretational wilfulness. The orchestral sound is full, and though seemingly remote from the Historically Informed or period instrument movement Günter Wand is by no means heavy in his treatment of these works. The drama is present, with urgent but not rushed tempi in the First Symphony setting the scene and by no means leaving us feeling short-changed. I recently found a copy of Herbert von Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon set from the 1980s in a flea market, and while the sumptuous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic has its own unique character, I find Wand’s NDR Symphony Orchestra has a clarity and sense of purpose that is certainly its equal, and arguably preferable.
What you have with this set of the Beethoven symphonies is a ‘safe bet’, secure in the knowledge that there are no unpleasant surprises, and that the performance standard is very high indeed. The 1980s recordings are very good, though there is a very slight glassy tinge to the string sound with the earliest in the edition which may just be me imagining things through my analytical headphones, or may be a side-effect of early digital technology. The Sixth Symphony is a decent performance, with tempi held in reserve up to the impact of the storm scene. Perhaps not the most exciting ever recorded, but colourful and vibrant for all that. CD 2 opens with the Second Symphony which is very nicely balanced and shaped, with Beethoven’s dynamic nuances and inner voices shining through with luminous quality. The Seventh Symphony is another favourite, Wand again holding the tempo of the opening introduction back and heightening anticipation of the dramas to follow. He doesn’t linger with too much funereal weight over the Allegretto, but the seriousness is unmistakeably embedded in those string sonorities. The finale isn’t too wild in tempo, but you can feel Wand pushing through the climaxes and beyond with a momentum that holds you gripped.
CD 3 pairs the monumental ‘Eroica’ with the lighter Eighth Symphony, the former certainly arousing heroic moods in the striking confidence of its opening. Wand has the knack of pushing the music hard without giving it a discomforting edge or feel of hysteria, and the softer contrasts in this first Allegro con brio movement are handled superbly. The Marcia funebre brings out the latent but unsatisfied opera composer in Beethoven, the wind soloists singing arias and ensembles over strings that carry potent dramatic weight. Similar things might be said of the Finale, with Wand giving the opening pages a fresh and Mozartian wit. The Eighth Symphony should be gloriously sunny, and this is very much the case here, the con brio opening promising good things, and certainly delivering further along, with the Allegretto Scherzando jogging along with appealing lightness, the Tempo di Menuetto dance-like but very much of the concert rather than the dance hall with its imposing sonorities, and the final Allegro vivace thrilling from start to finish.
Clarity of narrative distinguishes this performance of the Fourth Symphony, with Wand’s uncomplicated approach letting the music speak for itself while at the same time hitting all those crucial points you want to pay off in any Beethoven symphony. I’m sure someone can find a more eloquent version of the Adagio, but proportion is always correct with Wand, from the colour of sound at any particular moment to the emotional investment in any particular movement in relationship to the whole. There is nothing perfunctory or ill-considered here and, as with all of these symphonies, this would make a fine desert-island choice. The Fifth Symphony is always a key work in any set, and Wand’s sense of rhythmic urgency prevents him from messing around with the opening, by no means over-egging those pauses and pushing us on more than we might be used to. This is a movement with both drama and swagger, bustling and turbulent, to the extent that the timpani player gets a little hot under the collar and is still playing quavers in bar 174 where there should only be a crotchet. The Andante con moto is magnificent, and the following Allegro nicely sculpted, that 1-in-a-bar disguising a swift triple tempo that takes flight in the second half of the movement. It is of course the final Allegro that delivers the real catharsis in this symphony, and Wand lets his brass rip through with really satisfying power in a performance that will keep you on the edge of your seat for all the right reasons.
The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven’s crowning if flawed achievement in this genre, and Wand’s focus on the monumental first movement balances out the work against its choral finale more than most. I would point out the Adagio molto e cantabile as something rather special in this recording, with Beethoven’s seemingly endless transitions taken as prayer-like moments rather than static passages either to be traversed with as little bother as possible, or soundscapes in which to wallow. The clarinet tone is a little over-penetrating here, but we can’t have everything. The singing is very good in this recording, with bass soloist Roland Hermann not hamming things up too much, the chorus giving their all, and the other solo voices forming a reasonably coherent ensemble, though Edith Wiens’ wobbly top end is admittedly a bit Hoffnung.
Of the very many Beethoven symphonic cycles from the last 50 years or so this has to be in the upper tier for reliably high-quality musicianship, non-intrusive but deeply effective conducting and vibrant sound quality. This is the sort of cycle you want to have as a reference against others can be judged: not too highly managed and personal like 1980s von Karajan, certainly not controversial or hair-shirt in any way, but very much filled with all of the thrills and moments of magic that make Beethoven’s symphonies works that always bring us back for more. It’s great that this desirable set is now in RCA’s compact Masters series. I think as a proud European I will henceforth keep my copy in the car and play it loudly with the windows open when driving through the UK’s South East this summer.
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) [26:42]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801) [32:58]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica" (1803) [49:57]
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [32:25]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op 67 (1807) [32:30]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” (1808) [44:49]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op 92 (1812) [42:04]
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (1812) [25:42]
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824) [66:23]