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 (1804-1808) [34:13]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 8-9 March, 2017 Goldener Saal, Musikverein Vienna
WIENER SYMPHONIKER WS014 [66:25]
It was as recent as the end of 2016 that the label Arthaus Musik released a set of Beethoven symphonies led by conductor Philippe Jordan. That cycle was on video, both Blu-ray and DVD, featuring the Paris Opera Orchestra in live concerts, with excellent engineering and, for the most part, quite fine performances. Here, Jordan is doing another live cycle, this time on CD with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Chief Conductor at the start of the 2014-2015 season. I rarely ever question the decision of a label, in this case the orchestra’s in-house label, to release a particular recording or to begin a new multi-disc venture, even if it is yet another cycle of the ubiquitous Beethoven symphonies and even if it is the conductor's second effort within just a couple of years. So, I will not question the decision to issue this new set. Who knows, maybe it will improve on the recent one and be competitive with the best efforts in this very crowded field. Or maybe it will offer something revelatory in one or several performances, or produce a feature you had not counted on, something allowing you to appreciate the music in a different way.
Actually, this cycle began with the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, released in the fall of 2017, which I missed. That appears to be my misfortune because these performances of the Fourth and Fifth are quite fine and bode well for the entire cycle. I cannot say I have heard something ‘revelatory’ in the two works here, but I have noticed something ‘I hadn't counted on’, something quite pleasing and actually surprising: you might well mistake the playing of this ensemble, one of Vienna’s ‘other’ orchestras, for that of their more highly acclaimed rivals across town. It is that impressive: in both these rather energetic and driven works the strings play with accuracy, crispness and brio, exhibiting multiple, well-judged gradations of dynamics and exquisitely delineated rhythms. Winds are impressive, too: for once, trumpets do not sound bombastic or bland, but robust and heroic instead. This ensemble's style differs from that of the Paris Opera Orchestra in their tauter, more spirited and somewhat more precise playing. Mind you, the Paris players are quite convincing, but this Vienna ensemble has the edge.
One senses that Maestro Jordan also recognizes their superiority. The tempi in the performances of these two symphonies are faster in just about every movement, sometimes markedly faster, and I understand that is also the case in the First and Third symphonies. Jordan pushes this orchestra harder and they deliver. The Fourth's opening panel effervesces with drive and energy, and the final two movements exhibit the same kind of infectious spirit. The second movement is pleasingly dreamy and lyrical but quite animated too, and you wonder if the music here has ever sounded significantly better.
The Fifth is also quite convincing. The first movement is filled with tension and drama, and the ensuing panel features a more driven character than is usual and brass playing that has an edge, never hinting at bombast. Some listeners may find the tempo choices throughout the symphony, as well as in the Fourth, a bit on the fast side, at least some of the time. Personally, I can live with these livelier tempi, though in places one senses the overall spiritedness may be too much of a good thing. Drama, energy and leanness abound but the epic side of the music, particularly in the Fifth, is slightly shortchanged. Right from the start of the finale, for instance, the orchestra rings out powerfully with triumph and an impactful sense of drama all right, but there is also a sharp-edged curtness that suggests a sort of defiance. Some listeners will probably like this approach, but it comes across as a little stiff or mechanical to my ears. Still, the conductor's take on the music overall is eminently valid and the performances are simply excellent.
The competition? In these two symphonies, my preferences on CD have been, but are not limited to, Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Harnoncourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec), Jochum/London Symphony Orchestra (EMI). On video I have favored Jansons/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Arthaus Musik) and Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (C Major). Older efforts by Toscanini, Szell and others can be included, if the listener does not mind the dated sonics. As for these new performances by Jordan and the Vienna Symphony, I can say they clearly stand among the better ones, nearly with the best even. Sound reproduction is vivid too.