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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56 [35.48]
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 [39.48]
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Daniel Barenboim (piano)
rec. live, July 2019, Buenos Aires (symphony); October 2019, Berlin

All this talk of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary is making me feel old – not that I was exactly around for the 200th celebrations, you understand, but Beethoven’s music has always been so relevant, even modern in its own way.  Stravinsky famously said of the Grosse Fugue that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music, that will be forever contemporary”. And who can overlook the ‘boogie-woogie’ variation from his final piano sonata?  This new, star-studded album from Deutsche Grammophon taken from live concerts in Berlin and Buenos Aires during 2019, has been released as part of their contribution to the celebrations and is currently available on download (MP3, FLAC and Hi-Res Flac), as well as from May 2020, CD, DVD. Blu-ray and vinyl too.  I’m only surprised that they haven’t gone all the way and released it on cassette as well!

The blurb accompanying the publicity release makes much noise about all the anniversaries surrounding this recording, not just of Beethoven, but also that marking the 20th anniversary of the formation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as well as the 40 years since Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma themselves recorded the same piece again in Berlin and once more for the Yellow Label, on that occasion with the pianist  Mark Zeltser and the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.

I have always been fond of Karajan’s second recording of the Triple Concerto, where the freshness of his young soloists was set against the very grand, almost gruff, response from the conductor and his orchestra; Karajan clearly interpreted the music through the prism of late (rather than middle) Beethoven.  On the DVD for this new release, there is a brief interview with the three soloists during which Barenboim (always the most interesting commentator to listen to) opines that, unlike the piano and violin concertos where the soloist almost plays against the orchestra, in the Triple Concerto it is for three soloists and orchestra.  This is quite important for, whether by design or fault of the sound engineers on this recording (remember too, I am auditioning this via a download), the orchestra is set quite far back behind the star soloists, so much so I was rather surprised at how ‘present’ they had become when the symphony (placed second) started. It’s very different from the earlier Karajan recording where, for better or for worse (depending upon your viewpoint), the orchestra is almost peering over the shoulders of the soloists. It is also rather different from what most listeners may be used to these days – Barenboim has always been a “traditionalist” as far as Beethoven is concerned and so there is nothing here (in either work) that is revelatory in terms of text or being ‘historically informed’. Rather, I was instead impressed at quite how ‘fresh’ these artists still were with the music, resulting in music-making that was warm as well as engaging and in the second movement Largo, played very romantically, ultimately moving. And for those of you who like to know these things, Barenboim (as he did on his previous recording of the work for EMI) does sustain those final chords for piano at the end – and why not? I think it’s just another example of Beethoven’s genius and ‘modernity’ at work.

Whether or not the end results here are in fact an improvement over that EMI recording Barenboim also made with Yo-Yo Ma, partnered with Itzhak Perlman, also live at the Philharmonie in Berlin in 1995 but on that occasion with the BPO, is debatable.  What isn’t debatable is that this time the coupling is more generous than the Choral Fantasia on the EMI, with a live performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony given at the Kirchner Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires in July 2019.  This is actually Barenboim’s third recording of the symphony and I am happy to report that it is a vast improvement over the disappointingly routine recording he made with same orchestra for Decca in 2012. Comparisons with the earlier, first recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle made for Teldec in 1999 (review), shows little differences in interpretation save for the opening, which is tauter than the more consciously monumental approach of before. Barenboim still divides the fiddles, which will please many, and the whole performance in 2019 is alive and crackles with a sense of occasion. If you asked me how I’d describe Barenboim’s style in this work, well, he is not quite as turbo-charged as Toscanini, Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, nor as individual as Furtwängler (or Pletnev and Thielemann, to name two slightly more contemporary examples); it also goes without saying that any comparisons with Norrington, Gardiner et al is just pointless. Instead, he is closer to Bruno Walter, where the geniality of the music is captured too at slightly less supersonic speeds than those favoured by some other maestros – and if that’s how you like your Beethoven, then you may well enjoy this performance very much. That said, the earlier Teldec recording also generated its own considerable charge and the Berlin orchestra possessed a grander and more splendid sound that suited the conductor’s approach to the music better than the thinner sounding West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, although you could argue that the latter sound more like the period instrument ensemble in comparison. However, overall this is a fine and exciting performance in the ‘traditional’ style – had I witnessed it in concert, I would have considered myself lucky. Does it displace my many favourite recordings I already have of the Seventh though? Not really, no.

In conclusion, this is a fine, generously-filled and well-recorded album of Beethoven’s music, in traditional performances that are very good, if not quite ‘great’.

Lee Denham

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