INKPOT#86 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN Complete Symphonies. Overtures. Missa Solemnis. Hanover Band/Hugget/Goodman/Kvam (Nimbus)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

The Nine Symphonies
Overtures to Coriolan
The Ruins of Athens
King Stephen
; Leonore No. 2
; Egmont
The Creatures of Prometheus
The Consecration of the House

Missa Solemnis

Symphony No.9:

Eiddwen Harrhy soprano Jean Bailey contralto
Andrew Murgatroyd tenor Michael George bass

Missa Solemnis:

Marianne Hirsti soprano Carolyn Watkinson mezzo-soprano
Andrew Murgatroyd tenor Michael George bass
Roy Goodman solo violin

Oslo Cathedral Choir Terje Kvam director
conducted by MONICA HUGGETT (Syms. 1, 2 & 5; Egmont & Prometheus overtures)
ROY GOODMAN (Syms. 3-4, 6-9, other overtures); and
TERJE KVAM (Missa Solemnis).

NIMBUS NI 1760 (super-budget price)
Disc 1 (NI 5144) Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 [62’28]
Disc 2 (NI 5145) Symphonies nos. 3 & 4 [79’06]
Disc 3 (NI 5146) Symphonies nos. 5 & 6 [76’00]
Disc 4 (NI 5147) Symphonies nos. 7 & 8 [65’38]
Disc 5 (NI 5148) Symphony no.9 [65’46]
Disc 6 (NI 5205) Overtures [63’00]
Disc 7 (NI 5109) Missa Solemnis [71’47]

Recorded 1982-88

by Benjamin Chee

Beethoven This wonderful bargain-boxed set from Nimbus comes as the third offering in a series of Beethoven’s complete works. Previously, Nimbus had already released the string quartets (Medici String Quartet, NI 1785) and piano sonatas (Bernard Roberts, NI 1774); these collections – along with possibly the concerti – could be said to comprise the locus classicus of Beethoven’s contributions in this canon.

What makes this seven-disc set particularly attractive is not just the interest elicited by these performances, but also in the depth of content, as yet unmatched by any other label: we get all the symphonies and all but three of the overtures, with the weighty Missa Solemnis thrown in for good measure.

As might be expected in a corpus of works of such progressive dynamism, the level of merit in each of the performances are variable and surely, no single artist can convey all the insights into works of such temperment. Indeed, the fact that two conductors shared directing responsibilities for the symphonies and overture (with a third taking on the Missa, no less) is belied by a denominative consistency in the reading of the pieces.

The recordings date from between 1982 to 1988; all but one of the symphonies and the Missa Solemnis were recorded at All Saints’ in London. Its acoustics is characteristically very spacious, which may not suit all tastes. The reverberation sometimes reaches a point which imparts a very distinct “front-to-back” perspective to the music that makes the woodwinds and human chorus sound somewhat disembodied under a sonic barrage of strings, brass and/or percussion.

Also, such is the quality of acoustic pickup that ambient background noises, such as the hiss and pop of instruments being fingered, chairs creaking, pages being turned, etc, are caught on record – too much of a good thing here, perhaps. On the other hand, it certainly does not detract from the illusion of spontaniety that this sort of ambience projects.

The “authentic” performing edition of the symphonies used here was prepared by the Beethoven symphonist non pareil, Jonathan Del Mar (who later also prepared editions for Gardiner and Zinman in their respective symphonic surveys) and Caroline Brown.

In the First Symphony, the temper of the music is immediately established by Huggett with the two opening pairs of notes: vast and extemporaneous. This is an acoustic that dimensionally pushes back the walls of your room. The reedy timbre of “authentic” strings and winds may be unpalatable to listeners unused to it, but such are the proclivities of period performance, and newcomers to this fashion of performance should consider themselves forewarned.

The introduction quickly moves a gear up from adagio molto (and it is not very molto, at that) into the allegro of the first movement with much vivacity. Huggett lingers somewhat in the slow movement, but the third and fourth movements are equally as felicitious as the first – the braying horns in the orchestral tuttis despatched against shimmering strings is exuberant. Rhythms are very well articulated, and the Hanoverians, one senses readily, are alert and on top of things.

The Second Symphony is no less infectious in character. The four-note rising figure on winds in the first movement is ribaldly echoed by the orchestra, and the pace thereon is comfortably brisk. The other movements are evenly attractive in their sobreity, and there is some conviction in the playing throughout, even if the ensemble is not always flawless. Huggett’s tempered approach is refreshing and artistically viable; indeed, she is an impressive exponent of Beethoven, if these two symphonies are anything to go by.

It is equally welcome to hear an unharried reading of the Eroica for a change – or at least, one that doesn’t begin with its emotional bank already on overdraft. Goodman, taking over the reins of the Hanover Band, launches the work at a leisurely pace, without being wilfully incisive or lackadaisical. His reading adopts the “middle-of-the-way”, allowing the music to evolve and develop its own pathos as it unfolds – which may be just what it needs.

The marcia funebre also carries on in the same vein – idiosyncratically (if we may be permitted such a description here) underplayed, but injecting appropriate doses of gravitas at the key points. In contrast, the two rear movements start off rather frenzied before settling down somewhat. The scherzo is ripped off at high speed, and the thematic variations of the last movement sound like a leisurely mid-afternoon discourse between various sections of the orchestra.

If one could approach the Eroica with some degree of introvertion, it would be this reading. There are shades of Haitink here, and the Hanover Band responds with great empathy to Goodman’s direction. The winds are particularly outstanding, although the strings do sound rather plangent sometimes.

The Fourth Symphony starts off rather indifferently: Beethoven here reverts to a slow Haydnesque prelude by way of introduction, and Goodman takes a retrogressive approach by belabouring the slow opening. However, the tempo picks up smartly thereafter, and with bright and reverbrant sound, drives forward with some intensity.

Curiously, the other movements don’t seem to suffer from this “need to warm up” syndrome – there is an unanimity of purpose in the way the music develops from the start in each of the movements. The last movement is taken slightly slower than expected; indeed, the reverberation makes the Hanover Band playing at full strength sound ponderous, which takes a bit off the sheen of what would have been a thrilling dash towards the finishing line, what with the sprightly strings and winds and all.

With an insistent driving rhythm built on the four-note ostinato which introduces the work, the Fifth Symphony bounds along with great relish at a well-taken pace. Huggett, who returns to direct, lets the music work itself up to a titanic struggle between the C minor and major modes. The thoughtful nuances of the second movement are perfectly captured, the third movement rendered as a veritable musical fulcrum of the struggle, and the transition into the fourth movement glorious.

The articulation of the ensemble here is crisp, but there is some annoying resonance when the massed orchestral forces are playing. (It has, interestingly, the side effect of making the recording sound “live”). Del Mar’s version of the symphony here includes the restoration of an additional repeat of the allegro and trio (A-B-A-B-A), a practice which is followed in period and new editions, instead of the usual A-B-A form found in orthodox performance.

The most difficult oeuvre to “get right” of all the Beethovenian symphonies is, one feels, the Pastoral. It is the perpetual stumbling block in many surveys of the Beethoven symphonies by various conductors and orchestras. Goodman here makes a valiant attempt to break this “bad habit”, but the charisma is just not there: the feelings upon arrival in the countryside could be a tad more cheerful, the peasant dances merrier and the shepherd’s thanksgiving hymn more joyful.(It is also worth mentioning here that for an explicit demonstration of the solecism of period performance, as compared to modern performance, one need only listen to the raging storm – or so it says – of this reading to realize the limitations of authentic instruments in tone and volume.)

This is not to say that the reading fails – there is great poetry in this music delivered by the winds, and the scene by the brook readily conveys the listener to the woods of the Wiesenthal near Heiligenstadt which so abundantly inspired the composer – but it is hardly a contender inter pares against the other Pastorals. This is, at best, a diligent performance which suffices (if only) to hold its place as a weak link in this cycle.

The Seventh Symphony, one of the biggest hits Beethoven enjoyed in his time, contains springy rhythmic energy and dramatic colour, and Goodman delivers a performance worthy of it. Indeed, it puts one in Wagner’s frame of mind when he described this symphony as (excuse the clich) the “apotheosis of the dance”.

The rollicking horns in the first and last movements are particularly impressive. There is a touch of heavy contemplation in the allegretto, which is taken at a slightly slower pace than usual. Otherwise, the music drives along in the other movements without being excessive. Goodman draws from his ensemble exactly the right level of energy required. The sound is atmospheric and spacious, as usual.

Coming, as it does, directly after the exuberance of the Seventh, the diminuitive Eighth Symphony is somewhat overshadowed by its elder sibling. There is a certain sparkle missing in this performance, which comes across as rather severe in some parts, although that is not to say there are also moments of piquant charm (in the second movement).

But the music somehow fails to work itself out of its lethargy. The tempo di menuetto of the third and allegro vivace of the fourth movement absolutely plod along without verve or adrenalin. This reading could be well described as one which crosses its “i’s” and dots its “t’s”, but just fails to attain much else in the way of sentience or character.

Thankfully, Goodman’s interpretation of the Ninth has much to commend it. He adopts very scrupulous tempi in the first two movements, and sculpts the third at leisure with more than just a touch of cantabile, allowing the ebb and flow of tension to run freely in the music-making. The sense of mystery in the opening pianissimo of the first movement eludes him, but the subsequent development is very well characterised. The second movement is also driven with some intensity after the introductory precipitous octave-jumps.

The penultimate movement is not rushed, either, but taken with the same fervency as in the earlier movements. The choral climaxes are voluptuous and immaculately-shaped, with the Oslo choir in top form. The quartet of soloists is no less impressive, either – they have a keen empathy for the meaning underlying Schilder’s Ode. This is a fitting performance to complete the traversal of all nine symphonies on a high note (in more than one sense of the word).

The first bonus disc is a comprehensive collection of overtures, which is just only less than complete: it only lacks Leonore No.1 and No.3, and Zur Namensfeier to make a full house. But what is available should be more than sufficient to please any collector. Beethovenian overtures, it could be said, are popularly used as fillers on complete symphonic sets.

The elegance and wit of these performances which would have given this disc an unreserved commendation is, sadly, let down by the sound. Recorded at various times in conjunction with the other symphonies, this particular collection seems to have been assembled and transferred to disc, whether by intent or not, with a lot of reverb, very notably so in Fidelio. (The woodwinds, in particular, are totally done for under the muddle of strings and brasses.) If one can accept such a level of resonance, this is well recommended.

What makes the Missa Solemnis, the better-than-expected second bonus in this collection, noteworthy is its distinction of being the first period recording. Terje Kvam, the erstwhile chorus master of the Oslo Cathedral Choir, conducts.

This is a superlative performance, both in terms of scale and drama. Much like Huggett and Goodman, Kvam has a very good sense of the architecture of this cathedral-like music, and presents it without unnecessary inflation. Instead, he finds the music’s spirit in moments of hushed solemnity, and very eloquently, draws out the swelling grandeur of the music from his team of musicians and choristers. The soloists are impressive, as is the chorus.

The characteristic Nimbus resonance is present, although not to any perceptible degree of coarseness or annoyance; however, the spaciousness of the recording does mean that the choir is set slightly back and at times obscured by the music.

This box is, all things considered, not a miserly collection of Beethoven’s Nine; rather quite the opposite, in fact. Musically, all three directors are conspicuously in touch with the Weltanschauung of the music, and there is very little that is contentious or disagreeable with the mtier of their readings. Overall, the ambience of the recording is warm and expansive. The spacious acoustic may prove to be excessive for some listeners, however, as might the pungent timbres of period instruments. This set also includes an excellent eight-page prcis of the featured works by David Threasher.

As an added point of interest, these works were recorded in the mid- to late-eighties, just about at the dawn of the renaissance of period performance, and it is insightful to see how Goodman and Huggett approached their authenticisms (coming, as it were, between the pioneering ventures of Harnoncourt, and the latter-day orthodoxies of Gardiner).

Taken individually, the symphonies on offer could not by any means be considered as front-runners in their respective fields – but collectively, these are not merely “barely average” recordings either. In fact, from a holistic perspective, the modus operandi of the interpretations that journey from the first to the last symphony in a unifying arc becomes an exegesis in itself, something which is surely worth exploring.

With the exceptionally generous inclusion of the overtures and Missa Solemnis, this package becomes an embarras de richesses that no other budget set (let alone full-priced cycles) comes close in terms of content, which runs to eight hours and four minutes of playing time.

And, at super-bargain price, what else is there left to be said ?

597: 11.10.1999 Benjamin Chee

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