INKPOT#87 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN Complete Symphonies. Various/Tonhalle Orchestra Zrich/Zinman (Arte Nova)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

The Nine SymphoniesSymphony No.9:
Ruth Ziesak soprano
Birgit Remmert alto
Steve Davislim tenor
Detlef Roth bass

Schweizer Kammerchor (Swiss Chamber Choir)
Fritz Nf chorusmaster

Tonhalle Orchestra Zrich
conducted by David Zinman

ARTE NOVA 74321 65410-2 super-budget price
Disc 1 (74321 63645-2) Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 [54’05]
Disc 2 (74321 59214-2) Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 [75’27]
Disc 3 (74321 49695-2) Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 [73’37]
Disc 4 (74321 56341-2) Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 [60’34]
Disc 5 (74321 65411-2) Symphony No.9 [72’34]

Recorded 1982-88

by Benjamin Chee

This new edition from Arte Nova is not so much a specially packaged collection in a jewel-case as each of the individual discs economically packed into a cardboard slipcase. These works were recorded over a period of three years, with the central symphonies recorded first and the outer works completed only as recently as December 1998.

In view of the packaging, there isn’t a booklet which deals with the works as a single conspectus; rather, we are advised on the slipcase to to “see (individual) booklets for details”. Each booklet includes a succinct history of the individual symphonies, a background essay on the Brenreiter Urtext edition used in the recording, as well as a listing of the performers for each work.

However, the usefulness of such information is dubious, especially when the effort could have been directed towards the catching of careless mistakes in the notes: the date of the premiere of the Second Symphony is, for example, incorrectly given as 4 April 1803 although, curiously, the German and French translations give the correct date, 5 April.

As mentioned already, each of the sleeve notes contains an identical advocatory essay by Jonathan Del Mar, who prepared the Brenreiter Urtext, with an explanation of the reasons and effort that went into these new editions – which do sound materially different, in various places, from the orthodox mistake-ridden Breitkopf versions so commonly used in performance and propagated down the years.

While Del Mar’s scholarship has its points, we have to consider too that even if, as he contends, the symphonies have been performed with printers’ editing and transcription errors for the last century or so, it still remains to be seen whether musicians and audiences at large are amenable to these changes – even in the interest of getting closer to Beethoven’s creative intentions – that will alter well-recognised masterpieces into something less familiar.

Portrait of Beethoven by Michel Katzaroff, early 1930s

Right: Portrait of Beethoven
by Michel Katzaroff, early 1930s.

Inevitably, all but the most obvious musical changes would pass most listeners by, unless they have the werewithal to study the new editions for themselves – surely too much to expect for the majority of audiences. Whether this collection will be a ground-breaking venture in the classical symphonic canon or turn out to be a basket of curate’s eggs hinges largely on this issue.The end-product, as performed by Zinman and his Zrich ensemble, sounds very much like something which started with Gardiner’s evangelism on authentic performance (who, it should be pointed out, also had Del Mar’s assistance in the preparation of his performing scores) but taken a step further. Indeed, in remaining faithful to authentic Beethovenian tempi, Zinman sets new speed records across all the symphonies when taken against the cycles by Goodman, Gardiner and Hogwood, with the sole exception of Gardiner’s Third, which Zinman exceeds by only forty seconds.

The begging question is, naturally, whether following Beethoven’s own metronome markings results in haste making waste. The openings of the first two symphonies are taken at pace, without indulgence or protraction. The result is that the duo of notes at the starting of the First is imparted a sense of hurriedness, while the contrast from the slow intro moving up the gears into the faster exposition of the Second‘s opening movement is less accentuated than it otherwise should have been.

Indeed, at these speeds, some might consider Zinman’s approach to the juvenilia of Beethoven’s great symphonic canon almost reckless. However, the outer movements are rhythmically contagious and the slow movements are not unduly dragged out. Indeed, even with the Brenreiter Urtext and its differences, Zinman does not indulge in eccentricities to the extent other conductors have done, although the last movement of the Second is unbelievably hectic. Otherwise, the Tonhalle Orchestra swings the music off with great panache. It certainly does justice to Gardiner’s thesis that Beethoven’s music should sound like it’s being played by the seat-of-your-pants.

However, and this is asked with some caution, if a side-effect of the new Urtext is to urge hectic tempi on conductors, one can see that it will either take some time for current audiences to get used to these speeds, or else, after a brief period of novelty, never at all. As George Grove has asked in his treatise Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (Dover, 1962),
“Why must we take music at so much faster a pace than it could have been played at in the time of the composer? The whole world moved more slowly then than it does now, even so soon after the impulse of the French Revolution.”

The digital sound of the Zrich Tonhalle is pleasingly transparent. At some points there is an aggressive harshness in the brasses; but the strings are immaculate and the woodwinds stylish. Adding to this the occasional “what was that?” changes in the music which will make listeners already familiar with the standard Breitkopf editions metaphorically sit up, this offering of the two early symphonies will definitely pique the curiosity of the musically adventurous. On its own, and at super-budget price, it is surely well worth exploring.

The “Eroica” clocks in at the exact identical speed as Gardiner’s version of the same work – and both of them on average come in two minutes under other readings. Certainly, Zinman wastes no time in getting off the starting blocks from the thumping introductory chords – but it does take some doing as he builds the music-making up to a certain sense of purposefulness. The “Funeral March”, similarly, could be more searching from the onset, without such a conspicuous need to “warm up” to the pathos of the music.In contrast, the scherzo begins with a sense of urgency but this only serves to make the trio appear rather brutal. The final movement makes amends for this to some degree: it has its moments (listen out for that solo violin) of charm and luster, albeit unfolding in a fairly mild-mannered fashion. The woodwinds are particularly outstanding. However, the coda, coming as it does out of nowhere with a devastating orchestral blast, builds up too abruptly to its climax. In the last instance, this reading cannot be considered as “heroic” at all in its intensity of expression, even if the performance is competent and even (if only) warmly persuasive.

After an unassuming introduction, the Fourth is instantly engaging, with speeds on the fast side. The playing is unpretentious, but there is something coarse-grained about Zinman’s approach that diminishes the character of the music in the second and third movements. There are moments where the music waxes lyrical, but only moments. The fourth movement is pushed along at a cracking pace without giving the music a chance to breathe.Zinman is sympathetic to the music, that much is evident, but the impression which one gets is a mechanical joining-of-dots to complete the picture. Revised Urtext or not, there is much more that can be made from this music, and this performance, per aspera ad astra, has to be approached with some reservation.

The ubiquitous Fifth and Sixth symphonies were the first of this cycle to be recorded and released together on the same disc. This Fifth Symphony is an incisive reading that brings to mind shades of Boehm and Toscanini; the tension, from the onset of “fate knocking at the door”, is kept up with some urgency, yet retaining conviction and vision.But this is not a titanic struggle as much as cantatis qua cantatis (i.e. music as it is for its own sake) and a dramatic rendition it is at that, too. It is not very often we find the oboe improvisation in the first movement as extravagant as in this version. The playing in the second movement is as natty as a sharply-dressed suit. The third movement asks a searching (albeit fast-tempoed) question in the minor mode, which is majestically answered in the ossature of the fourth. It would not be amiss to say that this performance is the jewel in the crown of this entire cycle.

The “Pastoral” has always been the acid test of any Beethoven symphonic cycle, partly because it carries an uncertain burden of being explicitly programmatic music that, perhaps, raises a different set of expectations from its audience.Zinman begins this genial work not so much as a gentle stroll in the country as a drive-by in a motorcar, such is the tempo he adopts. The scene by the brook is far more idyllic, with woodwind bird-calls chirping sweetly. He also playfully captures the al fresco setting of the merry folk dancing. There is a terrific build-up to the storm, but the haste with which the cloudburst erupts and passes over robs it of anything which the peasant has anything to be thankful about in the final movement. Nonetheless, the Tonhalle Orchestra do render thanksgivings with the correct dollop of mot juste, and overall this is not an unsatisfying reading at all. At super-budget price, this disc (Fifth and Sixth) is also worth collecting individually if one is not going for the entire volume.

David Zinman

On the Seventh, we also get a very fine performance from Zinman (right) and his troupe. It was one of the more highly regarded works Beethoven enjoyed in its day, and the same can be said of this recording. The exuberance of the music is sustained splendidly, although the sound balance could have favoured the brasses a bit more. The inner movements are tossed off with not very much fastidiousness, but then, at this speed, one is not given much time to linger on such nuances.Certainly, this is the sort of singular approach that one would expect, and get, from Zinman in drawing the deux ex machina from the notes. The last movement is another record-breaker (he takes more than half a minute off the next lowest time) but by now, this should come as no great surprise. Again, this would be recommendable for its novelty value as an Urtext premiere, but for the same reason, not as a front-runner in its field.

The Eighth gets off to an explosive start, and for once, the tempo is not chased mercilessly. Even so, this is a high-octane, jet-propelled performance: the music sallies along in a humourous temper, with the tonic chords sallying away merrily. Following this commotion, the Allegretto scherzando comes as a catharsis, taken with equestrian grace and lapidary dressage. Zinman does not miss the joke with the metronomic semiquavers, either. The following minuet is tossed off most engagingly, and the trio has a most tender strain. After the tranquility of the central movements, the finale reverts to the high spirits of the first movement: there is sly musical humour in abundance. This is a reading which is young at heart and has smiles all over, even if the symphony is the most diminuitive of Beethoven’s nine.

The “Choral” Symphony is a sublime creation, and in the wrong hands can be made to sound tired and careworn. Not so for Zinman’s account. He claims this work with a very clear sense of conviction, even if it is disturbingly similar to his approach for the other symphonies. Not that one expects a sharply differentiated approach when a conductor embarks on a performance and recording of the entire canon, but this “grand view” also tends to squeeze everything into the middle to seek out common denominators rather than let each work stand on its own.Interestingly, Zinman offers an alternative version of the last movement, with one track starting the final movement as normal and ending just after the choral climax of “Vor Gott!”. The next track presents the remainder of the same movement without any modification; a third track that comes thereafter presents an alternate rendition of the movement’s conclusion, played with the general pause.

In Beethoven’s autograph, apparently, the composer had included a pause at bar 747, just before the word “Brder”. In later editions, Beethoven crossed it out for reasons yet unknown, and performance practice has remained thus since; Zinman, in the sleeve notes, suggests that it would therefore be an item of interest to hear this passage as it was originally conceived, so accustomed have we become to hearing it as we usually do without the general pause.

There is a fluidity in the way Zinman shapes the playing in the first movement, with rhythms incisive and musical phrases emphatically turned. The second movement springs along with equally crisp articulation from winds and strings, aided by athletic timpani beats. The lyricism of the music in the opening of the slow movement immediately catches one’s ear: it is unashamedly romantic, without being soporific or self-indulgent, and retains much of its empathy throughout.

The fourth movement begins in the usual dramatic fashion, with a great sense of occasion. Zinman, for once, indulges in rubato in the recapitulation of the themes of the first three movements, and he manages to accentuate the differences between them rather tellingly. The orchestra throws off the theme of the “Ode” very crisply, and if the entry of Detlef Ross, the bass, is not immediately authoritative, he still manages an emphatic exhortation to have “no more of these sounds”. His colleagues are no less compentent, and together they do not form a bad team of soloists, either – although, in all fairness, there have been more well-blended quartets.

The tracks, as mentioned, biurficate upon reaching the point where the “military march” begins. Zinman’s use of a Turkish cymbal here presents this passage in an entirely new (and very exotic) perspective. It is a pity that the tenor, Steve Davislim, sounds rushed at the cut-time tempo. While there is great electricity in this performance, the relentless exhiliration of authentic speeds can become quite a draining experience for listeners.

The alternate cue with the general pause, strangely twelve seconds shorter than the previous one, cannot have much to commend it other than of curiosity value – at least that is the impression one gets. The fermata in question comes at about 8 minutes 36 seconds into the track, and having heard it, one wonders if a one-second pause was worth the trouble to include as a separate track, over an issue which is largely academic. (Of course, one can also choose to ignore it altogether, which is what programmable CD players are for.)

Left: ‘Beethoven Composing the Missa Solemnis’ (1819).
Anonymous, after a painting by Josef Stieler

Curiously enough, the sleeve notes for this disc have omitted – it is hard to tell whether this occured by intent or accident – the text of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, something which the average listener might find useful. Surely, this information should have greater priority than, say, a list of every choral and instrumental participant (which is itself a laudable idea, but not at the expense of more important things.)

Ignoring the frills, this is a rather satisfying completion of the survey. At Beethoven’s own speeds, and the corresponding tempermant which Zinman injects into it, this cycle is all but an authentic performance in modern dress. Obviously, Zinman is not as cutting-edge as Gardiner, nor the Tonhalle Orchestra Zrich in the same league as their Viennese or Berlin counterparts, but nonetheless, this music has been interpreted and played with a certain degree of sophistication and virtuosity. The sound throughout is first-class.

This cycle should in no way displace any of the front runners in the field, although it might best serve as an economical alternative against Gardiner for those looking for an authentic performance of Beethoven’s symphonies, if the use of modern instruments here is not a serious factor. At its budget price, and with the added interest of hearing the premiere recording of the Brenreiter Urtext editions, this set is also well worth the expense and time for experienced classical hobbyists to explore.


603: 11.8.1999 Benjamin Chee

 4,501 total views,  2 views today