Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 160091 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: 9 Symphonies
Annette Dasch (soprano)
Eva Vogel (mezzo-soprano)
Christian Elsner (tenor)
Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass)
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
It is always a milestone in the artistic work of the Berliner Philharmoniker when, together with their chief conductor, they play the complete symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. Under the direction of chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the cycle was performed at the end of 2015 – in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and New York. The reaction was overwhelming, and audiences responded with standing ovations to performances which impressively revealed the virtuosity and revolutionary energy of the works. The recording of the Berlin performances is now available in an exclusive hardcover edition which includes the cycle on CD as well as in HD video and high-resolution audio on Blu-ray. This beautifully produced edition includes many extras including a video introduction with Sir Simon Rattle and a documentary about the making of the recordings.
Concert videos: HD recordings of the entire symphony cycle
· Documentary: “Living with Beethoven”, the nine symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle
· Introduction: Sir Simon Rattle talks about Beethoven's Symphonies
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Review by John Broggio - May 30, 2016
A symphony cycle that, in the popular press, is synonymous with this orchestra, having recorded it multiple times with Karajan (Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Karajan (1963) from one of three studio appearances together and Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Karajan (1977 - concert) is the first set of concert performances to appear in hi-res media) before Abbado gave a radically different viewpoint (from both Karajan and his earlier accounts with the Berliners Viennese cousins). Now, as Rattle nears the end of his time in Berlin as Artistic Director, we are presented with his second recorded cycle, which like Abbado's was recorded with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Modern hi-resolution accounts that this current set is in contention with include principally Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Haitink, Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Vänskä and my personal favourite Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Järvi.
Closest in terms of orchestral size is Vänskä's wonderfully alive accounts. In the first symphony, Rattle manages to combine the energy of Vänskä but with the weight that Haitink summons; mercifully the recording here is far easier to live with and is perhaps the finest to have emerged from the Philharmonie with the Berliners (pride of place still goes to the efforts of PentaTone in their miraculous recordings of the Wagner operas). One can hear the time that Rattle has spent with the music in a period instrument setting from tempo choices, to layout of the orchestra (violins are split left and right of the podium) and the relative prominence given to brass and woodwinds. Compared to Järvi, the Andante is more cantabile here but Rattle also gets more "molto" in the Menuetto; both are equally exciting approaches. Where some might feel Järvi scores is the clarity afforded by a crack chamber orchestra, others may prefer nearly as much clarity but with much greater heft from the orchestra. In the second symphony, the comparisons are almost exactly the same, except that Rattle here adopts a relatively more urgent tempo for the Larghetto. [In the booklet, the Scherzo is purported to take 13:18; it doesn't!] One feature of the playing that will be welcome to many ears is that Rattle has permitted vibrato in the strings throughout the cycle, not just for the later "Romantic" symphonies.
The Eroica symphony sees the strings expand from 10/10/6/5/3 to 12/10/8/6/5 and a consequently grander, quasi-Romantic vision to Rattle's conception. The tempo for the opening movement is almost exactly half-way between Järvi (quicker) and Vänskä or Haitink; it could have the feel of a slow waltz but for the complete lack of Viennese charm. Like Haitink, there is an almost gargantuan sense of weight and in a nod to past performing traditions, the opening chord is audibly split in the violins - it is quite different to Järvi in the approach to texture. There are also inflections of tempo (verging on a little rubato) that Rattle gives to the climaxes which again allude to the bygone era of Beethoven interpretation but this is not by any means over-indulgent "point-making". The great slow movement is similar to Vänskä, who are both 1 minute slower than Haitink and 2 minutes slower than Järvi. In Rattle's hands, this extra space in which phrases can be highlighted gets dangerously close to being disruptive to the overall momentum of funeral march but never quite steps across that line to these ears and there is no denying the extra emotional pull that this sort of tempo can deliver. The Scherzo is similarly paced to both Haitink and Vänskä and carries the sort of weight that Haitink gave us with the LSO; none of these accounts is slow but Järvi's is seriously quick. Rattle uses this extra space to great effect by accentuating the hemiola in the Scherzo; the Trio has less detail than other accounts because here the first horn or the Philharmonie conspires to cast a rich veil over the second and third parts - a problem not shared by Järvi or Vänskä. In the Finale, Rattle does not for a string quartet start to the variations which fits with the overall conception here; there is some daringly gruff playing in the first variation (repeated notes) that one can be certain Karajan would never countenance! The fugal writing, although all played with a full tone, is clear at every stage which is very impressive. One danger of the "full toned" approach adopted here is that Beethoven's writing can seem to flow a bit to easily from one paragraph to another, there is little struggle (despite plenty of power), so the plaintive oboe of the Poco andante arrives far too quickly before a well executed conclusion.
The fourth also opens with a chord that is not quite in unison; had the multitude of other Del Mar edition based recordings not existed it may have been possible to assert this was the reason; to ignore such a small piece of editing is rather strange and proves irritating on repeated listening. The strings retain their size of Eroica proportions and the climaxes in the introduction are quite staggering in scale. Once more, Rattle is found to adopt tempos in the first movement close to Haitink and Vänskä; fortunately the recording is far kinder than for Haitink and as in the Eroica, Rattle takes the extra room to indulge in subtle variations of the tempo without ever to the point of destroying the inherent musical momentum. Rattle's Adagio is definitely on the slower side of modern accounts and so, to some ears, might seem a bit incongruous given some of the obvious HIP influences on these accounts; once again, the Berliners and Rattle manage to coax the music into sounding as though phrases compel their successors without ever evoking the thoughts of Karajan being at the helm. Instead, the degree of rubato that Rattle encourages perhaps better invokes Furtwängler at times. Such thoughts are almost instantly banished with the scherzo where the playing suddenly remembers the influence of Norrington, Harnoncourt et al - a most perplexing juxtaposition and one that many find not entirely self-consistent within the symphony. The finale is fast (not the fastest by any means) and the clarity of articulation combined with such weight is incredible; not for the last time will listeners be staggered by the nagging sostenuto from the cellos and basses.
Many of the comments made about the fourth symphony apply equally to the fifth; the first movement has great forward momentum and although there are accompaniments which are arguably given too much prominence at times, it is hard to argue that this is intrusively so. Similarly, the Andante is lighter on the "con moto" aspect than many of recent times but the sheer power and eloquence of the Berliners playing is hard to argue against. There is a tremendous dynamic range on offer and it is not one of the HIP induced hyper-dynamics that can be imposed by this conductor (and many others) or orchestra. The scherzo again has wonderful forward momentum and the dynamic terracing from Rattle and the Berliners is a source of constant joy and the explosion of joy in the Finale is both hard-won and entirely convincing. The marrying of large-scale forces with HIP-inspired sensibilities is at its most convincing here, the playing is alive and the players at the edge of the seats (in a good way) that has not been heard up until this point. The Pastoral symphony is similarly no-nonsense in playing style, even if the opening Allegro has more of a "ma non troppo" feel to it than, say, Järvi. This has the unfortunate consequence of the performance sounding as though it is lacking in charm; the accompanying figures are frequently too insistent for a relaxed & spontaneous outpouring of joy - this is more a rigorously drilled act. The second movement is overall very much Andante molto mosso and very much the better for it, for the tonal depth is lighter and sheer intensity of the playing is somewhat reduced. However, in the lead in to the birdsong "cadenza", the very sostenuto wind playing does not always accord with either their colleagues seating near them nor in the strings; something that really should have been corrected. By far the most successful "movement" is the sequence of three that run attacca from one to the other; the dancing is wonderfully fresh and the storm is surprisingly restrained (arguably too much). The finale is unremarkable save for an episode where the pizzicato strings are given far greater relative prominence than might normally be heard and the closing pages slow down quite out of keeping with everything that has gone before - a very strange performance.
The seventh starts on another level entirely: here the collective imagination of orchestra and conductor have aligned. The muscular & athletic approach to the scales of the introduction is very impressive and reminiscent of the approach Haitink used with this orchestra when standing in for an indisposed Abbado some years ago at the Proms. The Vivace too is full of fire and energy; perhaps not as much grace as others but the intensity of tone and purpose in the phrasing cannot be ignored, some may even feel it is too much, especially the near over-powering contribution from the lower strings. It is certainly far removed from Järvi's Classical+ approach; perhaps best characterised as Romanticism-. But wait, Rattle then suddenly applies the brakes twice in the closing pages - subtle it is not, completely throwing away all the momentum carefully established up until that point. The second movement is stretching the idea of Allegretto (i.e. it's "old school") by comparison with Järvi & Haitink; sometimes less would be more & this feels like one of them. As if to reinforce this opinion, the Presto is given an extraordinarily rollicking performance that lifts every note from the score and has them dancing from the speakers and is so different in outlook from the preceding movement that it is hard to believe they came from the same pair of performances. The Trio's are also wonderfully sprightly and although the full might of the now 12/12/8/8/6 string section frequently gives it their all, it oddly sounds more appropriate than the heft granted to the first pair of symphonies. The Finale is taken at a quite extraordinary pace which is exhilarating rather than breathless because of the miraculous clarity the Berliners summon. For all the joy that this brings, it is a shame for some of the earlier interpretative decisions that rather "get in the way" of the music. The eighth symphony opens with a relatively relaxed account of the first movement (strings are now back to 12/10/8/6/5) that is entirely in keeping with those from Haitink and Vänskä. This interpretation is fully conversant with the markings in the Del Mar edition and there are countless examples of the orchestra stretching their musical muscles but it feels oddly disengaged, as though it was a curtain raiser for a bigger work (it was - the Pastoral followed the interval).
So, to conclude, the ninth. With the biggest forces of all (strings now near full strength at 16/14/12/10/8), this is a weighty account from Rattle and his Berliners. Although there is much to commend the first movement, many of the motifs are played as if for the first time, there are still occasions when a sudden hiatus in the pulse occurs, disturbing the ongoing accumulation of momentum. There is a sense of struggle that many of the HIP crowd completely fail to evoke but whether it will be enough to convince all but the most ardent fans of the conductor is not clear. The new Del Mar texts apart and the far clearer recording granted here, one could be forgiven for imagining that Karajan had returned to conduct once again, having had a minor epiphany on the virtues of HIP. It is almost as though, to misquote Samuel Johnson, "if you're tired of the Berliner Philharmoniker, you're tired of music" at times, which is a desperately sad use of the musical talent on offer. Here, more than any other account, there is an attempt to musically link Beethoven's outpouring of love and compassion for humanity with the likes of Mahler. Where Mahler relies on the skills of great musicians to take the fragments and wield them into a cohesive whole, trying to constantly highlight "fragments" in Beethoven's composition achieves the opposite. The playing itself is wonderful, hence the remark about Karajan. Having seen Rattle in concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, one can't but help feel he was vastly more "at ease" with Beethoven as a radical force in his own right, without needing to conflate more external ideas than occurs here.
The video content is the usual excellence those familiar with the Digital Concert Hall will know and admire; there is a set of interviews from Sir Simon talking about Beethoven, some of which is repackaged along with contributions from the Berliner Philharmoniker. These are probably of more lasting interest than many of the performances. One interesting point is Sir Simon discussing the size of orchestra required and how his requirements for this repertoire have grown over time (both within the cycle and in general). Another interesting contribution from the leader of the second violins, Christian Stadelmann, states that he feels that the approach here is a combination of Abbado's tempos, grace & virtuosity with Karajan's sound - which is certainly one way of describing it reasonably accurately. The recording producer who casually stated that antiphonal seating of the violins was required in Beethoven because the different lines get lost by sitting them together and, in the same, breath implied that this wasn't necessary for Romantic repertoire was an unintentionally funny moment! Another ironic moment was Sir Simon showing self-awareness about his habit of getting devoting too much to details; sadly, this reflection wasn't always successfully transferred to the podium. There is also the usual trailer for their Digital Concert Hall and an extended, Beethoven-focused, version which could have been really interesting by actually showing us how the decisions on which shots to use are made.
Listening to the Blu-ray audio presents the symphonies in numerical order, the video discs present them in the pairings they were performed in concert (1,3; 2,5; 4,7; 8,6; 9), which is how the CDs are also organised. This could be viewed as a bit frustrating to those wanting the CDs or videos because it's clear from other cycles that one can fit these symphonies onto the same number of discs and preserve the numerical order. Those wanting to use to listen to the Blu-ray audio suffer from the booklet being presented to match the CDs. There are some interesting essays on the work of Norman Del Mar and his team but those accompanying the individual symphonies are very brief.
This luxuriously priced set doesn't come close to delivering the edge-of-seat excitement any fine Beethoven cycle can; instead turn to Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Haitink, Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Vänskä or Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Järvi. By coincidence, a performance of the fifth symphony with ORR under Gardiner was broadcast on TV in the UK recently; a viscerally thrilling account and all too clearly pointed up what could have been here.
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