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Beethoven: 9 Symphonies / Herreweghe

Beethoven / Rfp / Herreweghe
Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Pentatone   Catalog #: 5186312   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Christiane OelzeIngeborg DanzChristoph StrehlDavid Wilson-Johnson
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish PhilharmonicGhent Collegium VocaleAccademia Chigiana Siena
Number of Discs: 5 
Length: 5 Hours 36 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

Reviews of the original recordings that make up this set.
This program was originally released on the Talent label and was reviewed quite favorably by Colin Anderson in Fanfare 29:2: “With superb recording, it is a pleasure to recommend Philippe Herreweghe’s incisive, dynamic, imaginative, and flexible Beethoven.” That recording was not available on SACD, and this current release doesn’t indicate whether the SACD mastering is new; the four subsequent volumes, all released by PentaTone, are hybrid SACDs (three of the earlier CDs were reviewed in 31:5 and 32:1 by me, and in 33:2 by Read more the reviewer known as Ilya Oblomov).

As far as these performances are concerned, I share Anderson’s enthusiasm: They are moderately paced interpretations that adhere to the internal logic of Beethoven’s tempo markings, the most telling example being Herreweghe’s regard for the actual tempos in the last two movements of the Seventh. This cycle was released at roughly the same time as that on RCA conducted by Paavo Järvi, and I tended to favor Järvi’s generally faster tempos and dry, immediate acoustic perspective. Over time, though, my initial enthusiasm has cooled; Järvi can seem relentlessly driven, and the more balanced approach of the Herreweghe variety—or more recently, in the ongoing cycle conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend on Challenge Classics—is often a welcome corrective. All of these cycles have their strengths and weaknesses, but this particular recording is an easy recommendation, containing as it does two of the strongest performances in the Herreweghe cycle.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

This disc represents Volume 2 of a set of the complete Beethoven symphonies currently in progress (the first volume, on the Talent label, included Symphonies 4 and 7 and was reviewed by Colin Anderson in 29:2). In a clumsily translated note Herreweghe refers to “nature” trumpets and “Baroque kettle drums with modern tuning”; these would appear to be the only concessions to period practice—by all accounts, the Royal Flemish orchestra employs modern instruments. This series would appear, then, to be comparable to the latest set conducted by Roger Norrington, with the orchestra of the Stuttgart Radio, on Hänssler.

Unlike Norrington, Herreweghe is unhampered by a tendency toward extreme tempos or self-conscious gestures. Though the tempos of the Fifth Symphony are analogous in swiftness to those of Benjamin Zander on his splendid Telarc recording, there is no sense of the kind of schizoid recklessness that marred Norrington’s Fifth, in which a furious first-movement exposition followed a more sensibly paced opening motto. What we hear instead is a superbly performed and exciting rendering of Beethoven’s war-horse. Orchestral execution is everything one could wish for, with crisp phrasing and spirited ensemble. The conducting illuminates the genius of the conception without in any way calling attention to itself.

In the slow movement, Herreweghe expertly conveys the sense of forward momentum without scrimping on the lyrical richness of Beethoven’s melodic invention. There is no sense of bombast in the triumphant finale, just a very satisfying feeling of rightness—for Beethoven’s creation and for this recreation of it. Herreweghe includes the first movement exposition repeat but follows Beethoven’s revision and eliminates the one in the Scherzo. The sound is resonant yet precise, antiphonal violins aiding in the natural balance. The listener’s perspective is intimate but not airless, allowing for atmosphere and impact. One interesting anomaly: the oboe extends the cadenza in the first movement recapitulation, replacing the one Beethoven wrote, but I found this to be an interesting and idiomatic gesture.

Herreweghe injects a muscular element, propelled by the timpani, into the Eighth Symphony, invigorating what has sometimes in the past been simply a lighthearted romp; there is lightness here, too, but the overall feeling is of vitality. Norrington, by contrast, tends to lurch through the first movement, so that whatever humor there is seems heavy-handed. The sound production he received possesses less resonant fullness than that on the PentaTone disc; strings, for one example, often sound thin and scrappy on the Hänssler CD.

The elegant little Allegretto, under Herreweghe’s hands, verges on the slightly pompous, while the third movement minuet becomes, for all intents and purposes, a scherzo, full of badly placed accents and miscues—all of which, in the words of annotator Tom Janssesns, “indicated that the Classical symphony now truly belonged to the past.” We are then propelled into the finale and its sprightly touches that clearly point to the future, and especially to Mendelssohn. Herreweghe and his Belgian colleagues dispatch the piece with panache.

This is a delightful and highly entertaining disc containing two fine performances of music that never sounds tired or routine. I look forward to the next installment with keen anticipation.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

This is the third installment of a complete series of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, the most recent volumes of which have been issued by PentaTone. I welcomed Volume 2 in the last issue. Herreweghe’s band is a chamber orchestra numbering 56 musicians, playing modern instruments with the exceptions of valveless trumpets and small timps; this set is comparable, then, to the series on Hänssler conducted by Norrington, though I also listened to discs conducted by Paavo Järvi and Sir Charles Mackerras.

The First Symphony opens with an expansive Adagio, and then a contrasting but not overly brisk Allegro con brio. In this performance, the interplay between tempos and modes highlights the ingenuity of Beethoven’s invention, and the military nature of the coda isn’t stinted. For the most part, this is a somewhat understated performance of the movement. Mackerras, for example, makes more of the Allegro section, with a more vigorous approach; Norrington, too, is more energetic in the Allegro. The sound on the PentaTone disc is full-bodied and resonant, with deep bass producing a big-band quality that is quite attractive.

The Andante wastes no time: like Norrington, Herreweghe adopts a clipped tempo for this “slow” movement, though Norrington’s pace is even brisker. By contrast, Mackerras gives us a more leisurely, contemplative Andante. There is no denying, though, that Herreweghe’s performance is songlike as well as fluent ( cantabile con moto ). Herreweghe’s Scherzo is marred by the common but pointless cut in the da capo repeat.

As with the first movement, forward movement in the finale is balanced by a concern for expression and execution. This is more a satisfying last movement than a bravura one, which Mackerras’s most assuredly is.

The two most recent “Eroica” performances that I’ve heard are a study in contrast: Herreweghe’s is majestically scaled, elegant, balanced; Järvi’s is propulsive, light-textured, and nimble. Neither, obviously, is more “correct” than the other; I can admire Järvi for his energy and Herreweghe for his more nuanced approach. Järvi’s very quick first movement is almost a full minute faster than Herreweghe’s, which is not particularly slothful at 16:18, and I find the latter to be more satisfying.

Herreweghe’s funeral march is weighty and sober, but not ponderous; it is very similar to Mackerras’s. Järvi is once again faster, and the brighter acoustic of his recording is less atmospheric than the PentaTone recording; Järvi’s march is starker, almost skeletal in tone. Herreweghe’s Scherzo is busy, genial, and bright-eyed; the horns in the Trio sound very noble in their resonance and grandeur—quite a contrast to the natural horns of “authentic” performances. Järvi is again faster and lighter-toned. The Flemish performance comes to a close in exemplary fashion, with the variations-cum-fugue delightfully presented, capped by a coda of rambunctious energy.

These two SACD programs are obviously not equivalent, but both are characteristic of their respective conductors’ approach to Beethoven’s symphonies; on the whole, I prefer Herreweghe’s performances, and especially the sound production. PentaTone has provided a weighty, full, and deep production that renders Järvi’s RCA job lightweight by comparison. That could be said to apply to the performances as well.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

Review of entire set.


BEETHOVEN Symphonies: Nos. 1–9 Philippe Herreweghe, cond; Christiane Oelze (sop); Ingeborg Danz (mez); Christoph Strehl (ten); David Wilson-Johnson (bs-bar); Collegium Vocale Gent; Accademia Chigiana Siena; Royal Flemish PO PENTATONE PTC 5186 312 (5 SACDs: 336:49)

Philippe Herreweghe’s Beethoven symphony cycle has been reviewed in Fanfare as each installment arrived: 31:5 (Symphonies 5 and 8); 32:1 (Symphonies 1 and 3); 33:2 (Symphonies 2 and 6); and 35:1 (Symphonies 4 and 7). As is evident from that list, only No. 9 awaits a review, so that is the performance I will focus on here.

Back in 1999 ( Fanfare 22:6), Bernard Jacobson reviewed an earlier recording on Harmonia Mundi of the “Choral” Symphony with Herreweghe leading his Champs Élysées Orchestra. Bernard went to some length in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the performance, finding that Herreweghe’s recording came up short in comparison to that of Sir Charles Mackerras on a Classics for Pleasure import. But his last sentence is relevant to the release at hand: “Herreweghe, as often in other repertoire, is very far from disgracing himself, and if he goes on to make other Beethoven symphony recordings, I shall approach them with keen anticipation.” I don’t know whether Bernard has heard any of these PentaTone recordings, but I echo his enthusiasm when approaching this new Ninth, since I’ve found Herreweghe’s cycle to be the most consistently enjoyable of any set since Mackerras’s cycle on Hyperion.

This new performance scores over its 10-year-old predecessor in one major way: The sound production, even when not employing multichannel playback, is fuller and more resonant; in multichannel playback, the gains in instrumental definition and low-end reproduction are marked. Other than the sound, though, the performance is very similar to the earlier one. The first movement has gained a slightly more moderate tempo and has more heft than previously, which is all to the good. The Scherzo, repeats intact, isn’t quite as brisk as before, and the Trio is less frantic and the more enjoyable for that moderation.

By contrast, the third movement is taken a bit more quickly than on the Harmonia Mundi recording, but none of its quiet beauty is lost. As a brief respite from the relentless Scherzo and the drama of the finale, this is perhaps Beethoven’s most affecting slow movement, and Herreweghe’s performance is like a peacefully flowing stream between two cataracts.

Not surprisingly, the choral work in the finale is little short of masterly, and the pacing of the movement is exemplary. David Wilson-Johnson sings with admirable expression, using effectively the darker tonal quality of the bass-baritone. Christoph Strehl manages the smartly brisk tempo of “Froh wie seine Sonnen fliegen” with ease, and Christiane Oelze avoids the squally quality of so many sopranos in this music. The soloists are well matched, blending beautifully for their Allegretto quartet. The final Prestissimo allows for clear enunciation from the singers due to Herreweghe’s well-judged tempo.

I have only one complaint concerning this set. The discs are housed in an extended digipak that folds out into one long set of trays; the booklet is attached to the innermost panel, so that in order to read any notes, or to access the innermost recordings, one must unfold the entire package, a rather cumbersome arrangement. I hope that later editions of the set will be housed in a more accessible format.

This cycle stakes out no new territory. The performances are informed by period practice without going to extremes of tempo or instrumentation; the use of natural horns and smaller timpani serves to add tone color and punctuation and rarely calls attention to their use. The overall sound production assists in clarifying textures, revealing inner voices, and providing ample bass, but is otherwise discreet. The expert playing is admirably consistent from symphony to symphony. I heartily recommend this set to those who want state-of-the-art sound combined with intelligent musicianship informed by, but not constrained by, period practice and advances in textural analysis.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in C major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 36 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1801-1802; Vienna, Austria 
Length: 30 Minutes 56 Secs. 
Symphony no 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1803; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Frits Philips Music Center, Eindhoven 
Length: 32 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Symphony no 6 in F major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Written: 1808 
Length: 40 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Classical 
Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/04/2007 
Venue:  Frits Philips Music Center, Eindhoven 
Length: 26 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Christiane Oelze (Soprano), Ingeborg Danz (Alto), Christoph Strehl (Tenor),
David Wilson-Johnson (Baritone)
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ghent Collegium Vocale,  Royal Flemish Philharmonic,  Accademia Chigiana Siena
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/2009 
Venue:  Blue Hall of deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium 
Length: 60 Minutes 15 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

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 Wonderful Recording March 15, 2017 By Ken J. (Boulder, CO) See All My Reviews "Thoroughly enjoyable and a great addition to my classical library. As with another recent Arkiv purchase, the packaging was received damaged---the replacement jewel case was the cheapest quality plastic available and was immediately thrown out. Something is wrong @ Arkiv--I love the music, but customer service has changed" Report Abuse
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