Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Osmo Vänskä already has acquired an international reputation as a Beethoven conductor, thanks to some outstanding performances that he gave with the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra, later transmitted as cover CDs with the BBC Music Magazine. On evidence here, the good word is certainly deserved. In repertoire this frequently recorded, a critic basically has two options: to attempt to identify "the best" version of each work, or to set an ideal standard and see how the present release measures up. With hundreds of versions of each symphony available by just about every major
orchestra and conductor that has ever made a recording, this first option strikes me as folly. Every listener will have his or her favorites, and many of these would make the short list of anyone seriously interested in Beethoven's symphonies. So instead, I am going to try to explain why I believe these performances belong among the finest available, as realizations both idiomatic to Beethoven and personal to Vänskä's view of the composer.
Perhaps the most remarkable interpretive feature immediately apparent is the wide dynamic range that Vänskä elicits from the Minnesota Orchestra. I was struck by how rare it is, especially on recordings, to hear a large orchestra manage a true
piano, and it's even rarer among the so-called "period-instrument" crowd. Vänskä's attention to Beethoven's dynamics heightens the drama immeasurably by allowing the eruptive contrasts to register naturally, without forcing but with heightened impact. In the opening of the Fifth Symphony, or at the beginning of the finale of the Fourth, the terraced dynamics don't just create a simple opposition of soft and loud, but also increase the mystery and tension of the soft passages, making the violent outbursts a logical and inevitable response. Add to this characterful accents (particularly vivid in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony) and phrasing that's keenly aware of the curve of Beethoven's melodies, and the result is a powerfully energized musical surface.
Vänskä's attention to dynamics extends beyond mere matters of loud and soft: it also concerns balance between orchestral sections, particularly in the layering of fortissimo passages. I don't think anyone to date has rendered Jonathan Del Mar's critical editions with more textural clarity. Consider just one passage, the climax of the finale of the Fifth Symphony, just before the return of the scherzo. The swirling figurations in the strings retain their clear thematic significance, while the woodwinds clearly penetrate with the principal tune, and the brass proclamations sound majestically over it all. Timpani provide a firm bottom, while the all-important bass lines (double-basses back left) register with uncommon presence. But listen to the way Vänskä handles the return of the scherzo: the winds not too quiet, vividly realizing Beethoven's evident intention to show that this music, seen in the bright light of day, wasn't so frightening after all. The same observations apply to the big climax and its gentle aftermath just before the end of the Fourth Symphony, with Vänskä capturing all of its Beethovenian humor.
The tempos that Vänskä selects are neither unusually fast nor unusually slow, but absolutely right for what he wants to do interpretively. For example, his moderately paced scherzo in the Fourth justifies itself by giving the syncopated rhythms an extra kick, and by permitting the horns time to make a real crescendo at the very end. In the same symphony's first movement, the introduction seldom has been more cogently married to the ensuing allegro, nor has the transition between the two been more seamlessly managed. But it would be wrong to imply that Vänskä tames Beethoven's wildness. The trio of the Fifth's scherzo is sensationally exciting (and has never been better played), and Vänskä manages a thrilling accelerando to the final presto in the coda of the same symphony's finale. Or at the other end of the scale, listen to how precisely the chosen tempo permits the two-against-three rhythm in the woodwinds to register just before the final return of that surging refrain in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony (from measure 68).
So for all of their evident control, these performances capture the effortless muscularity of movement and rhythmic spontaneity that Beethoven demands, and they are sensationally played. It's hard not to believe that the orchestra well understood the importance (and difficulty) of making a positive impression in this music, for it gives Vänskä everything that he requires, from the braying horns in the scherzo of the Fifth and the gorgeous lower strings in the same work's Andante con moto, to the impressive precision of the violins in the Fourth's finale and the splendid woodwinds everywhere (the bassoons are particularly outstanding). It's all captured by the BIS engineers in demonstration-quality sound, the wide dynamic range never exceeding the bounds of realism, with an ideal blend of warmth and clarity. In multichannel format there's a touch more room ambience, but never an excess of reverberation or a lessening of impact.
Finally, aside from the excellence of the performances themselves, there's an important lesson here. Despite all of the gloom and doom in the industry, the dearth of "major orchestra" projects and the feeling that there's nothing more to be said in the basic repertoire, we clearly see that predictions of the demise of the industry are premature. Minnesota is a world-class orchestra, and Vänskä is one of the top conductors at work today. And here they are, committing their Beethoven to disc as part of a five-year project for a "major" label whose musical importance in terms of both quality and quantity of releases, if not its tiny niche in an international media conglomerate, surely entitles it to that designation. So evidently, where there's a will, there's a way, and it strikes me that rather than the wanton "record everything" orgy that characterized the 1980s and much of the '90s, we are better served when artists feel that what they have to say is so important that it must be committed to disc. These performances are as compelling as any, beautifully realized in every respect. Music lovers purchasing this remarkable disc will find ample cause for delight, and there's plenty that even the most jaded Beethoven collectors have never heard before, or heard so well. [1/3/2005]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 05/01/2004
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Length: 33 Minutes 37 Secs.
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 04/30/2004
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Length: 32 Minutes 36 Secs.
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