Notes and Editorial Reviews
"This set of the Beethoven symphonies may well become a standard by which to evaluate both past and future performances..." - Fanfare3130420.az_BEETHOVEN_Symphonies_Nos_1.html
Charles Mackerras, cond; Janice Watson (sop);
Catherine Wyn-Roberts (mez);
Stuart Skelton (ten);
Detlef Roth (bs);
Edinburgh Festival Ch (David Jones, dir);
HYPERION 44301 (5 CDs: 336:00
Text and Translation) Live: Edinburgh 8–9/2006
These recordings document performances by Sir Charles Mackerras at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, fronting orchestras with whom he has a close relationship. Tempos are uniformly brisk, repeats are observed, and the interpretations have been influenced by Mackerras’s work with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. There is a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Mackerras (with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) available on Classics for Pleasure, but unfortunately that set wasn’t available to me for this review. For the majority of my comparisons, I used the set of the symphonies on Teldec featuring Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe—another modern-instrument band (though older, natural trumpets were employed on the Beethoven recordings); my reliable stand-by set is still Abbado’s on DG.
On disc 1, the First and Second Symphonies benefit from Mackerras’s light touch: there is remarkable clarity to the inner voices and harmonies; this is a product not of artificial spotlighting but rather is organic to the performances; antiphonal violins are also a factor. Harnoncourt’s performances are heavier, in terms of both sound and interpretation; his players feature more portamento, in keeping with the conductor’s interpretation of historic practice. Mackerras’s performances sound crisper by comparison. A highlight of the Hyperion performance of No. 1 is the second movement, where the stress is on
with just a hint of wistfulness.
In the Second Symphony, one hears the sound of Beethoven coming into his own: Mackerras produces a recording in which the more complicated structure is balanced by an overall feeling of high spirits—witness the delightful coda in the first movement. The sound production features an expansive but not overly reverberant soundstage with strong bass; the ambience of the live recordings gives each performance a certain air of anticipation as it opens. Winds and strings are balanced within the sound image, and brass and timpani (played with hard sticks) provide anchorage; in short, there is no need to worry that this chamber ensemble will sound
. I should note here that full credit goes to the BBC, producers of the recordings, who licensed them to Hyperion for commercial release.
Opening disc 2, the “Eroica” benefits not only from Mackerras’s characteristic clarity of expression, but also from a weightier sense of occasion inherent in this music. The irresistible momentum of the first movement possesses a fluidity that harnesses both the power and the logic of its construction. Where Harnoncourt’s first subject becomes a blur after the opening cannon shots, there is control in Mackerras’s performance that allows the music to breathe more. The same can be said of the funeral march, where the austerity of the first theme gives way to a majestic sense of hope in the second subject.
The Scherzo returns to the feeling of the spirited merriment of the Second Symphony, aided by the whiplash tempo; the horns in the Trio add just a whiff of the hunt. The finale pulses with energy—particularly in the exhilarating Presto—but once again it is energy guided by human intelligence—that of the creator as communicated through the expertise of the interpreter.
With what aplomb the ominous, murky clouds of the opening Adagio of the Fourth Symphony are dispelled by the arrival of the principal theme—this isn’t just
as well! The relative modesty of the orchestral forces—Beethoven’s as well as Mackerras’s—is compensated for (if that seems necessary) by the élan with which the music is dispatched. Harnoncourt is more deliberate and heavy in the Adagio, which tends to drag; the succeeding Allegro vivace is also heavier by comparison to the fleet-footed Mackerras. Oddly enough, I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s 45-year-old recording on Columbia/Sony: there is in it a similar combination of the mysterious and the bold.
The Adagio benefits from Mackerras’s dry-eyed tempo—Harnoncourt is a minute longer (as is Abbado, the remainder of whose timings are almost identical to Mackerras in a similarly spirited performance). The more flowing but dignified tempo lets the notes do the talking without undue emphasis. The acrobatic leaps of the Scherzo pose no difficulties for either orchestra or conductor, and the charming Trios maintain a hint of cheekiness. The almost manic violin music of the finale is again tossed off with brio, while the bubbling bassoon makes the most of his brief passage; the famous “collapsing” coda places an exclamation point on what has been a splendid ride.
After a portentously weighty opening motto (echoed in the repeat), the Allegro con brio of the Fifth Symphony goes like lightning—though not quite as blazingly fast as Zander on Telarc, whose relentless pace is thoroughly exhilarating. Mackerras’s tempo communicates urgency rather than impulsiveness and gives the lovely oboe cadenza an added poignancy; the success of this movement is due in large part to the superb musicianship of the Scottish players. The immediacy of the live sound—the bass is particularly notable—adds to the excitement of the performance.
The stately Andante achieves its nobility without resorting to exaggerated or expansive tempos—Harnoncourt’s performance of this movement, as eloquently as it is played, feels somewhat bloated by comparison. Mackerras’s commanding Scherzo possesses a lean, tensile strength; the conductor follows Beethoven’s revision and omits the repeat, and thereby tightens the structure of the movement. The key to the finale of the most famous symphony in history, it seems to me, is to balance the sense of triumph in the repetitions of the principal theme—too much emphasis on the first iteration produces a top-heavy performance and a sense of anti-climax upon its reprise. The interjection of humor with the appearance of the theme from the Scherzo is perfect here—one is reminded of the original meaning of the word.
The details in the inner voices in the “Pastoral” add so much to one’s appreciation of Beethoven’s evocation of nature, and it is Mackerras’s attention to this detail as well as the inherent clarity of the reduced forces of the chamber ensemble that are the hallmarks of this performance. There is vitality in the first movement that raises the spirits, as it was meant to do. The timing of the “Scene by the brook” is identical to that of the first movement. This makes perfect sense when one thinks of
as “moving rapidly”—what better way to communicate the sound of a happily bubbling brook? Abbado’s wonderful DG recording produces a similar effect through an identical tempo; Harnoncourt also adopts a flowing second movement tempo, so it is ironic that the first movement sounds lethargic due to an overly deliberate pace.
The jolly third movement “Gathering” is stunning in its controlled momentum: somehow these lusty revelers manage to stay coherent while obviously enjoying the local brew. The oboe-bassoon duets possess both humor and charm. The impending storm allows the celebrants just enough time to dash for cover before the deluge sets in. Beethoven evokes the storm rather than trying to imitate it, and Mackerras’s deft touch provides a sense of danger without trying to swamp the listener in sound. The ingenuity of the unbroken link between the last three movements elicits from these musicians playing that is by turns spirited, powerful, and luminous.
I thought that I would miss the impact of a larger ensemble in the Seventh Symphony, but the BBC production captures all of the dynamism of Mackerras’s performance in sound that leaves little to be desired: timpani thunder away and there is ample heft in the low strings and winds. The Vivace section of the first movement has infectious energy, propelled by particularly buoyant strings. The coda prances home in triumph. Harnoncourt’s Poco sostenuto introduction is heavier, as is most of the slower music in his set. This certainly provides contrast to the Vivace section, but it also gives the opening a sense of running in place that Mackerras liberates with his more dynamic tempo.
The mournful cellos and basses are eloquent and keenly felt in the opening of the Allegretto. The winds are consolatory in the major-mode theme, but one is aware that the effect is illusory. The fugato section in the strings benefits from the antiphonal violins, as the music reaches across the soundstage.
In the last two movements, Mackerras demonstrates his respect for Beethoven’s tempo indications. The Presto charges in with seemingly boundless energy; this is truly
, with quite a different character than the Allegro con brio of the finale. The Trios provide, without dragging, a sobering contrast to the irrepressible main theme. Where the Presto romps, the Allegro finale is almost pompous as the insistent, swirling principal theme is subjected to the playful, almost rude rondo-like development but still emerges in triumph. For once, we aren’t left breathless by a tempo that tries to out-pace the Presto: Harnoncourt’s third movement is more than a minute
than his finale; Abbado’s is a less egregious half-minute or so.
After such an exhilarating experience, I always find it slightly anticlimactic to confront the joyful explosion of the Eighth. This symphony remains a bit of an enigma, especially in light of Beethoven’s own estimation of its worth. To me,
is the slender maiden between two giants—albeit a maiden with a puckish sense of humor; it is a delightful if comparatively minor component of the Nine. Since I readily admit that I am in the minority, let me hasten to assure readers that Mackerras makes as strong a case for this piece as any I have heard.
Unique to this set (at least, in my experience) is the decision to employ a full-size orchestra rather than to reinforce the chamber ensemble in the performance of the Ninth Symphony. This solution seems eminently sensible in suggesting that the Ninth is
and deserving of a special setting. The performance has about it an air of expectation as the sound comes up on the rustling of the audience, and those mysterious opening notes establish that familiar but no less effective feeling of disquiet; however, we are soon swept along by the masterful exposition. There is a subtle but distinct difference to the sound provided by the BBC for this orchestra, producing more heft and a slightly less closely focused image, giving the players a very wide soundstage.
The thundering timpani offer powerful punctuation to a very dynamic tempo in this opening movement, which is essentially identical to Abbado’s but faster than Harnoncourt’s, whose first movement seems almost finicky by comparison; his performance is also more distantly recorded and is thus less immediate. Zander’s recording (on Carlton Classics) has the shortest timing in my collection, and probably still sounds too fast to many listeners; Mackerras offers better sound and seems less furiously driven in his pacing.
In the Scherzo, the implacable march of instruments that opens the movement becomes a marvelous dance. The Trio scampers in with geniality and warmth. The smoothly flowing tempo of the slow movement moves effortlessly from
without so much a sense of increasing speed as of intensity of feeling. There is certainly serenity here, but also a love of life expressed through deep emotion. Abbado, as beautiful as his performance is, doesn’t delve quite as deeply as Mackerras; Harnoncourt is very similar to Abbado.
The controlled fury of the opening of the finale finds its truest expression in the fierceness of the basses: their introductory phrases to the reprises of earlier movements become comments as well, and then a protest, particularly when the “Ode” theme first appears, as if to say “Let us do this!” Having the basses sound from the center back of the orchestra—as these do—provides a firm anchor for the ensuing variations.
Detlef Roth is a very light-timbred bass whose dramatic, very musical performance provides a salutary introduction to the vocal music. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus provides animated, vigorous support to the impressive quartet. The
section is extremely jaunty and this energy and propulsion infuse “Freude, schöner Götterfunken.” The expansive, much graver “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” is characterized by a growing sense of almost naive expectation that gives way to a magnificently majestic double fugue.
The “Turkish March” recaptures the jaunty character of its earlier iteration, becoming quite sprightly; the
ending isn’t breathless so much as celebratory and very effective. It’s almost a shame that the sound was terminated by the engineers just before what must have been an eruption of spirited applause: this is one recording for which it would be entirely appropriate to hear the sound of an audience enjoying what must have been a transcendent experience.
This set of the Beethoven symphonies may well become a standard by which to evaluate both past and future performances—it certainly will be for me. As satisfying and well recorded as the recent set conducted by Skrowaczewski on Oehms is, Mackerras has the advantage of a more vivid sound production, and of the kind of stimulus that performing before a live audience produces: for every cough or other intrusion, there are moments of inspired music-making that more than compensate. This set receives my highest recommendation.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot