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“Beethoven: Complete Symphonies”
Ludwig van Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies

Camilla Nylund (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (alto), Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass), Wiener Singverein, Johannes Prinz (chorus master), Wiener Philharmoniker, Andris Nelsons (conductor)
Recording: Wiener Musikverein, Grosser Musikvereinssaal (Symphony n° 1 & n° 2: April 2-7, 2019, Symphony n° 3: April 1-2, 2019, Symphony n° 4 & n° 5: March 25-31, 2019, Symphony n° 6: March 15-23, 2017, Symphony n° 7 & n° 8: October 11-15, 2017, Symphony n° 9: May 8-13, 2018) – 356’
5 CDs and 1 bonus Blu-ray audio disc – [Deluxe Boxset] Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 7071 (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in German and English

Deutsche Grammophon has released several collections of Beethoven recordings in honor of his 250th birthday this year. If there was ever a time to revisit the eternal power of Beethoven’s entire symphonic canon, Andris Nelsons and the Wiener Philharmoniker (WP) compilation is highly recommended. Recorded at Vienna Musikverein's Grosser Musikversinssaal between 2017 and 2019, it is the same orchestra that first performed them there. Thus, this collection has a unique lineage with this repertory. Andris Nelsons notes in the collection’s booklet that Beethoven’s symphonic cycle is more about ideas than a particular era of orchestral music, and that’s one reason why they are always relevant.

Symphony nº 1 in C major, opus 21 (1799-1800)
Beethoven’s first symphony, overshadowed by his later [works], is more musically innovative and compositionally profound. But when it is performed, it is easy to marvel at its foundational strengths, if not a preview of the daring symphonic architecture to come. It charts a path to more expansive and adventurous orchestral realms. The stateliness of how the WP conveys the development of the engaging thrust under Nelsons pulses with straightforward orchestral heralds.

Symphony nº 2 in D major, opus 36 (1802)
Symphony n° 2 has an even more defining jumping-off point, from the first movement in homage to Mozart overtures as they careen into Beethoven symphonic gravitas. The synthesis produces familiar structures and a thrilling central theme. The WP textures especially through the strings and builds a whimsical interplay with the woodwinds and horns with roiling undercurrents. Nelsons keeps tight reigns on the fourth movement in this performance as the orchestra gallops toward a lustrous finish.

Symphony nº 3 in E-Flat major, “Eroica”, opus 55 (1804)
The infamous Napoleon backstory of the “Eroica” Symphony is part of its legend; however, the composer narrative was inspired by Bonaparte before Beethoven denounced him a false king. The history of the Eroica is, in the end, a mere footnote when Nelsons and the WP summon its luminous structure and thrilling musical power. Nelsons maintains the intense theatricality of “Eroica” and articulates the breadth of its symphonic drive.

Symphony nº 4 in B-Flat major, opus 60 (1806)
1806 was a prolific year for Beethoven as he worked on what would be his Fifth Symphony, Fidelio, Appassionata, Razumovsky String Quartets, Mass in C and the Piano Concerto n° 4 when he got another commission and composed in a hurry for what would be the Fourth Symphony. The first movement, “Adagio”, seems to form in slow motion, then snaps into place for the famous fanfare theme of the “Allegro” in minutes. The robust contrasts are deftly articulated, and under Nelsons, are thrillingly paced. The fourth movement is so interesting because it has a contemplative yet translucent symphonic architecture, so distinctly different from the Fifth.

Symphony nº 5 in C minor, opus 67 (1807)
With those first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven introduced symphonic philosophical realms of musical expression. It is the musical equivalent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To be or not to be” soliloquy. It is not a mystery as to why, perhaps, this is the most recognized musical phrase in all of classical music. The depth of sound the WP appropriates makes a commanding statement. The textural aspects of the strings and the precision tempi make this an engaging, if not wisely understated reading of the Fifth with Nelsons getting out of the shadows of its towering importance and just playing it. Andris sustains thrilling orchestral balance and pulsing tenderness in the second movement. The WP lets this symphonic eagle glide and soar to its transcendent flight.

Symphony nº 6 in F major “Pastoral”, opus 68 (1808)
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony debuted in the same performance as the Fifth. Indeed, a night of musical occasion by Beethoven with spectacular symphonic range even if it wasn’t recognized at the time. The “Pastorale” is immediately conjured by the WP as they illuminate its serene atmospherics, evoking feral beauty and thunderous summer storms. A proto-tutorial for film composers two centuries later. Nelsons feels that it reveals an inner dialogue by an emotionally suffering composer.

Symphony n° 7 in A major, opus 92 (1812)
Just as seismic but musically less sonic than the Fifth and Ninth, the Seventh strikes as a much more interior work of Beethoven [quote Paul Johnson]. The WP’s breathtaking symphonic passagio builds progressive sound fields. The architecture is a complete exemplar of Beethoven’s innovative classicism. The visceral power of the second movement and stirring humanity of the Seventh, overall, is transcendent in this performance. If Beethoven could now say he composed it for the universal soul, it would be a good explanation to its unique power.

Symphony nº 8 in F major, opus 93 (1812)
Inevitably, the Eighth Symphony is foreshadowed and completely dwarfed by the Ninth. Nelsons and the WP give an academic reading. The orchestral fanfare ignites straightforward musicality and humanistic esprit. Under Nelsons’ taut pacing, the WP’s detailing is a retro pastiche of baroque forms.

Symphony nº 9 in D minor, opus 125 (1817-1824)
In Deutsche Grammophon’s liner notes from musicologist Jan Swafford, it explains Beethoven was responding to a divisive time. Beethoven used Friedrich Schiller’s 17th century “Ode to Joy” in the final movement as a reminder of “the great vision of liberty brought by the Enlightenment”. Nelsons details all of the Ninth’s technical and theatrical mightiness and also its unique mysticism. Everything about the Ninth has an erratic structure, and its length sustains it with balance and cohesive intensity. It is not a stretch to believe that Beethoven was experimenting. In performance, the movements can even seem disconnected, and many performances of the Ninth are marred by the oratorical leading up to its Olympian chorale. In this performance, an instant synergy between tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, followed by the other soloists and the Singverein chorus, makes the thrust of the chorale stratified, dimensional and more humanistic. An effect similar to ‘long bowing’ in the strings, Nelsons fast-clips to the final movement which is distinctive, and the ensemble energy comes through on the recording.

Lewis J. Whittington




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