“Beethoven: Révolution, Volume 2”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony nº 6 in F major, opus 68  – Symphony n° 7 in A major, opus 92  – Symphony nº 8 in F major, opus 93  – Symphony nº 9 in D minor, opus 125 [1, 2]
Sara Gouzy (soprano), Laila Salome Fischer (mezzo-soprano), Mingjie Lei (tenor), Manuel Walser (baritone), Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Nacional de Catalunya, Jordi Savall (conductor)
Recording: Collegiate Church of the Castle of Cardona, Catalonia, Spain (July 18‑21, 2020  and September 30 and October, 2021 ); National Forum of Music (NFL), Wroclaw, Poland (October 10-11, 2020)  – 170’07
Alia Vox AVSA9946 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in French, English, Spanish, German and Italian
It’s still a bit of a shock to identify Jordi Savall, the savant of early music, with the towering symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. However, volume two of Savall’s complete Beethoven symphonic cycle has indeed been recorded and released. In this album, Savall leads Le Concert des Nations—small in size but not in impact—in attractive performances of Symphonies nº s 6, 7 and 8. These performances include most recent scholarly edits in time for the composer’s 250th birthday year (2020‑21).
While these are pleasantly performed on period instruments, with lively tempos and crisp delineation of musical lines, it is the last work in the series—the Symphony nº 9, the “Choral”—which took my breath away. Here, Savall pulls the plug, and the genie flies out of the bottle. The experience is magical, divine and illuminating. You will never hear the Ninth the same way again.
But before we drown in the Dionysian springs of this performance of the Ninth, let’s take a quick look at the first three symphonies in this collection. The Sixth, known as the “Pastoral”, is Beethoven’s symphonic sally into program music, with musical depictions of a bright day in the country interrupted by showers but resolved as the sun breaks through the clouds. The music is so much better than that quick sketch of the program, full of sweetness without sentimentality. In this performance, Savall elicits a much larger sound than I expected, with a robust storm movement, yet an overall halo of soft, almost feathery ambience throughout. The fifth and final movement concludes sleepily as two sequential chords—despite fortissimo markings—soften and tumble ahead into a cloud of fermatas over rests.
Savall and his ensemble bring a freshness and clarity to the Seventh Symphony, composed some eight years later than the Sixth in 1812. The first movement proceeded a little slowly, I thought, though that balances the spriteliness conveyed in the third and fourth movements. Beloved movement two—with its oceanic undulations—begins in this rendition from a place of almost inaudible quietude, contrasting with the swelling crescendos to come. The “Presto” (third movement) really crackles with energy. This and the final movement may change your mind about period instruments if you find many historically informed performances sluggish or thin.
I must confess I never cared for the Eighth Symphony and applaud Savall’s use of a celeritous pace, so it is over faster. However, even I must admit that the conductor’s brisk clip infuses this work with irresistible momentum, right up to the final clunky chords of its conclusion.
And then there is the Ninth. Soon into the first movement, many listeners will find themselves thinking, “I never heard a Ninth like this before!”...and they will be right. Other than the obvious musical qualities, listeners over the years have described the work as expressing the trajectory of life from its primeval origins (first movement) to its greatest flowering in art and philosophy (the Ode to Joy). In that first movement we are either lost immediately in a quagmire of bored indifference or electrified as we are drawn into a world in which great myths bespeak our origins: the Golden Fleece, the Gold Chain of Obatala, the Dao as the mother of all things, a Garden of Eden fecund with apples and snakes. In this recording, it’s all there, the soundtrack to our evolution.
The evolutionary metaphor continues to build through the frenzied second and introspective third movements leading to what many consider the crowning glory of Western music, the fourth movement escalating to Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The four soloists never self-consciously steal the limelight as a quartet of virtuosi The chorus—La Capella Nacional de Catalunya—similarly blends with the instrumentalists of Le Concert des Nations to create a triumvirate of connections whose product is a brilliant exposition of Beethoven’s ideas etched in the rhythm of the composer’s heart.
With most performances of the final movement, it has been my experience that the first and last sections deliver the greatest musical punch, but I felt inexplicably moved by the middle portion of this interpretation, whether by the conductor’s design or a shift in my own focus or powers of perception, I cannot say. I felt swept up, part of something inexpressibly greater, but also kinder and wiser than myself, clichéd though that may sound. As the music slips from Adagio molto e cantabile into the prestos and breaks into a march, we need not fret so much about metronome markings and timbres. Jordi Savall’s Beethoven is speaking to us in the deepest recesses of our collective soul. We need only lower our defenses and listen.