When Rafael Kubelík recorded Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon he conducted each one with a different orchestra. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (which back then partnered him for a superb Symphony No.2) reverses that concept – this august ensemble is now the constant, as is the Amsterdam Concertgebouw building, with nine diverse maestros.
Symphony No.1; David Zinman; 9 June 2010. A swift yet poised reading, always on the move, lightly tripping in the second movement, serenade-like, then a scampering third, and a fizzing Finale played with a precision. Plenty of woodwind and timpani detail throughout with none of the Zinman-added twiddly bits that compromised his Zurich Beethoven recordings as well as rather muddying the then-new Bärenreiter editions courtesy of Jonathan Del Mar.
Symphony No.2; Leonard Bernstein; 8 March 1978. A richly moulded and tempo-articulate account, full of gravitas, as well as bite. Nothing glib (nooks and crannies explored), the RCO is at full strength, the first-movement coda is given a thrilling lift-off, and its Larghetto successor is conjured as a musing twelve-minute reverie of varied intensities. The Scherzo-like Menuetto really dances and the Finale scintillates, whiplash tempo, played with dexterity and warmth.
Symphony No.3; Nikolaus Harnoncourt; 16 October 1988. A fleet tempo, clipped notes and scrubbed-clean textures for the first movement tend to undermine the boundary-breaking reputation afforded the ‘Eroica’, although there’s no doubting that the music-making catches emotional fire in the development section: a wide dynamic range is explored, from shimmering strings to searing trumpets and drums. The ‘Funeral March’ has purposeful tread while expressing soulful lament through unvarnished timbres – however, a little more space would have been welcome, although tension is effectively ratcheted up … then straight into the Scherzo (not an editing glitch, I heard Harnoncourt do it like this in London), a lively washing away of previous tears. The horn-players in the Trio are splendid. The Finale is electric as well as surprisingly sentimental in places. With a somewhat underwhelming coda, this performance isn’t quite the ‘real deal’ although it does exude a curious fascination.
Symphony No.4; Herbert Blomstedt; 19 September 2003. A wonderful account. A darkly mysterious yet expectant introduction leads to an exuberant Allegro, then a slow movement rich in pathos, a bubbly Scherzo (the Trio unindulged) and an eager-beaver Finale (bouquets for the clarinettist and the bassoonist), Blomstedt – making full use of antiphonal violins, basses left-positioned – leads a riveting reading: energised, dynamic and incident-packed.
Symphony No.5; Mariss Jansons; 29 May 2008. A powerful, thrusting but not rushed first movement has within it an haute couture attention to lyricism as well as buoyant rhythms. The second movement – marked Andante con moto, for which Jansons is nearer to Adagio, a time-taken pulse that satisfies martial pomp and searching/romantic inwardness. The Scherzo is of stately tread, the transition to the Finale has about it a sense of ‘something brewing’, and when it bursts forth it does so with majesty, a trenchant approach sustained to the end with just a slight increase in impetus as the finishing post is sighted – but no cheap victory this and timpani unleash both barrels on the final chord. Impressive.
Symphony No.6; Sir Roger Norrington; 7 October 2004. A fast-forward ‘Pastoral’ first movement finds the bus driver ignoring red lights and also denying the passengers much of the countryside scenery, but there is at least a modicum of joy. ‘Scene by the Brook finds an ‘authentic’ awareness afforded to trills and vibrato, the music given a discernible current and a certain charm. When the Peasants get to Merrymaking, Norrington is a happy mix of incisiveness and the bucolic, before he unleashes what sounds like a violent stamp of the foot (4’49”) that has the dancers rushing for shelter … the ‘Storm’ here is tremendous, ominous basses, piercing piccolo, rattling and gunshot timpani … and, following the deluge, ‘Thanksgiving’ is eloquent and glowing. (Postscript: During the tempest, from 3’20” for several seconds, there is a mild background hubbub that suggests suppressed laughter from the audience – maybe Sir Roger was doing a jig on the podium!) As for Harnoncourt’s ‘Eroica’, Norrington’s ‘Pastoral’ may bring some doubts while also yielding numerous instructive insights.
Symphony No.7; Carlos Kleiber; 20 October 1983. Up until now each of the respective conductors has observed every repeat (in Zinman’s case twice-through the Menuetto’s da capo). On what was probably a ‘hot ticket’ night in Amsterdam Carlos Kleiber sails through the outer movements of No.7 without them (his Vienna/DG recording is complete in this respect) – I’m not complaining for the music (fastidiously rehearsed) certainly leaps off the page, the players charging the air under Kleiber’s stewardship. The second-movement Allegretto moves (in every sense) at the marked tempo; it can be a dirge. With a properly Presto Scherzo and a flowing Toscanini-like Trio, all repeats, and a Finale that respects its Allegro designation, this Kleiber Seventh turns out to be quite something. (By the way, a couple of listings have Kubelík down as conductor for this work, and an online retailer even has a cover sporting his name. Maybe there was a last-minute change of plan.)
Symphony No.8; Philippe Herreweghe; 5 October 2003. Without overdoing the ‘period’ niceties, and never in danger of being issued with a speeding fine, Herreweghe brings buoyancy, punch, wit and warmth to the Eighth. A pity about the slight rit at the close of the first movement, which loses the humorous pay-off, but very likeable and enjoyable overall.
Symphony No.9; Antal Dorati; 28 April 1985. Old-world conducting gives time for the first movement to expand and intensify, musical articulacy bringing a story-telling dimension, even if the development is less than volcanic. With all repeats in place and a moderate tempo, the Scherzo is nearly as long as the first movement (just right in my opinion) and the Trio is a diverting spectral contrast, played nimbly. The slow movement is particularly soulful, beautifully done, we’re in the Elysian Fields, and while the ‘Choral’ Finale (with Roberta Alexander, Jard van Nes, Horst Laubenthal, Leonard Mróz, and the Choir of the Concertgebouworkest) may not always raise the roof it is nevertheless full of good things to make for an erudite and involving listening experience – a traditional Beethoven 9 enhanced by Dorati’s experienced hand and his long-game approach: the closing pages are emotionally arresting. A reading to return to.
Applause following each Symphony is retained, which is fair-enough given these are one-date performances; and, throughout, the sound is excellent – capturing naturally both the Orchestra and the celebrated Concertgebouw acoustic. RCO 19005 (5 CDs).