We are hardly wanting for another Beethoven cycle, but at least this one is on video (Blu-ray and DVD) and is presented in excellent sound (at both recording venues) and with splendid camera work and superior picture clarity. Moreover, it features a conductor who has deservedly gone from rising star to superstar over the past couple of decades. Philippe Jordan (b. 1974) studied piano, violin and composition, beside conducting, and has held several major conducting posts including as music director of the Orchestre de l'opera National de Paris (Paris Opera Orchestra) since the 2009-2010 season. He is the son of famous Swiss conductor, the late Armin Jordan (1932-2006). Philippe Jordan is clearly a conductor who divulges both a deep knowledge of, and natural affinity for, the symphonies of Beethoven.
The album notes to this Blu-ray set go on at considerable length about how he has tried to capture a reasonably similar sonic presentation of the symphonies as they were heard in Beethoven's time, particularly in their first performances. The size of the orchestra, the acoustical properties of the hall and much else were taken into account in these renditions of the works. In other words, a lot of care and thought went into the performances regarding features which many conductors never consider at all. A seasoned Beethovenian will likely conclude that a lot of care and thought went into the interpretations as well.
What is interesting here is that Jordan has chosen to record the symphonies with his orchestra, perhaps the most prominent French theater orchestra. I say it is "interesting" because if you look at various surveys by critics and musicologists regarding what they consider the top orchestras in the world, you rarely find a French ensemble high on the list, much less one devoted to opera and ballet. I found one survey listing the Orchestre de Paris at #28, arguably too low a ranking for that fine ensemble. I must confess that I myself had previously broad-brushed French orchestras as being a bit restrained and suave – subtle, yes, but demure, and thus in general tending to be low-key in their style. But then I must admit that in 2013 I found the Orchestre National du Capitole Toulouse to be quite an excellent ensemble when I reviewed a Stravinsky recording of theirs (Naïve V5192). Now, hearing this cycle of Beethoven symphonies by the Paris Opera Orchestra, I must declare I am very impressed by their collective talent too. I suppose it is fair to opine that the better French orchestras have not quite received the recognition and high ranking they deserve.
Having laid this groundwork, I must do a partial about-face by noting that good as the orchestra is in this Beethoven cycle, the performances are more about conductor Philippe Jordan and his very solid and spirited interpretations of these nine masterworks. One reason I say these performances are more about the conductor is that the orchestral players were essentially unfamiliar with the works prior to these performances. In the album notes Jordan states that "they have hardly played this repertory before." Surprising? Remember, they are an opera/ballet orchestra, quite adept at Verdi and Puccini, and Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, but not necessarily at Mahler, Brahms or Beethoven. That's another reason why I was so impressed by this orchestra's performances on these discs. They play as if the music is in their blood, as if it's a part of their regular repertory. But the question is, how do they and their conductor stack up against the formidable competition, particularly the competition on video?
I have reviewed the Abbado/Berlin cycle here (EuroArts Blu-ray 2057374), the Fischer/Royal Concertgebouw set (RCO Blu-ray 14108), the Jansons/Bavarian Radio Symphony cycle (Arthaus Musik Blu-ray 107536), and, by way of reference, the Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic set. Which is the standout, if any? Well, they're all very good and quite different from one another, but if I had to choose from among these four, I would marginally favor the Jansons. As for this new set by Jordan, I think it compares very favorably with Jansons as well as the other sets.
Jordan's orchestra was obviously well rehearsed and cedes little to the other more acclaimed ensembles – perhaps in Mahler or Bruckner or Sibelius, shortcomings might be more noticeable. As suggested above, Jordan's interpretations are clearly very well thought out, as you hear a wealth of meaningful detail, with balances always sounding correct. Exchanges between winds and strings throughout the symphonies always seem to come across with the proper sonic perspective. Try the 7th Symphony and take note of how Jordan gets just the right balance between strings and horns in the first movement main theme, or sample the finale of the 9th Symphony and notice that when the main theme is presented for the second time, the bassoon is blended perfectly into the sonic fabric, never encroaching on the theme played by the strings as is the case in so many other performances. Timpani never sound boomy or over the top or timid: try the "Storm" in the Pastoral Symphony and you'll hear and almost feel the thunder and lightning, again thanks to the realistic sonic perspective. It's all very effective, and overall Beethoven's spirit shines through in each of the performances.
Jordan's tempos are moderate to slightly brisk and he seems to rarely vary from that range. Like so many conductors today, he takes the introduction of the 7th Symphony at a lively pace and also leads the second movement at a true Allegretto tempo, unlike many conductors, particularly those from a generation or so ago. In general, he is fairly straightforward in his phrasing, avoiding overuse of rubato and resisting exaggeration in dynamics. In the end, he allows the music to speak for itself.
The first two symphonies exude plenty of youth and energy here, as they should, and the Eroica takes on a decidedly more serious demeanor, though I would say Jordan does not linger over the sense of angst in the second movement and in fact may tamp it down a bit with his slightly animated adagio tempo. A fine performance all around. The 4th is very good, brimming with energy and color, and certainly one of the better accounts of this work, at least on video. The first movement introduction is very well rendered, exuding mystery and lots of dark atmosphere. The main theme is taken slightly on the brisk side and is full of vigor and joy.
I would say the 5th is also a very fine performance. The first movement has plenty of momentum and there is a great sense of urgency throughout. The string articulation could be a little more clear and crisp, but this is about the only shortcoming in this otherwise splendid account. The finale comes on with such a sense of all-conquering triumph, as the brass ring out and strings soar with confidence. The recent account by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony may be better, but this effort by Jordan and company is very nearly on that supreme level. Jordan offers a lively first movement in the Pastoral Symphony and throughout the whole work imparts a bucolic atmosphere that captures the music's essence. The peasant merrymaking in the third movement conveys the revelry with vigor and color, the subtly applied shifts in dynamics heightening the sense of joyous celebration. The storm, as suggested above, is brilliantly conceived and executed.
I've already made some comments about the 7th but overall I can say this account brims with life and spirited playing, from the heroic first movement introduction to the breathtaking finale. The 8th is another of those utterly joyous Beethoven symphonies, and here Jordan conveys its high spirits with a deft mixture of elegance and hardiness. The 9th stands as one of the finest performances in this set. The whole work is splendidly conceived, especially the huge and difficult finale. The soloists and chorus are marvelous here and the pacing seems just perfect. One might think that Jordan's finale might be overlong, as it is listed in the album booklet as lasting over twenty-six minutes. But additional time for applause is added in and the actual length is about 23:46, which puts this movement slightly on the brisk side. At any rate, this is a brilliant 9th to stand with the best on video.
There is a very good bonus feature about Jordan and his career on the third disc here, Born to Conduct. It's in German with subtitles. In the large box housing the discs is a handsomely designed hard cover album booklet, with about sixty pages of information, given in French, German and English. The Arthaus packaging is obviously lavish, but it's the performances we're concerned with here. I highly recommend this set: if you possessed only this cycle of the Beethoven symphonies you would be well served. Jordan's interpretations, while not revolutionary or daring, are consistently strong efforts that can compete well with the best on video, arguably even with the better ones in other formats.
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings