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SACD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op. 55
  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
  • Symphony #6 in F Major "Pastoral", Op. 68
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 in D minor "Choral", Op. 125 *
* Helena Juntunen, soprano
* Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano
* Daniel Norman, tenor
* Neal Davies, bass-baritone
* Minnesota Chorale
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS-SACD-1825/26 Hybrid Multichannel 5SACDs
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Before I turn to the piano concertos with these same forces, I wanted to add this excellent set to the pages of Classical Net. The reasons are threefold. One, there simply isn't a better set on SACD of the complete Beethoven symphonies, and even in regular stereo – the format in which I listen – the performances are unsurpassed in terms of sonic clarity and detail. Secondly, of the complete sets in our archives as of September 2014, only Norrington and Mackerras count as being truly modern sets in terms of approach, and the former's otherwise excellent set is hampered by that conductor's allergy to vibrato. Finally, the new critical editions edited by Jonathan Del Mar, which may or may not matter to you, are used here.

Osmo Vänskä recorded a few of these works for the BBC, and those were great performances that sounded horrible and occasionally felt either out of control (the Seventh) or uninspired (the Fifth). Here everything comes together flawlessly. The effect of modern scholarship is in evidence here; swift tempos, clear textures, and crisp phrasing. Where Osmo Vänskä differs from Roger Norrington's otherwise excellent takes with the SWR is the former conductor's willingness to let his string section sing. And they sing beautifully, aided by some of the finest recorded sound BIS could muster.

Symphonies #1 and #2 crackle with energy and effective herald the works to come. Check out the Finale of the Symphony #1 which begins arrestingly and then explodes into a tightly controlled whirlwind of joy. Similarly, the Symphony #2 is so powerfully introduced that it feels more like the symphonies that follow. Vänskä and his orchestra shift dynamics so effortlessly and convincingly throughout the set that even the earliest symphonies have an unfailing sense of drama. And the first-desk playing is astounding, as is the entire orchestra. Don't be concerned with the quality of the Minnesota forces; they are amazing.

The Eroica begins like two cannon shots, and positively bristles with tension. Despite the transparency and urgency, nothing feels scaled down. The revolutionary nature of the work hits you like a ton of bricks, not so much through extremes of tempo or sheer sound, but through the remarkably incisive string playing that slashes and burns through all that came before it. The dynamic range is huge, and Vänskä pushes the music relentlessly onward, culminating in the Finale's massively exciting coda. Again, it's not about speed, but detail.

The Symphonies #4 and #5 are also eye-opening. The Symphony #4's opening feels like it emerges right out of the ground-breaking Eroica here. Rarely is the Fourth given this kind of serious, committed treatment, but here it is. As for the Symphony #5, it's a performance in the Toscanini mould, lean, urgent, and supremely musical. The playing is nothing short of amazing, with the emphasis on dynamics making the entire piece worth rediscovering from beginning to end. For his part, the conductor demands a dizzying degree of rhythmic accuracy that makes older performances seem somewhat stale in comparison.

Moving on to the Pastorale, we find a Sixth that features plenty of forward momentum without ever sacrificing the music's lyricism. Other performances that are period-influenced (Harnoncourt on Warner) push the music but lose the "pastoral" element that makes this work unique. Tempos are on the quicker side here, but they are justified by Vänskä's willingness to let the music breathe freely, almost effortlessly. To hear a major symphony orchestra this light on its feet is a true joy, especially when you consider that the authentic instrument crowd generally has to resort to all kinds of weird sounds and approaches to get the same kind of results. Here, there are no tricks. Vänskä makes the entire symphony flow organically from note to note, and it turns out to be tremendously effective. Helping matters is that from a purely technical perspective, few versions can equal this.

The same applies to the Symphony #7. Vänskä's previous effort with the BBC was exciting as hell, slashing and spinning all over the place. This version retains the joy and thrills, all within a tighter and more controlled framework. I can't help but think of Toscanini again, as many critics have alluded to the great maestro's work in New York as the Seventh of choice. To be fair, Vänskä is no mere imitator. He's warmer, for one. He has great sound, for two. But the comparison is apt, because like Toscanini, Vänskä is willing to drive the music as hard as he can, without ever losing sight of the score. Has the Symphony #8 ever sounded quite so vibrant or so (pardon this) masculine in its effortless marriage of lyricism and strength? I doubt it.

The Choral Symphony features fantastic playing, especially in terms of articulation and phrasing. It successfully balances the old and the new. Tempos are swift and urgent, while the music takes on a chamber-like transparency and razor-sharpness. Unlike the David Zinman recordings, which share these newer editions of the score and (theoretically) the same approach stylistically, Osmo Vänskä never lets the music lose its feeling of weight and purpose. Like the readings of yesteryear, the forces are full and the chorus sounds appreciably large. In contrast to those, this Ninth is cuttingly incisive, both in terms of playing and singing. BIS has managed to perfectly record the Minnesota Chorale, and they sing extremely well. The soloists share this light approach, and are more to the point so-so. But this is about Osmo Vänskä and his orchestra, and with that in mind there is very little to criticize. A truly outstanding achievement from start to finish, in Minnesota of all places! Bring on the concertos!

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman