BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21. Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36.
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55 Eroica. Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op.
60. Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 Pastorale.
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93. Symphony No.
9 in D Minor, Op. 125 Choral
Barbara Bonney, soprano; Birgit Remmert, alto; Kurt Streit, tenor; Thomas
Hampson, baritone; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus; Vienna
Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Ratte, cond.
EMI 57445 (5 CDs) (M) (DDD) TT: 5 hrs. 43 min.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
EMI, under its new 10-year
exclusive contract with Sir Simon, has added this five-disc set boxed
ever so handsomely, but with the Vienna rather
than Berlin Philharmonic (which recorded the Basic Nine for Deutsche
Grammophon under Rattle’s predecessor, Claudio Abbado, now laureate conductor).
Rattle and the Viennese performed their cycle twice in Vienna during 2002,
before and after Tokyo and Berlin runouts, using the new Bärenreiter
urtext edition by Johnathan Del Mar. This is not, however, the first recording
of Del Mar’s scholarship, published between 1996 and 2001. David
Zinman and the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra crossed the finish-line first,
on BMG’s budget label Arte Nova – available stateside in installments
before BMG’s bankruptcy.
The choice of tempi, however, is still moot. By and large, in the Zinman
installments I heard (without much enthusiasm despite excellent ensemble
and a concert-hall acoustic), his Switzers played faster than their
Viennese competition. In some movements, according to Gramophone magazine,
did Abbado’s BPO. It bears noting that Andrew Farach-Colton in his Gramophone review of Rattle-VPO had plenty of demurrers – in the long run prefering
Teldec’s nine by Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
(although its 1991 publication date came a decade before Del Mar’s
redacting was published in its entirety). On the other hand, Misha Donat
in BBC Magazine declared Sir Simon’s the set to own, awarding
the recording as well as the performance five stars.
What Rattle did in Vienna was divide first and second violins, then
have all the strings try to simulate the sound of period instruments.
that is to say, but not mean, merely arbitrary. One gathers from Gramophone that the VPO didn’t oblige him willingly at first, perhaps never
in its Austrian heart-of-hearts. But the players tried, only to be sabotaged
by engineering (or the transfer to standard CD masters) which tended throughout
to dump sound into the right channel. Not until I remembered that my preamp
has balance controls for both left and right channels, and boosted the
left substantially, did divisi fiddles and repositioned lower strings become
spatially coherent. EMI, however, did not solve other problems of recording
in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal before an astonishingly quiet audience.
Arte Nova takes another first prize. It may be, of course, that an inevitable
multi-channel version will clarify everything, but I’ll leave that
to R.E.B., whose awesome system does a job with the precision he communicates
in his reviews of SARC and DVD-audio discs. I always thought the Grosser’s
excessive reverberation was ameliorated by an audience, but not here; one
can hear the mud of old, dating back in my experience to mono recordings
made in the ‘30s and again right after WW2 – this despite
thinner-than-Viennese string sound (sometimes, that is).
I’m not going to do chapter and verse, although I listened twice
to the set, the second time with pirated Japanese reprints of the 1862-65
Breitkopf & Härtel edition, the standard until Del Mar’s
myriad of corrections large and small. I’ve never been a real fan
of Rattle in any repertory except the early works of Benjamin Britten,
a couple of Haydn symphonies and the finale of Mahler- Cooke’s Tenth
Symphony. For me, spontaneity is missing despite the care taken since his
earliest EMI recordings with the Birmingham SO. While surfaces may glisten
from a liberal application of polish, I have sensed interpretive calculation – too
frequently in this set to recommend it. Curiously, what A.F-C. liked best
in his comprehensive Gramophone review, I tended not to; and where he made
a sour face I found myself smiling – in the slow movements of Nos.
6 and 9, although not those in Nos. 2-5. Elemental fury is either reined
in or missing in the first movements and/or finales of 3, 5, 7 and 9, while
8 is po-faced. I’m not convinced, however, that any conductor has
been the master of all nine symphonies – not even the iconic Toscanini
or Furtwängler, whose approaches overall were diametrically opposite.
A modern conductor can divide violins, work to suppress Wagnerian vibrato,
take every repeat (Rattle, by the way, does not), and follow the composer’s
post-facto metronomes (again Rattle does not, to his credit). I find his
scherzos throughout too often slower than not – and in No. 7
Meanwhile, EMI has pledged a lot of money in parlous times for a product
that is nonessential, BBC Magazine to the contrary (along with, I daresay,
a militia of Britcrix who tend to close ranks behind One Of Their Own,
living or dead, in witness whereof Saint John Barbirolli and John Eliot
Gardiner). Rattle fans will disagree, of course. I hope he rises to
the challenge of his Berlin post, at the same time I’m glad the self-governing
Philharmoniker chose him instead of Daniel Barenboim, who recently made
a nonessential set of the Nine with his Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra for
Teldec, before a Euro-crunch put them out of business. I don’t know
the Harnoncourt set (also on Teldec), and therefore advise anyone seeking
a modern version of Beethoven’s sämtliche Neun to invest in
Abbado and the BPO – who also play the Del Mar edition, but don’t
divide violins or eliminate vibrato – released in 2001 by DG.
R.D. (May 2003)