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.
>b> EMI 57445 (5 CDs) (M) (DDD) TT: 5 hrs. 43 min.

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, so 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. Lean, 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 exasperating-to-deadly.

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)