BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus; Fidelio; King Stephen; The Consecration of the House; Egmont; Coriolanus; The Ruins of Athens; Leonore Overture No. 3 / Rebecca Evans, soprano; Wilke te Brummelstroete, contralto; Steve Davislim, tenor; Neal Davies, bass; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra; Yondani Butt, conductor / Nimbus NI-1713 (6 CDs)
In a world where new sets of popular Beethoven works—the symphonies, piano sonatas and concertos, violin sonatas, cellos sonatas and string quartets—seem to be recorded over and over and over and over again, with no real signs of greatness or even originality in their interpretations, it’s refreshing to find this new set of the symphonies in digital sound at a budget price ($29.99). True, it doesn’t top my favorite sets of these works, those of Michael Gielen with the SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, but compared to everyone else’s—including Karajan (four cycles), David Zinman, Leonard Bernstein, René Leibowitz, Charles Munch (fascinating but not quite home ground), Furtwängler (incomplete), Sir Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, Tafelmusik, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and God knows how many others—these performances by Yondani Butt come closest to satisfying one’s taste for musically accurate but still deeply-felt performances that at least try to apply the composer’s own directions and tempos.
Granted, there are moments that to me fell a bit short of ideal, such as the somewhat tepid opening passage of the last movement of the Ninth, but for the most part Butt has the measure of the composer in a way I’ve not heard in the digital era save from Gielen. There is a rhythmic spring in his step; he understands not only the right tempos but the right phrasing, which is far more difficult to ascertain; and he knows when to apply rubato and when not to. I was also quite pleased to discover that these are not “historically informed” performances with whiny straight-tone strings, pitches below A=440, or other anomalies or quirks. Despite using a modern symphony orchestra, however, the sonorities are lean, clear and transparent, as they should be (something Leibowitz and Karajan never quite figured out) without sacrificing real phrasing and a fine sense of drama.
Perhaps one of the most deceptively difficult movements of any symphony to pull off successfully is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Only a truly first-rate musician has the instinct to pull back on the slow introduction in such a way as to produce the right sense of mystery in this work (Erich Leinsdorf failed miserably) before the score and the orchestra open up into the rather jolly tune that follows. Butt understands this and produces a fine reading, one of the best I’ve ever heard.
I’m thinking that if these had been live performances instead of studio recordings, the forward drive might have been greater, but since I’ve not heard Butt in live performance I can’t really say that with any degree of certainty. Yet every movement of each symphony delivers the proper Beethovenian effect. In the Sixth Symphony, Butt combines fairly quick tempi with the fine stylish elegance this work needs, and to my mind only Toscanini (especially in his 1939 recording with the BBC Symphony) really surpasses him in this symphony. In the last movement of the Ninth, the somewhat rough singing of basso Neal Davies is compensated for by some real interpretation of the lyrics, something you rarely hear. Butt takes the tenor solo at a faster clip than Toscanini, which is actually closer to score, and does not speed up the fugue in the middle of the movement, although he does miss some of the lightness and sense of mystery in the quiet choral section just before the “Freude, schöne Götterfunken” vocal canon that explodes afterwards.
I’m also pleased to report that Butt does not slough off any of the overtures, as so many conductors are wont to do. In fact, his performance of the Fidelio overture is far finer than the one that Claudio Abbado gave us as the opener to his sadly disappointing recording of the complete opera, or for that many many other versions (other than Gielen’s) I’ve heard in the digital era. He never quite gives us that headlong rush that Toscanini and Felix Weingartner so often achieved here and there, but neither does he let you down when you expecting the music to be enlivened and exciting. It’s just that his somewhat tempered approach never quite reaches that state I would call “unbuttoned.”
If you happen not to be one of those people who are impressed by Toscanini’s readings of these symphonies, you may very well want this set as a contrast to the sometimes hyper-explosive Gielen box. This one is a bit more of what you would call “home ground.” It is sure to please almost anyone you know who enjoys Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures, being a very “musical” reading of these thousand-time-done scores without wasting your time in the listening. I’m also very well pleased with the sonics, which are close yet still have a bit of ambience around the sound. In short, this is Beethoven done to a turn. I give it five fish!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley