Philippe Jordan’s Monumental Beethoven

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WP 2019 - 2BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Anja Kampe, sop; Daniela Sindram, mezzo; Burkhard Fritz, ten; René Pape, bs; Singverein Wien (in 9th Symphony); Vienna Symphony Orch.; Philippe Jordan, cond / Wiener Symphoniker/Sony Music WS018

This is Philippe Jordan’s second complete Beethoven Symphony cycle, the first having already been issued on a set of Blu-Ray DVDs with the Chorus & Orchestra of the Paris Opéra (Arthaus Musik 109249) in 2016. Much attention is being drawn to this set, however, because it is the first ever made by the Vienna Symphony, the better-known Philharmonic’s little cousin.

The symphonies have all been released previously as individual discs (paired oddly, as on this set, as 1/3, 2/7. 4/5, 6/8 and 9), and even as individual releases they’ve garnered excellent reviews. Richard Osborne, veteran critic of Gramophone, raved about symphonies 1 & 3 that “the first movement of the Eroica…is tauter here than in Paris, less given to mannerism. The pace is a touch brisker than that we remember from recordings by Toscanini, Szell, Karajan, Bruno Walter and others (mm=54 as opposed to mm=52)… here are old skills married to new inspiration. At this late hour in the history of Beethoven on record, it would be unreasonable to ask for more.”

Of course, I have no idea what other recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies Osborne may have heard, but I will be upfront about my experience with them. In addition to having heard Furtwängler’s Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth (so badly mannered in terms of tempo distortion and tempo manipulation that I had no desire to hear the rest of them), the Beethoven 2nd by Pierre Monteux & the San Francisco Symphony, 1951, the Beethoven 5th by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the complete sets by Karajan-Philharmonia, Bruno Walter (stereo), René Leibowitz, Karajan-Berlin I, II and III (the last being overall the best, though his Ninth from series II is still my favorite among non-traditional readings of the score), Roger Norrington’s Second and Eighth symphonies issued on EMI back in the 1980s; the little-known but very good set by Hiroyuki Iwaki, and the recent set conducted by Yondani Butt, I also own the following:

Beethoven 5ths recorded acoustically by Friedrich Kark and Arthur Nikisch
Symphony No. 1 conducted by Sir George Henschel (1927)
Acoustic and electrical recordings of various Beethoven Symphonies conducted by Felix Weingartner
Beethoven 5th by Richard Strauss, Staatskapelle Dresden
Beethoven 2nd by Clemens Krauss, VPO
Complete set of Toscanini-NBC 1939
Complete set of Toscanini-NBC 1949-1952
Toscanini Beethoven 5ths of 1931, 1933, 1936 (NY Phil), 1939 (BBC SO) & 1945 (NBC);  Beethoven 9th of 1938 (NBC), 1941 (Teatro Colon) & 1948 (NBC); Beethoven 1st, 4th & 6th of 1937-39 (BBC), Beethoven 3rd of 1953 (NBC) & Beethoven 5th & 8th studio-recorded in 1939 (NBC)
Beethoven 1st, 3rd & 4th by Charles Munch, BSO
Beethoven Symphony No. 4 by both Carl Schuricht & Carlos Kleiber
Beethoven 3rd by Hermann Scherchen (fastest version on record before modern-day) & 8th
Beethoven 8th by Pablo Casals, Marlboro Festival Orch.
Beethoven 9th by Dean Dixon, Hessischen Rundfunks Chorus & Orchestra
Complete set of Michael Gielen w/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

I’m not listing this all here to brag. I’m sure other collectors have even more Beethoven Symphony recordings than I do, but I’m simply trying to illustrate that I know my Beethoven pretty well; and, with some exceptions, tend to consider Toscanini to be “home ground,” although my choices of what I consider his best performances may surprise you (the live 1938 9th and the studio-recorded 8th of 1939, for instance). My point is simply that I know my Beethoven Symphonies very, very well.

When the Gielen set came out in 2012, I did not hesitate to praise it as the best overall stereo or digital integral recording. No previous set, to my ears, had such a combination of warmth, excitement, humor and imagination. I still like it very much, but have to admit that I am now willing to demote it in favor of this new Jordan set. The King is dead; long live the new King.

And why do I like it so much? Four reasons. No. 1, the performances are not lacking in detail, although I do miss some of the wonderfully subtle rubato that Toscanini alone seemed to be able to slip into otherwise straightforward readings. No. 2, they do NOT use a HIP orchestra with its attendant sniveling, whiny, straight-toned strings and winds. No. 3, with only a few exceptions (noted below) the tempi are correct for every movement of every symphony. And No. 4, perhaps most important of all, these performances have FIRE in them. Whether it was because the VPO wanted to make a point or just because they enjoyed working with Jordan so much, they honestly sound like cavemen and women who have just discovered fire for the first time. Every note, every bar simply crackles with energy—much like Toscanini, Munch, and certain of the others I mentioned above.

I know it’s closer to score, but I felt that the opening section of the first movement of the Second Symphony was a shade fast. But so what? Never will you hear the rhythms of his symphony “bounce” off the bows of the strings as they do here. These musicians are hungry wolves, and they’ve managed to recreate the illusion of a world premiere of the symphony. And there are all sort of little accents in this symphony’s Scherzo, which Toscanini (and others) did bring out but not quite like this. As I say, it’s a matter of “bounce” and enthusiasm.

Nor is this confined to the Second Symphony; it’s there in the first, the fourth, the fifth, and so on down the line. They simply can’t wait, through their playing, to show you how great Beethoven really is. It’s as if it had been cooped up inside of them all their lives, and this was their chance to let it all out. Every accent, every dynamics marking and in fact every single note and phrase are played as if to say, “THIS is how it goes, folks! Forget all the others!” And God love them for it. Just listen, for instance, to the strokes of the tympani at 10:53 of the first movement of the Second Symphony. It sounds like the fist of fate come down to push the last few bars over the finish line. Not even Toscanini achieved that effect, and Lord knows he practically split his spleen trying to make Beethoven “sound” the way he heard it in his mind every time he conducted it. Trust me, you’re going to hear all kinds of little details in these performances that you’ve never heard in these symphonies before.

And one other thing: I really, really appreciate the fact that Jordan and the orchestra play these symphonies pitched at A=440. There’s been so much of a fetish made over the years, including by Norrington, to perform these symphonies at A=432 (as pushed by the Schiller Institute), but that’s not 100% historically correct. As I pointed out in my article on the myths of the Historically-Informed Performance crowd, A=440 to 443 was being used as early as the 17th century; in 1725 Rome it was 441, and in 1810 England it was A=444. More importantly, however, we’re not living in the early 19th century. We live in the early 21st century, and 99.999% of the music we hear is pitched at A=440, so just get used to it.

I thought that perhaps Richard Osborne was referring to Toscanini’s 1953 Beethoven Third when he said that Jordan conducts his performance faster; the 1949 recording, originally issued in 1956 as part of the complete Beethoven Symphony set on LPs, replaced in the early 1970s by the slower 1953 performance but restored for the BMG CD reissue of the 1990s, is pretty brisk, the first movement clocking in at only 14:06 compared to Jordan’s 16:39, but no—for the most part, Jordan is faster than Toscanini’s 1949 recording. Nor does he ignore, here, the subtle tempo changes called for in the score. He must have taken an extra repeat that Toscanini in 1949 did not. Hermann Scherchen, in the late 1950s, took the first movement at Beethoven’s mm of quarter=60, which is almost breathless and, yes, perhaps a bit fast, but Scherchen does not introduce all of the rubato touches that Toscanini and Jordan did. Some of Jordan’s rubato struck me as just a bit overdone, such as the slightly exaggerated slow-down before the symphony moves on to its development section, but it’s clearly not out of line. I also liked, again, the almost continual rhythmic accents, none of the m overdone yet all of them telling in their effect.

Even I, who has seen all of Beethoven’s metronome markings for these symphonies, was taken a bit aback hearing Jordan’s brisk tempo for the second-movement funeral march, but his sensitivity in phrasing helped carry the day. By contrast with the second movement, the third is just a shade slower than Toscanini in 1949 or Charles Munch, yet still effective. But THEN Jordan and the VSO jump into the last movement feet first, and even in the quiet passages they make your heart pound with excitement.

In my view, the opening of the fourth symphony is one of the hardest to bring off in the entire series. You need to play the slow opening section with a feeling of mystery, as if you don’t know what’s coming, then spring the fast section on the listener like a bolt of lightning. At Jordan’s tempo, which is Beethoven’s, the opening lacks a certain amount of mystery. But it’s all due to the tempo and not incorrect phrasing: if you use an audio editor to slow down that introduction by three per cent, you’ll hear that the mystery is there. This is one section where I feel certain that Toscanini’s tempo was right and Beethoven’s metronome marking was wrong. But when was the last time you heard those very soft cymbal strokes in the background of this intro? I never have before! As for the second movement, this, too is taken at a quicker pace than Toscanini, but in this case it doesn’t hurt the music at all, and Jordan is one of the very few besides Toscanini to get the syncopated rhythms down perfectly.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony starts off like a rocket and never lets up. In this, as in so many other movements of so many of the other symphonies, all I could think of was how much criticism and damnation Toscanini, and Michael Gielen after him, went through in the course of their careers for having the audacity to try to take Beethoven at least close to his score tempi. Now, as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, they weren’t always right; yes, I do think that Beethoven’s metronome ran slow, thus his marked tempi are probably a SHADE too fast. But orchestras back then did play music at a much quicker pace than they did during the late Romantic era and into the first half of the 20th century; modern scholarship had proven it. In fact, this performance is not only in line with the one that Gražinytė-Tyla has online but also with the one that Toscanini performed on VE day in 1945, forced to be played in a half-hour to celebrate the victory because that was all the time NBC would allow him. Toscanini did it by cutting some of the repeats, but the tempi were so close to this that I demand that every infidel who damned him come back from the grave, kneel down in obeisance, and apologize to him, the greatest architectonic conductor of all time. He and Beethoven knew what they were doing. YOU did not. The second movement, like most slow movements in this cycle, is taken a shade faster than you’re used to but still has the same kind of lilt that Karajan gave it in his excellent 1955 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The solo horn literally jumps on you in the “Scherzo,” much the same way that Aubrey Brain did in Toscanini’s live 1939 BBC Fifth—but, again, the tempi are ever brisker here. This is a true scherzo in the classic sense of the word, albeit one with sharply-accented attacks (oh yeah, that’s another thing…this orchestra is really “together” in a way you almost won’t believe) and an almost manic drive in the louder and faster sections. Jordan also takes every repeat. Personally, I question the wisdom of this; I feel that the music scores more points by not being heard so often; but that’s what Beethoven wrote, and Jordan sticks to it. His use of rubato in the section just before the pizzicato string passage is wonderful, and the orchestra really does walk on “little cat feet” during this section. The last movement, predictably, is brilliant in every respect, and I need to compliment the entire horn section of the VSO. They play with a bright, hunting-horn quality, which is exactly what Beethoven wanted.

The Sixth is also faster than Toscanini’s BBC and NBC performances of 1939, even a bit brisker than Karajan’s early-1980s recording (from his third and last Berlin Philharmonic cycle). How utterly refreshing! After all, the first movement is described as “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country.” They’re not described as relaxed feelings. So all you little pajama boys who prefer slower performances, please get lost. Interesting to hear the clarity of the winds at 5:55 into this movement, even clearer than in Toscanini’s versions. And once again—I can’t stress this enough—rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. It has to be slightly syncopated at all times. It has to “bounce.” And this is exactly what Jordan has achieved here. I should also note that he and the orchestra execute the sometimes sharply contrasting dynamics markings perfectly. The second movement, it turns out, is no faster than the Toscanini versions cited above, but I was amazed by the subtlety of Jordan’s and the orchestra’s phrasing, using muted celli (which I don’t think Toscanini did) to better convey the feeling of a brook rippling. The score at this point directs the two solo celli to play “con sordo,” meaning muffled, which to my mind indicates using mutes. It’s a small detail, but a telling one that shows you how much care Jordan and the orchestra took in the preparation of these scores. The clarinet and flute also do a great job of simulating birds chirping.

The third movement is also taken a bit faster than Toscanini or late Karajan, but again Jordan makes it work. Excellent feeling of suspense leading into the thunderstorm, but since he is using a reduced orchestra Jordan doesn’t quite pack the punch in the storm music that Toscanini and Karajan did. This, for me, was one of the very few moments in the entire set where I felt a bit let down. Jordan conducts a very fine rendition of the “Happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” though not quite as warm or elegant as the Toscanini-BBC recording, which I always felt was a miraculous performance.

On to the Seventh Symphony, where the first-movement introduction is, again, taken even faster than Toscanini, who was brutalized for taking it as fast as he did. But as Toscanini always said, “Is ‘Adagio,’ not ‘Lento’!” (Same thing with the opening of the Schubert Ninth, which he insisted was marked in cut time, not 4/4—and again, he was right and his critics were wrong.) It’s also marked “Poco sostenuto,” which means “a little sustained,” not dragged out. The second movement, too, is quicker than Toscanini, but then again, it is marked “Allegretto,” not “Andante,” “Adagio” or “Lento.” Jordan also takes an extra repeat of the first subject of the third movement, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. He also doesn’t drag out the Trio theme as so many conductors before him have done.

In addition to all the recorded performances I mentioned earlier in this review, I also heard Janos Ferencsik conduct the Seventh Symphony with the Chicago Symphony back in the 1980s. His last movement was almost as brisk and energetic as this one, as were Toscanini’s versions, but the key word is “almost.” Jordan takes them one better, and rides us out on a blaze of glory.

The Eighth Symphony has, for me, long been a toss-up in terms of approach. Should it be played in a jolly, lighthearted manner, as Pablo Casals did with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, or a bit grittier and more serious, as Toscanini did? Jordan sounds happy and ebullient at the first movement’s opening, but start to become more serious and dramatic at the 3:31 mark. I found this an interesting and appropriate interpretation. In Toscanini’s studio recording of 1939—not the one from the broadcast Beethoven cycle in December—at the point in the score analogous to 4:34 in this performance, he really “leaned into” the repeated syncopated violin passages, creating a weird sort of dramatic tension. Jordan doesn’t go quite that far, but he does play them more seriously and dramatically than Casals, and many others, did in the past. Again, a small point but an important one. The remainder of the symphony goes predictably well. I don’t mean to gloss over it; the Eighth has always been, I felt, a “sleeper” among the symphony cycle, but by this point in the set I had come to expect excellent things from Jordan and the orchestra, and they delivered. Nice detail in the clarity of the pizzicato basses in the middle section of the third movement, though.

And now we come to the Ninth. The first movement is taken at the faster clip that Toscanini used in 1938 and 1948 (NBC) but not in 1936 (New York Philharmonic) and 1952 (NBC) where “tradition” dictated that he slow it down a bit. In fact, I think it’s even a bit faster than those, perhaps closer to the one from the 1939 broadcast cycle. But Jordan introduces some very interesting little ritards and moments of rubato here and there that Toscanini did not. Towards the end, he slows down a bit to allow for the finale to make its effect. For me, the problem movement has always been the second, which just goes on rather monotonously with its repetitive triplet-beat rhythm, making it almost sound mechanical. The only conductor I’ve ever heard make it work by syncopating the rhythms a bit more than usual was Dean Dixon. Jordan doesn’t syncopate it as strongly as Dixon did, but he’ not as mechanical as Toscanini was in the 1939 broadcast. Jordan also elongates the pauses at the end of the first exposition of the theme, which helps alleviate that “squeezebox” sound that I hate. And again, all repeats are taken.

The third movement, which clocks in at 14:12, is clearly one of the fastest on record, yet Jordan manages to make the strings “float” although he keeps a steady forward push to the tempo so that the music does not “float” as Toscanini achieved in his 1939 broadcast performance. In the last movement, the vocal soloists are Anja Kampe, a pretty good soprano with a bit of a flutter in her voice; mezzo Daniela Sindram, who I’d never heard of before; tenor Burkhard Fritz, who sang a simply glorious Das Lied von der Erde under the direction of Marc Albrecht; and world-renowned basso René Pape. I’ve long argued that a great vocal quartet can make or break a performance of this symphony, but rarely have we had four perfectly-balanced voices that blend properly. The only three times I can recall hearing were in Toscanini’s 1938 broadcast with Vina Bovy, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce and Ezio Pinza, Dean Dixon’s 1960 broadcast with Shige Yago, Marga Höffgen, Fritz Wunderlich and Theo Adam (in his pre-wobble days), and Karajan’s 1974 or 1975 recording with Anna Tomowa-Sintow (in her pre-wobble days), Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier and José van Dam. Pape has clearly lost nothing of his voice; he sounds magnificent; but I was a bit taken aback by the way he sharply accented some of the words in his opening solo. The two women sound OK in the first ensemble. Fritz’s voice doesn’t sound as large here as it did in the Das Lied recording, but all of the singers are a bit recessed in the sound space here, not so much that they sound too distant but enough so that their volume tends to equalize. The tenor solo is taken at the original brisk clip, which only a few recordings use. Fritz sounds as if he’s pushing a bit, and the voice has a very Germanic timbre which means somewhat plummy and not exceptionally bright, but he acquits himself well. The orchestral fugue is brought off splendidly, with the flute quite prominent. In the later quartet passages, where, metaphorically speaking, the rubber meets the road, all four singers are rhythmically precise, but Kampe’s flutter keeps them from blending perfectly. I rate this vocal quartet a B, the same as Toscanini’s 1939 and 1952 performances. Not quite top-tier, but far better than all the other modern recordings I’ve heard.

Even by taking generally faster speeds, Jordan and his highly talented orchestra do not sacrifice elegance when it is called for. And there is yet one more thing. As you continue to listen to symphony after symphony, in places it almost seems as if the sound of the orchestra has lifted itself up and taken off with wings. One can argue—as I might—that Gielen is subtler in various movements, and he is, but he’s not “home ground.” This set is, the same way that Walter Gieseking’s Beethoven piano sonatas are home ground whereas Annie Fischer, brilliant though she was, was a unique interpreter.

This set clearly goes to the very top for me among stereo or digital recordings. I only wish that Jordan had filled out the last CD with the Choral Fantasy. Heaven knows we need a better-conducted performance than those of Ozawa, Abbado or Barenboim in recent years.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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