Readings focused entirely on the composer, not on debating how things ‘should’ sound.
Daniel Ross 2011
At the heart of any Beethoven symphony cycle is always going to be a tedious discussion of the ‘right’ way of doing things. Adhere too closely to authentic period performance and one risks ignoring the drama modern orchestras are capable of; but ignore those strictures and you’ll be lambasted for dousing the whole thing in garish romance. In short, it’s a brave conductor who attempts anything approaching a ‘definitive’ recording. Riccardo Chailly, star and commander of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig for some years now, can now rest easy – his readings fall somewhere between both camps. They are, commendably, focused entirely on the composer and not on debating how things ‘should’ sound.
Of course, distilling, linking and finding the energy for nine individual concept albums is a mammoth task and bound to end up with uneven results, but it is certainly interesting to see exactly which works have come out on top. Inevitably, the tent-poles of the third, fifth and ninth symphonies are direct, strong and unshakeable. The third (the Eroica), in particular, doesn’t linger on the more morose corners and paints the composer as the sub-titular hero more than anyone else. Similarly, the galloping excess of the ninth is reined in enough in the early stages to make the conclusion suitably grand.
It is in the lesser-known symphonies that the narratives become a little lost. This isn’t only a reflection of the performances, but also of the place the works have come to occupy in the composer’s canon. There are innumerable corners of melodic interest to explore in these works still, a delicate counterpoint or rhythmic tic that could have been drawn out a little more clearly (the finale of the Pastoral symphony is rather too clinical, for example), but these are given only cursory attention. Still, when attempting a monolithic set such as this, there are bound to be fallow patches.
Furthermore, interspersing the symphonies with various Beethoven overtures as palate-cleansers was perhaps a misstep. Even the most cursory listen to the gloriously dark opening of the Egmont overture is enough to suggest that these are worthy of a separate collection. These issues aside, what Chailly has produced might not be definitive, but it certainly is rich where it needs to be. The playing is responsive and immaculate throughout, forming the backbone of Chailly’s brilliantly authentic crib-sheet of a symphony cycle. Though the arguments will always rage as to exactly how these works are supposed to sound, here they’re treated as sacred texts not to be meddled with. And that is more than you could reasonably ask of most conductors.