Stop Everything. And Listen. Especially To The Timpanist.

In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on October 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Review: Symphonies 1-9 & Overtures. Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Chorus & Ricardo Chailly.

It’s difficult not to turn to clichés regarding Chailly’s recording of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. First of all, it’s simply remarkable that Chailly has not attempted them before – either individually or complete and I understand that the set is made up of live recordings made over the last three years.

Quite simply I have listened to almost nothing else since I downloaded the set from iTunes. And I have listened to them from beginning to end – from the first chord of the First Symphony in C Major to the closing and triumphant bars of the Choral – without interruption and without repeating or skipping a track.

Chailly’s isn’t the only set of complete Beethoven symphonies I own. Naturally I have Karajan’s recordings of 1963 and 1967 as well as Rattle’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, Zinman’s superlative set with the Tonhalle Orchestra and Hogwood’s performances on original instruments. And I also have individual performances by the likes of Fricsay – his recording of the Eroica is one of my all-time favourites – Furtwangler, Haitink, Barenboim etc. However without exception I have not listened to any of the sets from beginning to end in one sitting.

Not until now. Not until Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig of which he has been Kapellmeister since 2005.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Chailly and the players have an incredibly strong and special relationship. Not only does the orchestra play with absolute precision, but Chailly draws from them a wealth of orchestral colour, breadth of dynamic range – including real diminuendi not simply a sudden cut in the volume – and precise yet flexible ensemble playing that immediately sets these performances apart. There is an intensity, a muscularity and vigour in the playing throughout this recording that is not matched with such consistency elsewhere in my opinion.

This isn’t the place to go through each of the symphonies individually. The devil is in the detail and discovering that detail is part of the wonder.

But as I said, from the first chord of the opening Symphony in C Major Chailly’s approach has a real clarity. For Chailly, the pizzicato strings don’t merely pluck the note, they actively attack it. For conductor and orchestra this clearly isn’t just a symphonic successor to ‘Papa’ Haydn, but a completely new sound world.

My old university lecturer once told me that what Beethoven did in his symphonies was to liberate the wind and brass instruments and in some cases used them almost like a military band. And I think that this is something that is clearest in these performances. The woodwind and brass do seem more ‘liberated’ than in other sets. I don’t mean the solo elements stand out more – that is true of the other performances – but rather, and this is particularly true in the first five or so symphonies, they are not merely ‘adding padding’, but actively contributing to the overall collage of sound. Listen to the trumpets in the Second Symphony for example.

Chailly’s choice of tempi has been remarked on in some reviews. Granted his speeds are generally on the swift side – even in the slow movements – but because of the attention to detail and the virtuosity of the playing, the speeds never seem hurried but instead, seem to grow out of an increasing sense of momentum that drives the individual symphonies through their respective movements to the last dying sounds as he lowers his baton after each and every finale. And of course his generally faster tempi add to the sense of drama that is delivered in spades in each symphony and every overture.

Take Chailly’s interpretation of the ‘Eroica’ for example. From the opening chords it’s almost like the French are almost at the gates of Vienna as Chailly shines a light on the more martial aspects of the symphony. It’s literally more ‘cannon shot’ than simple chords at the beginning and this immediately creates a sense of urgency and tension. But despite the tempo, the music doesn’t sound rushed – no notes or phrases are snatched – and Chailly delivers each and every of Beethoven’s carefully marked sforzandi with great precision. And listen to how Chailly brings out the horn line in the fugal passage in the development section. Marvellous. And for Chailly, the dissonant trumpet that follows almost immediately is given equal weight without being given the undue prominence accorded it by other conductors. The second movement, Marcia funebre, is beautifully judged – Chailly clearly choosing a tempo that could literally be marched to. You can almost imagine the flag-draped coffin on the gun carriage and crowds of people looking on and in some ways reminded me of the wind symphonies and other music of French Revolutionary composer, Gossec. Perhaps for me the Scherzo that follows isn’t the Allegro Vivace that I would have liked but instead of speed Chailly points out the delicacy and humour of the writing. The final movement is simply one long whirlwind of fantastic music making.

And there is a real transparency too. Chailly skilfully ensures that all the orchestral detail and the inner parts are given equal weight. In the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony for example, Chailly weaves the wonderfully delicate counterpoint together without sacrificing any of the thematic material one over the other. And the first orchestral tutti is quite simply breathtaking before Chailly winds down the sound with incredible mastery into the second subject with no sense of the awkward ‘gear change’ that happens in some performances.

While the first eight symphonies are incredible in their own right, the crowning glory of the set is the Ninth – Choral – Symphony. From the opening bars, where Chailly allows the music to emerge almost from nothing the orchestra’s playing sweeps everything out of its path under Chailly’s relentless grip on the tempo and dynamics. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is a heart-stopping moment and Chailly draws even greater warmth from the strings and woodwind without ever becoming indulgent. The singers – Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann – and chorus are exemplary in the final movement and how delightful to hear Paasikivi again after seeing her as Fricka in Hamburg in April earlier this. Chailly magnificently marshals and drives the increased forces into the final section, drawing disciplined singing from everyone involved to bring the symphony and the set to a brilliant close.

The performances of the overtures included in the set are equally well performed, with Chailly according them their symphonic due. Pace for not writing more on them individually but they are brilliantly performed.

So what of the timpanist? It’s often difficult not to point out individual soloists in each of the sections of any orchestra but here especial credit and mention must go to the timpanist. If my research is correct it is either a gentleman by the name of Tom Greenleaves or Matthias Müller. The playing and timbre are exceptional – something I imagine is not often said of timpanists but it needs to be said here. And thrillingly he is giving a masterclass in percussion during the orchestra’s time at the Barbican.

And the entire set is wonderfully supported by the warm and generous acoustic in which it is recorded.

While I am fortunate to have tickets to see Chailly and The Gewandhausorchester perform the Third and Eighth symphonies in London very soon, I will be making it a priority to visit Leipzig as soon as to hear them on their home turf.

In the meantime, and regardless of how many different recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies you own, buy this set.

Lock the door. Turn off your phone. Make a pot of tea. And listen.

  1. The information on this blog is handy.

  2. […] listened to Chailly & the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig’s complete CD edition of the Beethoven symphonies almost to […]

  3. […] Philharmonic through Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. I say ‘led’ as, still deeply in awe of Chailly’s Beethoven with the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig, while the symphony under Eschenbach was well […]

  4. […] a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s […]

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  6. […] warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I […]

  7. I don’t usually comment but I gotta say thank you for the post on this great one :D.

  8. […] as ever while it’s impossible in excerpts to generate real dramatic tension, Chailly leads the orchestra with due attention to detail, driving the music forward while sympathetically […]

  9. […] warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I […]

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