A brisk and dynamic Emperor, crisply articulated and strongly accented, with full due given to the brass and woodwinds. This is obviously a historically-informed performance and Zinman mixes modern instruments and natural trumpets and horns. From the typically dry sound of his timpani I suspect that they are period timps with natural skins, or at least that they are struck with wooden sticks. But for the "traditionalists" who'd be tempted to find the approach excessively rushed and perverted by the evil influence of period practice, Zinman's first movement clocks at 19:26, to be compared to Casadesus-Mitropoulos' 18:50 in 1955 (Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 / De Falla), Horowitz-Reiner's 18:55 in 1952 (Horowitz Collection - Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1/Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 "The Emperor"), Schnabel-Galliera's 19:07 in 1947 (I have it in a very poor transfer on a bootleg label for which I won't provide a link, and I haven't heard Schnabel's two other recordings, with Sargent in 1932 and Stock ten years later), Katz-Barbirolli's 19:20 in 1959 (Barbirolli: Music of Beethoven) and Fleisher-Szell's same two years later (Beethoven: The 5 Piano Concertos/Mozart: Concerto No.25). The same comparisons could be made in the finale, but I'll stop pestering with statistics. But beyond the brisk tempo and dynamic approach, the instrumental felicities are too numerous to mention; suffice to say that Zinman shows an admirable attention to the details of Beethoven's scoring and articulation, and that the bassoon - not usually the most exposed instrument in the orchestra - has great character. Bronfman plays with an equally admirable palette of color and articulation, and knows how to relax without lingering in the more lyrical or dreamy moments. Again the tempo in the slow movement is flowing, more than any of the above-mentioned versions except Casadesus' (in both his recordings, with Mitropoulos and Rosbaud, Robert Casadesus - Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 " Emperor ", Piano Sonata Op. 101), but Bronfman is entirely up to the movement's restraint and dreamy atmosphere, and with a clarity of articulation that irresistibly brings to mind the slow movement of Ravel's Concerto in G (although, by Ravel's own admission, it was inspired by the slow movements of Mozart's Piano concertos - but hearing Bronfman and Zinman, it is obvious that Ravel was wrong, and that his unconscious model was really here).
The Choral Fantasy is equally outstanding. It starts with a very brisk and dramatic introductory cadenza, and continues with the same brisk tempos, playing up the contrast between the urgent and almost menacing orchestral phrases, and the lyrical and pensive responses from the piano (a process typical of the slow movement of the 4th piano concerto). Zinman conducts with great drive, muscle and snap. Especially noteworthy is the piquancy and zest of woodwinds, and the unique military atmosphere of the Marcia (12:52), highlighted again by the dry thunder of the period timps, evoking (quite appropriately I think) Berlioz' "Symphonie funèbre et triomphale". Again, the historically-informed nature of this performance is shown by the flourishes from flute, oboe, clarinet and violin at cadential points (respectively 5:24, 5:55, 6:20, 6:50), and likewise with the piano at 15:43. My only minor complaint then would be that the soloists from the chorus are in a strange perspective relative to the piano, separated from the chorus and very close to the listener. It makes their lines very clear, but the whole perspective sounds somewhat artifical. But the soloists are excellent, especially the two most exposed, first soprano and first tenor, and so is the chorus. The coda has irresistible drive.
I'm glad that this CD gave me the additional opportunity and pleasure to hear again Beethoven's choral work after two poems by Goethe, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. I hadn't heard it for years (the recording of Michael Tilson Thomas, Beethoven: Late Choral Music), and must not have listened very carefully back then (but then, you didn't have the internet to download the scores from in those days). It is a masterpiece, equal to any of Beethoven. It is Haydn's Schöpfung in miniature. Its first part, a musical depiction of silence upon the sea which may be the silence of death (the English title doesn't hint that it is the dead calm that becalms the ship), is breathtakingly daring. And when the dark skies break up and the land is in view, the explosion is like the jubilation of resurrection. Texts unfortunately not provided, I fished on the internet.
In the earlier days of the LP, things were clearly binary: you had the great performers and orchestras with the big labels at full price, and the lesser orchestras and performers on the cheap and sub-par labels. Not anymore. Zinman's Beethoven cycle is a major undertaking, worthy to be in anybody's collection, and I'd be happy to live with this disc if I had only one version of these works. And if anybody can hear the difference between the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and a major orchestra, please let me know. Or better: the difference is that the Zurichers play with a clarity and crispness rarely encountered with larger and majorer symphony orchestras. And all that for the price of - well, just look. I feel guilty to pay so little for such outstanding quality.