In this complete set of all nine Beethoven symphonies, USA born conductor John Nelson leads the chamber orchestra, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. His tempos and timings are such, that we get the nine symphonies on five discs in sequence. Disc one starts with symphonies one and two, then we move on from there.
One needs to adjust a tiny bit to the leaner sound of a chamber orchestra in Beethoven, but once the ears adjust, one appreciates gains hard to capture with a larger traditional sized modern orchestra in a more traditional approach. What details? Well, the contrasting departments of the orchestra tend to come through with great nuance, not to mention clarity. Many big band sets make allowances in this area by having engineering that involves closer miking of the instrumental groups, supporting a concern that a listened at home will be able to hear differences or nuances, more clearly.
Right from the get-go, Nelson and the band display flourishing militant and vital musical colors. The sforzando punch is not stinted in the least. The smaller group is able to snap tightly, no matter how many instrumental groups are involved. Strings come across well. Their silkiness may fall just a tad short of (say) either Boston or Munich ... just to mention two comparison sets I had on hand to develop context and contrast. Yet the Paris strings are consistently fleet and nimble, managing runs and phrases at the generally fast tempos with admirable shape. The phrasing has consistent point, so that one can easily hear without fade or fuss where the players begin, and where they are going. Finally, those strings from high to low manage a touch of sweetness from time to time, not just in the slower movements, but in the faster ones as well. Woodwinds are basically clear yet creamy, except when they sparkle in all the right places. A listener will probably need a reading of the Eroica or the fifth to really get the brass at their best show, but in the two early symphonies, the brass do well by not taking over any more than needed to fill and snap, along with the rest of the band. So with the first disc, one is happily at home with Beethoven. The composer is himself. The band is excellent, playing tight beyond all ensemble faults, but very musical.
With disc two we get the formidable combination of the third (Eroica) and the fourth. While the fourth symphony often stands in the larger shadows cast by the path-bursting Eroica, a close listen will reveal that it, too, is a giant step forward in musical and intellectual development of the legacy sonata and symphony forms Beethoven received ... in the ... '...spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn' ... as one patron put it. Though by now we assert that Beethoven had his own special grasp of the shapes and opportunities of the musical traditions he received; and I seem to recall that Haydn as his teacher was not particularly impressed with the composer's diligence in following homework assignments without injecting himself too drastically into their execution and final forms. What Beethoven had was an unusual, and unusually intelligent, grasp of musical wholes and their details, all taken together. Combine that mastery of vision or imagination with a deep penchant for working things through until he was himself fairly well satisfied, as the Beethoven sketch and conversation books tend to show us.
Nelson and company start their Eroica off with a nicely snapped couple of opening chords. Beyond the snap, the chords are held just long enough for our ears to hear the dominant opening key (E flat major) and its associated harmonies. Then we launch headlong into the familiar Eroica swinging theme of the first movement. The musical speed would be breakneck, except that an excellent swing rhythm undergirds a compelling range of shape and nuance in phrasing and balances. As is typical of this set of complete symphony readings, the ensemble throughout is stellar. Each band department takes with gusto, charm, heft, and sophisticated intelligence ... to its musical work at hand. The first movement momentum is never for any passing second, in doubt. Yet the refinements of Beethoven's varied statements and restatements of these familiar themes is captured anew, rendered anew, and draws us in anew. Pretty great stuff when playing such a legacy war horse as the third symphony!
With so much 'con brio' tone and detail in the first movement, one suddenly comes to the funeral march of the second movement with doubts and worries. How will the band do given the faster speeds this conductor is taking? Not to worry. Not only are we stepping along gravely at an effectively funereal pace, the shaping of details inside longer phrases is getting the message across, vividly. Enough shadow or darkness gathers that we are observing a dignified, restrained, noble grief; not a hysterical, pull-out-all-the-stops Romantic-psychotic grief. The wind band is able to convey a martial posture in its passing signals, without sounding coarse in a way that would detract from the dignity. Ditto, for the brass. The off-beat preparatory runs in the string basses or other strings which can be such a nimble but blurry trap for many leaders simply cause no ruckus here, but instead enhance the sense of forward motion as well as gesturing a halting tread that the music of this movement can carry so well. The long-breathed horn tunes salute the departed hero, and honor the overt, sad majesty of one human giving up life for others. The transition to the ending statement is tragic yet hopeful.
Next the scherzo sets off at a rather relaxed, congenial seeming pace. Plenty of snap, plenty of brio, but unforced and floating above us, just over our heads. Off-beat hits have a touch of swing about them, all to the good. The horns in the trio are obviously among the early arriving, first friends and neighbors in musical townships that will later include Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music. After the trio, the scherzo return seems tightened up just a tad, so that the sense of relaxed energy is now changing into more overt forward motion. The final movement of the Eroica sets a crown on all that has gone before. Beethoven's rich imagination and intelligence come artfully to the front as the variations on musical ideas unfold without interrupting the impetus that will lead us to a most sated conclusion in a coda just fast enough to surprise with touches and details. If you have gotten tired of feeling under-nourished by the empty calories of slacker, smoothed out Eroicas, this reading will prove your happy remedy. Bravo, all.
The fourth symphony is its own distinctive musical miracle, too. (Don't read me, just listen. If all that remained of the composer were this fourth, we should still nod our heads in admiration as when hearing again the Sappho fragments. Brahms would be deeply in love with the playful ways Beethoven does main beats against off-beats. The Adagio is exquisitely shaped, including the skipping hip hop hitches in its occasional get-along. Sample this you M*****f***s! The third movement is again relaxed just enough to swing, and rife with detail and irrepressible energy. If you haven't been persuaded by the last movement's conclusion, you ought to have your hearing checked? The whole symphony in fact, seems an abundance of riches as read by Nelson and band, its formal excellence only matched by nearly flawless execution and musicianship. True to itself, the fourth is both beautiful and vital, more than a match for an Eroica with staying power.)
The vitality plus detail that served the Eroica so well come into great play in the fifth symphony, too. All those insistent, familiar motifs are here full of an almost dancing energy, with deep reaches of tectonic harmony spinning around a molten-fire core. One can suffer the work's allegedly surly-obsessive repetition with as little frowning disapproval as one watches a family of deer loping off across the nearby park reserve's hills. Then symphonies six ... seven .... eight. Each one played to a fare-thee-well. Nelson and band do a scrumptious ninth given their framework. Soprano is Guylaine Girard; Alto is Marijana Mijanovic; Tenor is Donald Litaker; and bass is Hao Jiang Tian. Our chorus is Paris Oratorio Choir, led by Jean Sourisse. Each soloist can stand alone, and the four blend well at soft or loud volumes. The chorus masters a great challenge, asked often to sing well at extremes. The fast tempo with a leaner, athletic touch can bring out a bel canto indebtedness in the music that most big band readings simply do not quite match. Given how consistently well played this set is, I wonder that it has passed notice in USA. If this were my only Beethoven set, I could thrive on that proverbial desert island. But, listen, then you decide.