An interview with Claudio Abbado in the booklet accompanying these CDs reveals just how long and hard he has been thinking about Beethoven. In the light of Abbado's ruminations about Beethoven's metronome markings, various textual discrepancies and other issues surrounding the symphonies, it is hardly surprising he has decided to follow his cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic dating from the Eighties with a new one with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Like increasing numbers of conductors, Abbado uses as a basis Jonathan Del Mar's exhaustive critical edition of the symphonies (occasionally overruling Del Mar where musical reasons dictate), and achieves something rather noteworthy: making the Berlin Phil sound like a modern, compact, efficient ensemble. Any ingrained orchestral habits were made easier to overcome by the relative youth of its players these days, and Abbado has been able to fashion them into the pared-down, no-nonsense orchestra one hears here. Forces are reduced, tempi are fast, dynamics informed by the latest scholarship. So what does it sound like?
One potential pitfall of being as businesslike as Abbado has made himself is the neglect of expression. A clattering and cacophonous finale to the Seventh, hurtling heedless to its conclusion, is an example; and here, as occasionally elsewhere, Abbado's high-octane dramatics can seem self-conscious and calculatedly brutal. For the most part, however, Abbado skilfully deploys his forces to reveal the sort of subtleties often swamped in the wash of sound generated by a larger ensemble. The Larghetto in the Second is such an instance, a model of lucidity and detail which sacrifices nothing of its free-flowing warmth. It is also a cycle of remarkable quietness - even more than the triumphal finale to the Fifth, one is struck by the two minutes that precede it, which push at the very limits of audibility.
Like David Zinman's recent cycle, which also uses Del Mar's edition, Abbado's has a highly integrated feel: very much of a piece, it is consistent in style and coherent in vision. Like it or not, it throws out a stimulating challenge to any listener concerned with the continuing metamorphosis of Beethoven performance.
© BBC Music Magazine 2000
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