Limited Edition: Presented in a book
This complete cycle of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies is a landmark event for Decca, for Maestro Chailly, and for the Gewandhausorchester, where he has been Kapellmeister since 2005. These acclaimed performances were recorded live in the Gewandhaus over three years, in preparation for the highly-anticipated complete cycles that Maestro Chailly of October and November 2011. The cycle showcases the finesse and musicality of the legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra--from the Haydnesque elegance of the first two symphonies, to the grandeur and drama of the choral Ninth Symphony. This five CD set of the nine Symphonies also includes selected Beethoven Overtures, and comes for an initial period in substantial and luxurious packaging, comprising a hard-back book with five internal CD wallets, all contained within an outer slipcase.
‘Chailly’s account of the First Symphony is a tour de force of wit and subversive joy, and the performance of the Second Symphony is almost as good. There is a fine account of the Fourth Symphony … a distinguished account of the Seventh Symphony … electrifying account of the Eighth. The Ninth gets a predictably swift reading, compact and powerful, which, like everything else in this cycle, is of a piece with itself.
'The recordings, I should add, are superb. These are proper studio recordings, not concert paraphrases. There is space around the sound, as there needs to be in Beethoven, complemented by an immediacy and clarity of detail that derives in large measure from the playing itself.’ Disc of the Month, Gramophone.
‘This is above all, an explosively swift cycle. Chailly is utterly faithful to Beethoven's metronome markings. The result is a Beethoven cycle that's up there with the best modern-orchestra versions of recent times … and which also manages the seemingly impossible – making the music seem freshly minted without any concessions at all to period performance’ ***** The Guardian
‘From the outset it is clear that Chailly’s Beethoven will be an exhilarating adventure. The breathtaking finale of No 8 is the most exciting I have heard of disc. [The ninth] is a dramatic and visionary interpretation’ CD of the Week, The Times.
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. --Daniel Ross
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