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Harnoncourt's Solid Cycle: Where Past Glories Shine'
on 30 March 2012
Beethoven Symphonies 1 - 9. Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. With Charlotte Margiono, Rudolf Schasching, Birgit Remmert and Robert Holl. Recorded 1991. Teldec.
Harnoncourt's cycle starts off very impressively, aided by superb sound. It is hard to believe that this cycle was recorded live - it has the feel of a spacious studio acoustic. As with Karajan and Solti, Harnoncourt treats the First with just as much vitality and strength as the more mature symphonies: the tempi are solid not rushed and the instruments have a beautiful sheen to them, whilst never sacrificing body. The climaxes are just that - not the trashy bashing of a drum which so often disfigures Norrington's earlier period performances. I particularly liked the middle movements in this recording: the splendid playing is balanced with knife-edged drama and really spot-on tempos. The same is true of the Second: Harnoncourt really makes a dramatic statement about the piece and the result is really electrifying.
Undoubtedly any performance of the Eroica will have to bring out its harsh edges at times - especially in the first movement. Harnoncourt particularly excels in those moments - the characterisation of the first two movements is very powerful: dramatic and almost violent without being vulgar. Sometimes more repose is required in the marche funebre, but it all comes off quite nicely - the credit also due to the continued excellent playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
The Fourth does not quite equal the some of its parts. It starts out very beautifully and with a real sense of mystery, but much of it is a bit all over the place. I didn't really feel a cohesive vision. The slow movement was a particular movement - not as beautiful as it can be. Tempos were a bit erratic and the playing less refined than elsewhere in the cycle.
The Fifth is certainly a strong performance: tempi are never rushed and you don't feel like the whole thing descends into farce like the one in Norrington's cycle. The superior playing from Harnoncourt's forces also make it streets ahead of Norrington's version. I would probably rate this Fifth in front of Karajan's and Solti's 1970s recordings as well. At times, you might feel that the performance is just a little too hard pressed - but I don't really object: I think the tension and uplift of that final glorious movement is well caught. What I like is that nothing feels 'clipped' in this version and it is also not rushed - a great boon. Still, it fails to displace Bernstein 1961 as my all time favourite recording of this great work.
The Harnoncourt Sixth is another completely satisfying performance. It may be surprising how the first two movements are quite slow. I personally think the pace throughout the symphony is well judged. The central movements are accelerated, but the beauty of the symphony is always foremost. But I wouldn't call it the most dramatic or tense account of this elusive masterpiece. I think Karajan, for all of his detractors in the Sixth, captures those qualities more than any other (except perhaps Bernstein).
Harnoncourt exploits every possible dynamic contrast and instrumental detail in the Seventh. It is a richly dramatic reading and the octane level just keeps rising as the symphony moves through its third and fourth movement. The very last, the allegro con brio, is played here better than any other recording I have - the conducting and the playing are simply inspired. For once you feel that everything is just right in this movement and the joy and attraction of this amazing movement is really exploited. Earlier, however, I find that some of the playing is scrappy and the strings thin. Still, it's all quite involving. For period enthusiasts this clearly outmatches the Norrington in every way (as usual).
The performance that most strikes me in this cycle is the unassuming Eighth. It is given a marvelous performance here. Whilst the playing isn't as good as that of the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, it makes up for that with a really outlandish account. It is lively and elegant and always surprising.
Like the other period performance of this symphony with which I am familiar (the Norrington), the Ninth is the low point in Harnoncourt's otherwise solid cycle. It is bland and uninspired, capped off by uninvolved contributions from the four soloists in the finale. It could very well be that this symphony requires something deeper than scholarship and fizzy tempos. These conductors seem to overlook this symphony and treat it like it's just a run-through rather than one of the cornerstones of symphonic literature. For a truly inspired account, one is urged to go to Furtwangler's Bayreuth 'vision' above all, followed closely by Solti and then Karajan in his 1977 account. They convey something of the perfection that this symphony represents.
Overall, then, this is quite a good cycle. Originally, I thought it to be rather boring. On second hearing, it strikes you as being quite fresh and spontaneous without sacrificing either nuance or some of the grand old tried and true methods of conventional performance (hence the title of this review). This proves the importance of listening more than once to cycles like these. Unlike Norrington's ghastly approach in many of these works, there is genuine respect and feeling for the spirit of Beethoven in most of the works. With the exception of the Fourth and, more seriously, the Ninth, this cycle is a safe bet for first timers, but an even stronger recommendation for seasoned collectors who have yet to visit the period 'scene'. But because the Ninth is so piecemeal, I couldn't give it a full five star rating. Four stars then.