Top positive review
on 10 October 2016
Has Jansons produced one of the finest modern sets of Beethoven symphonies, as some of the other reviews suggest? Or is this just another 'pretty good' modern set, delivered by people for whom Beethoven is just a part of the daily routine of a modern professional orchestral musician? The latter view at times seems right to me, but even after decades of listening to Beethoven, it is still difficult to find the right perspective and make a fair judgment. Credit has to be given to Jansons for the many things he does right, and for a set that is basically excellent—and pretty consistently excellent too—and which mostly does rise above mere routine.
Jansons tempos, with few exceptions, are unerringly right, and at some points he builds up to moments of real passion. But I wonder if his tempos don't also reflect some kind of corporate consensus about where we are now with Beethoven, since even though they work well they are also deliberately non-controversial.
The playing is excellent, and the sound quality too is excellent, providing state-of-the-art clarity. But then why is it that listening to the crappy mono sound of Toscanini's 1949 Beethoven 2nd, some details emerge with such vivid robustness, but by contrast seem pale or almost inaudible in Jansons' version? In the first movement of the 2nd, for example, listening to (or listening 'for') the trills at 06:33, I realized that I was hearing them mostly because recordings have taught me they are there—under Jansons' direction they almost disappear. (Anyone who is upset because they can't hear the cowbells in Strauss' Alpine Symphony, or Mahler's 7th, should be able to feel my pain.) Yet those trills generate a growing sense of drama and anticipation, and it's vital that they be clearly enunciated. At times like this I have to decide not to listen THAT closely, or I'm going to realize that something important is still missing from this set.
So sometimes the music-making here seems routine—even if highly skilled, highly professional routine—rather than passionately committed. Even highly professional musicians sometimes need to be cajoled, or terrorized, or inspired out of normal human laziness and routine. But the days when conductors like Furwangler or Toscanini could do that are gone. Toscanini used to shout above his orchestras as they played: 'Sing! Sustain!' It was the extra energy of digging into the notes, and holding and sustaining them, produced the kind of radiant, powerful, singing sound that great conductors once got from orchestras. But conductors and musicians aren't on a Mission From God anymore; it seems to be enough that a professional conductor gets up in front of an orchestra that is also professional and then they sight-read professionally through the work. No need to get too involved; we all know how Beethoven goes already, don't we?
This is one of my two most recently acquired sets of Beethoven symphonies. The other is by de Vriend (see my review), and I felt it deserved 5 stars but this one only 4. It's not that his is more free of imperfections—quite the contrary. But de Vriend's is consistently fresh, vivid, and exciting. And he sometimes rethinks Beethoven in ways that take time to get used to, but that ultimately really makes sense and become convincing.
The 1st pleased me with excellent tempo choices and a lively delivery; I think it's a fresh and interesting look at this symphony. The 2nd follows suit, and Jansons' sensible and fairly energetic reading is basically an excellent one. But not quite a great one.
The opening movement of the 3rd is strong, vivid, and well-paced, and commendably includes the exposition repeat that is crucial to both the musical and dramatic structure (when the mood of the exposition is sustained for a longer period of time, the contrasting nature of the development is heightened and its drama deepened, and the ground needs to be suitably prepared for the appearance of those tremendous dissonances and tensions). Jansons paces the funeral march effectively, and with touches of originality, and it builds to genuine intensity in the fugato section and the climax. By the third movement the orchestra is on its toes and really responsive, and the variations of the final movement also build well. This is a successful Eroica. As an aside, there is another great traditional, big-band Eroica that is well worth hearing, which is the Blomstedt/LA recording (not his Statskapelle Dresden one) that is now available in the boxed set overview of Blomstedt's career. It is big-boned, refined (surprisingly so), powerful, and perfectly shaped, and for the most part is paced slightly more 'traditionally' than this relatively fleet, modern one from Jansons. My favorite at the moment, however, is the Eroica by de Vriend—vivid, exciting, and fresh throughout.
In the first movement of the 4th, Jansons doesn't produce the kind of dramatic tension in the slow opening introduction or the transition into the main body of the work that can be heard elsewhere. He does manage to whip up a certain amount of energy by the middle of the movement, and the same applies in the final movement. So it's a kind of average 4th with no missteps, but Kubelik, Toscanini/BBC, and Hogwood, in his period-instrument performance, do much better at finding excitement, energy, and beauty throughout the symphony.
It's hard to have too many complaints about this 5th, even if it doesn't achieve quite the same intensity of rhythm, phrase, and structure that great 5ths of the past sometimes have. The performance is a good one, but probably won't quite be at the top of my listening list of 5ths. Instead, the recording by composer Peter Eotvos comes to mind, as well as Kubelik on DGG, and I recall there was a live Solti/Vienna recording that I used to like quite well too. Others will surely want to include Carlos Kleiber and other usual suspects on this list and I don't object. This is good 5th, but I hesitate to say a great one.
I basically like Jansons's 6th. He avoids sentimentality where it can so easily creep in in the first two movements, and as always seems to pace everything well. But the 6th is my least favorite of Beethoven's symphonies and I'm not going to get into the weeds discussing whose is best here.
I have mixed feelings about Jansons' 7th. The first-movement introduction is again well-paced, but played in a chugging, metronomic, marcato style that creates an odd, bouncy effect rather than a grand or powerful one—kind of off-putting. But the movement proper takes off and develops well. Likewise he builds the 2nd movement well, with mystery and excitement, but then there's that important, rising three-note figure that first appears at 00:57, and thereafter throughout the movement. This always used to be played with a graceful, waltz-like lilt, but it has apparently become fashionable now to play it with an aggressive upward swoop that lands hard on the final note, like someone revving their motorcycle engine—vrOOM, vrOOM! To my ears, this is unmusical and off-putting. Has some new 'critical edition' of these works told us that we've been playing Beethoven wrong the last century or two, and we now have to change? In the final movement, Jansons does what (almost) everyone else does, making the assumption that faster is always better and more exciting. But if you take such a fast tempo that the rhythms can't be articulated cleanly, they lose their effect, and everything just becomes tense and breathless, rather than 'the apotheosis of the dance.' Many conductors have shown how well this movement works at slightly slower tempos: Toscanini (NYPO/1936), Bernstein, Kubelik, and Leinsdorf, to name a few. Jansons is right on the edge of being too fast here, but on most days I find it pretty exciting. Excellent sound also contributes to the success of this performance. For an equally driven approach, and one that to my ears succeeds in even more spectacular fashion—certainly in the first movement—there's de Vriend, who offers one of the most exciting and best-conceived 7ths I've heard in quite some time.
Janson's 8th appears to go quite well at first, and generally does. But the lovely cascade of falling string phrases that appears at about 08:32 in the first movement is a bit jumbled and disconnected. Unfortunately, those phrases, despite constituting one of the quieter passages of music in that movement, are in fact really it's climax—a focal point toward which the entire movement has been building. This reminded me to listen again to Gunter Wand's 8th, and it is as I recalled it: besides being perfectly shaped and not jumbling those crucial phrases, it is also bursting with a kind of sunny, spontaneous energy that is tremendously appealing, by contrast with the slightly heavier tread of Jansons' first movement. I guess I still prefer Wand's, and the drama of Leinsdorf/Boston, and maybe Kubelik on DGG too.
The 9th here seems excellent, basically a more sharply etched version of the 9th from Jansons that was released separately several years earlier. Recording quality (and venue) account for part of this, and this is in fact beautifully recorded in every respect, even if the sound is slightly less full-bodied than the earlier one. The balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra is ideal, and the tonal shadings of the chorus are caught beautifully as well, with no glare or distortion. For myself, on most days I'd usually rather listen to the 4th or the 8th than the 9th, or, for a choral work, the Missa Solemnis, but most likely I'll return to this one. But it isn't a performance that will cause anyone to forget the likes of Furtwangler or Toscanini in this music though, by a long shot.
All in all, for a series of alert and in some cases very energetic live performances, with generally excellent tempo choices and mostly free of bothersome eccentricities, this gets 5 stars. For sometimes delivering professionalism without passion, I deduct one star. Others might deduct more.