SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BEETHOVEN: The Symphonies – Soloists/ Laurens Collegium & Cantorej, Rotterdam/ Orchestra of the 18th Century/ Frans Brüggen – Glossa (5 discs)

Brüggen’s second complete effort; while the results are never in doubt as to sincerity, they are at best mixed.

Published on November 19, 2012

BEETHOVEN: The Symphonies – Soloists/ Laurens Collegium & Cantorej, Rotterdam/ Orchestra of the 18th Century/ Frans Brüggen – Glossa (5 discs)

BEETHOVEN: The Symphonies (complete) – Rebecca Nash, soprano/ Wilkete Brummelstroete, mezzo-soprano/ Marcel Beekman, tenor/ Michael Tews, bass/ Laurens Collegium & Cantorej, Rotterdam/ Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/ Frans Brüggen – Glossa multichannel SACD GCDSA 921116 (5 discs), 6+ hours [Distr. by Naxos] ***: 

I’ve always maintained a hard and fast rule regarding the qualifications for a great Beethoven conductor—if he or she gets six of the nine symphonies right, then into the pantheon they go. If not, sorry, but we must have some rule of order, shan’t we? I admit this is completely arbitrary; well not completely, as most conductors fail to present at least one of these masterworks properly. But I think success in half of them is not enough to qualify, and requiring more than six not realistic, so two-thirds is my number.

Based on this set, Frans Brüggen, though one of the very first to record a complete symphony set on period instruments over 20 years ago and a pioneer in the effort, does not qualify. It’s not that his interpretations are uninteresting—they are not—or that he doesn’t have something to say in this music—he does. But there are some quirks, including a fatal one that sounds off like a fire alarm, and the other things he says are curiously, well, nondescript. Most of them have already been said before, and that surprised me.

You won’t find any of Norrington’s dogmatic and whacky tempo fluctuations or the heroics of Gardiner—and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century has neither the technical acumen or the tonal luster of the latter’s orchestra. There are the typical vibrato-less strings, and blandished emphasis on the harmonie, or wind section as a distinct and quite powerful orchestral entity. Unfortunately it tends to overpower the rather weak strings, as do the boomy timpani. But the orchestra as a whole makes quite a large sound, and even though the notes to this set point to the advantages of more “intimate” readings instead of the typical “grand” ones, they are, in the end, every bit as noisy as most. It can’t be helped—it’s Beethoven’s nature.

No. 1 is measured and almost stately in its opening tempo, so much so that it lacks life. While the other movements are pretty much the norm, the last also seems to lack the punch so needed to put Beethoven’s first attempt over. Coupled with it is the “Eroica”, a work that shows what happens when the strings aren’t powerful enough and get drowned out by the winds—so many of the important first movement incisiveness and rhythmic play among the sections is simply not heard. The “Funeral March” is okay, a bit fast and lacking in depth, though the rest of the symphony is very well done. Disc two finds perhaps the two best performances of the set, Nos. 2 and 4; both are nicely managed and quite lovely. Disc three offers Nos. 6 and 5, in that order—I don’t know why, but these are not ordered numerically but more to the point of which symphony on each disc offers the bigger “finish”. I found Six nearly a model of perfection, an excellently judged first movement, very soft and alluring second, exciting scherzo and “storm”, and only slightly let down by the strings again in the louder portions of the final movement. No. 5 is done in quite a traditional manner, with the exception of the held strings at the fermatas in the first movement; Brüggen lets them just hang with no affective action taken at all, certainly not very exciting or pulse-pounding. The other movements are fine, though the tempo of the fast movement from transition of the scherzo is a little perfunctory. Nevertheless, an exciting reading. Disc 4 offers Nos. 8 and 7; the former not living up to its “Grand Symphony” title again because of lack of sweep in the strings, though the conductor does get the jokes in the minuet of the false entrances, and the last movement is nicely measured. I have no complaints about the Seventh, a secure and well-judged reading of great nuance; the only issue here, as it is all through the set, is that the “live” conditions of these recordings place the horns way in the back, and they are not heard as well as they should be.

The Ninth starts off well, with reasonable and even traditional tempos being taken, which surprised me; one of the things about the period movement is the searching out of the “original” tempo indications, but Brüggen ignores a lot of what his comrades do and goes his own way time and time again. The scherzo is even a little slower than what the standard seems to be these days, though the slow movement is taken at normative, rather speedy period instrument tempos; what some of these conductors have against the inherent passion in this movement is beyond me. But the egregious failure occurs in the choral finale, starting with the emotive words “Freude” being not sung, but—are you ready—shouted by the choir. I kid you not—it is one of the silliest moments I have heard in all of recorded music, and I have no idea what Brüggen was thinking. The tenor soloist has a ghastly, very fast vibrato, almost Maurice Chevalier-like, and the choir in general, while good, is undernourished and not as precise as what we might like.

The SACD sound is very good indeed, even to the point of illuminating some things better left covered up. Brüggen’s intentions are high and noble—there is no doubt as to the sincerity of these readings. But in the end there is just too little to warrant a general recommendation. For period instruments, Gardiner is still the most rational choice, though there are some jewels in this set if you can put up with the above-mentioned issues.

—Steven Ritter

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