Because the nine symphonies of Beethoven form the core of any classical library, all interpretations of them are welcome. When they are as good as these and at such low cost, the prospect is nigh-well irresistible.
Conductor David Zinman leads the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in performances that adhere as closely as possible to Beethoven's designs. The orchestra is much the size of Beethoven's, Maestro Zinman tries to adhere to Beethoven's metronome marks, and the scores are among the most authentic and up-to-date, the Barenreiter editions. The only difference is that the orchestra plays on modern instruments. So the idea is obtain the best of the old and new worlds: Historically informed performances and modern sound. Nikolaus Harnoncourt attempted a similar approach with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but Zinman, I think, is even more successful, and the results come at a price almost anyone can afford. Arte Nova present the discs in a boxed set, or singly if one chooses to experiment. What's more, the works are sensibly paired two symphonies to a disc consecutively, with Nos. 1 & 2 occupying the first disc, Nos. 3 & 4 the second disc, etc., and No. 9 on a disc to itself. Thus, only five discs are needed to accommodate the complete cycle.
Zinman starts things rolling with a lively rendering of the Symphony No. 1. The tempos are much quicker than even Norrington in his period instruments' version. There is good attack, particularly in the first movement, which is taken at almost breakneck speed. Then things settle down, the second movement Andante having a wonderful lilt. Paired on the same disc is the Symphony No. 2, which again has quick tempos, although they don't seem as noticeable. The reading is invigorating and enlivening, yet the articulation is always precise. I question if the joy of this interpretation has as much to do with the conductor's following the new performing edition as it does simply with Zinman's own personal vision. Whatever, it works wonderfully. The sound in both pieces has good bloom; the timpani, apparently struck with hard mallets, are solidly pronounced and most realistic; and the relatively small ensemble, under fifty players, is clearly delineated. My only quibble is that the overall sonic picture is somewhat dark, with not a lot of high-end sparkle. But one hardly notices such trifles when caught up in music making of this caliber.
Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," is one of the highlights of the set. It is the first of the "major" symphonies, a departure from Beethoven's earlier environment of Haydn and Mozart and a step into big-time orchestral surroundings. In its day the size and shape of the "Eroica" were unlike anything audiences had heard before. One is again aware of the brisk tempos, but this time they are not nearly so breathtaking, though still exhilarating. Accordingly, the piece does not have the expansive grandeur of Sir John Barbirolli's approach or the nobility of Otto Klemperer's or Karl Bohm's, but it does demonstrate a passionate forward momentum that rightly conjures up heroic images of the Napoleonic era. The second movement funeral march is quicker than we are accustomed to, certainly not a slow dirge as is usually the case, but undoubtedly what Beethoven had in mind. And I especially liked the finale, which gallops along in fine style. The sound here is very much together, of a whole, and somewhat cleaner than in Nos. 1 or 2. On the same disc is the Fourth Symphony. Generally speaking, it sounds a little too rushed for my taste, particularly the first movement, which misses some of the composer's lighter touches. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly poetic and cheerful in Zinman's hands. Utilizing an orchestral force about a third smaller than the works on either side of it, it makes a delightful contrast to its more serious neighbors.
The first movement of Zinman's "Pastoral" Symphony moves along in bouncy style, giving way to a much gentler "Scene at the Brook" than I expected. The counterpoint in the second movement's closing moments is exceptionally affecting. But the merrymaking that follows is more perfunctory than merry, the storm less menacing than it should be, and the final thanksgiving less than revelatory. Scored for the same orchestral forces as the Fifth Symphony and recorded on back-to-back days, the Sixth also sounds a little darker than the others in the set. However, there is a greater sense of space and depth to the presentation, especially during the storm. For all this, neither Zinman's Fifth nor Sixth would be close to any of my first choice recommendations in these works--Kleiber, Bohm, Reiner, Klemperer, or Bruno Walter.
Disc four brings us Nos. 7 and 8. After hearing Zinman sometimes follow Beethoven's tempo marks overzealously in the first six symphonies, I was quite prepared for a hasty rush through the Seventh. Not so. In fact, Zinman's pace, while appropriately quick, is relaxed and buoyant, the joyous dance melodies compromised only slightly by the heaviness of the sound and the hardness of the drums. Then, with an orchestra slightly pared down from the sixty-odd players in the previous three symphonies to a little over fifty in the Eighth, the sound takes on a greater clarity and lightness of spirit, enlivening this work even more. It is one of Zinman's most delightful interpretations, with special attention given to the second movement's little tiptoes tune. Only in the final Allegro does the music seem at all hasty, yet not enough to dampen the work's overall high spirits.
As befits the crown jewel in Beethoven's cycle, the Ninth Symphony is Zinman's own crowning glory. It appears smaller in scale than those from other conductors, to be sure, but one of the most exceptional Ninths on record. As always following Beethoven's metronome, Zinman transforms the Ninth into a new piece of music. Yet the whole structure is rock solid; and as it feels all of a whole, one is never aware that it shouldn't have always been this way. A comparable recording is one by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on EMI, which also tries to follow Beethoven's tempo markings and is played on modern instruments. But Zinman's reading is even more lithe and fleet footed, with the advantage, too, of cleaner sound. The second movement Scherzo is specifically fiery. Then, when the finale's "Ode to Joy" bursts onto the scene it is exultant, indeed, even if the staccato pacing of the final minutes takes one slightly aback. Surely, this performance is the way Beethoven would have wanted his legacy to be remembered. Even the sonics are more taut and clear in this last recording.
In summary, one should not miss Nos. 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9 in particular. Nevertheless, at the price we find these discs, the whole box set is a must. This is not to say, however, that there aren't other, good low-cost alternatives available. Overall, I still favor Karl Bohm's more old-fashioned, conventional approach with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in the Seventies and issued by DG in three double packages. Bohm's set contains the most treasurable of all "Pastorales," plus highly recommendable versions of Nos. 3, 5, 7, and 9. What's more, they are among the best-recorded Beethoven symphonies at any price. And we can't forget the Philips discs with Eugen Jochum and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded in the late Sixties, very imaginative, reasonably well recorded, and offered at budget price. But neither Bohm nor Jochum boasts the authenticity of Zinman's readings, for which similar sets--Harnoncourt on modern instruments, Norrington and Gardiner on period instruments--will set you back more money.
Needless to say, I am speaking to those of you who already have individual favorites in your collection and are now looking for supplemental material in any case. As for Zinman, the argument seems clear.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this set, click below: