Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1-5 (SACD review)

Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Alia Vox AVSA9937.

By Karl W. Nehring

Perhaps it was the pioneering set of Beethoven symphonies on period instruments that put me off the idea of period instrument performances of these symphonies. Norrington’s recordings at the time seemed fun, but they just did not seem to bear up to repeated listening. Later, I did come to enjoy David Zinman’s recordings with his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, which combined the energy and brisk tempos of the “historically informed practices” approach of Norrington with a modern orchestra.

More recently, I found the 5-CD boxed set of Beethoven symphonies featuring the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique led by conductor John Eliot Gardiner for sale at an irresistibly low price at one of the several used book/media stores in the area whose shelves I peruse at regular intervals. (“Hello! My name is Karl and I am a CDaholic.”) This budget-priced box was released in 2010, replacing the set that was originally released in 1994. It proved to be an enjoyable set; as a bonus, my auditioning of it led me finally to appreciate Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, which I had pretty much completely ignored throughout my long so-called life. Although Gardiner may not usually be my first choice when I want to hear a Beethoven symphony, I have enjoyed the set thoroughly and do return to it from time to time.

Having had my interest in period-instrument recordings resuscitated and recharged by the Gardiner set, I was intrigued to hear these new renditions of Symphonies Nos. 1-5 by the Catalonian conductor, viol player, and early music specialist Jordi Savall (b. 1941) leading his hand-picked orchestra, Le Concert des Nations, which was formed in 1989 and features musicians primarily from Latin nations. Of the ensemble employed for these recording sessions, Savall writes in the liner notes that “all our orchestral work was done using instruments corresponding to those used in Beethoven’s day and with a similar number of musicians to those deployed by the composer for the first performances of his symphonies, in other words, about 55 to 60 musicians, depending on the symphonies. We have chosen 35 instrumentalists from the professional musicians of the Concert de Nations, including many who have been part of the ensemble since 1989, the remaining 20 instrumentalists being young musicians from different European countries and around the world who were selected from among the best of their generation at in-person auditions.”  (You can get a sense of the instrumental forces and venue for the recording sessions here and here.)

Regarding his approach to performing the Beethoven symphonies, Savall explains in his extensive liner essay that “we started with the basic idea of returning to the original sound and line-up of the orchestra as envisaged by Beethoven, constituted by the ensemble of instruments available in his day. Moreover, we needed to discover the original sources for the existing manuscripts, we studied and compared not only the autograph sources and the extant parts used in the first concert performances, but also modern editions based on those same sources, with the aim of verifying all the indications concerning dynamics and articulation.”

Truth be told, it seems these days that many recordings of Beethoven symphonies, particularly those that in one way or another claim to go back to the “original sound,” to be a “historically informed performance,” to go back to “Beethoven’s metronome markings,” or to be based on some “new critical edition of the score” come packaged with liner notes from the conductor explaining his or her insight into what this music should really sound like. Frankly, it gets a little old (see what I did there?), but Savall comes across as so utterly sincere and guileless that this seems to be more than just another marketing ploy, especially in light of his stated approach to the recording process: “From the outset it was obvious to us that the other key for our project would be the study period necessary to embark upon and bring to fruition such a major and complex task. Sufficient, ample time was one of the essential conditions necessary for a successful in-depth study of this collection of nine symphonies. To ensure the success of the work plan as well as a coherent distribution of the complete symphonies, we divided the nine symphonies into four major programmes with a view to preparing them over a period of two years. Each programme is studied and rehearsed, respectively, in the course of two separate Acadamies: the first academy of each pair, which we refer to as the “preparation Academy,” is devoted to reflection, experimentation, and definition dealing with all the essential elements of a successful performance. In the second “enhancement Academy,” the orchestra as a whole and each instrumentalist individually focus in on all aspects that are crucial to achieving a performance that is faithful to the spirit of each work. Symphonies 1, 2, and 4, which were scheduled and prepared in the spring of 2109, and Symphonies 3 and 5, which we worked on in the autumn of the same year, are those that we now have the pleasure of presenting to you in this first album.”   

And what an album this is! Here are the first five symphonies of Beethoven in performances that crackle with energy but never sound frantic or rushed, presented in recorded sound that is immediate, dynamic, and full-bodied. There are three SACDs in the set. SACD 1 includes Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, SACD 2 is devoted to Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” and SACD includes Symphonies 4 and 5. My guess is that many listeners will skip right over SACD 1 (and yes, I must admit that it has been and will be the disc that gets the least playing time in my system), but that would be their loss, as the first two symphonies of Beethoven, especially when presented in crackling performances and powerful yet natural sound as they are here are well worth hearing, savoring, and hearing again. As I mentioned above, Gardiner led me to discover Symphony No. 2. Savall has not only deepened my devotion to that work, but he has also led me to discover that most neglected of all Beethoven’s symphonies, Symphony No. 1. Yes, I would imagine that for most listeners, as it will be for me, SACD 1 will be played the least of this set, but I do hope it will not be completely overlooked by anyone. It has much to offer!

Because of the near-mythical status of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, my further guess is that SACD 3 will be the first disc that most listeners will pop into their players. The performance of No. 4, though, should not be skipped over. This is a delightful symphony, bursting with energy. Of particular note in the Savall set is the sound of the tympani, projected with power but not through spotlighting or overemphasis. In Symphony No. 4, the sound of the tympani highlights the drive and energy found in this music. And as you might expect, Savall and his players do a fine job of bringing energy to Symphony No 5. Theirs is a fine performance, moving right along and making the music come to life. In a future installment of Classical Candor I will be comparing this recording of the 5th with several other notable recordings, a listening experience to which I am looking eagerly forward.

For my money, though, the real highlight of this release is their performance of the Eroica. The opening movement has never sounded so exciting to me. Wow! There are many ways to interpret this work (more about that below), but Savall, Le Concert des Nations, and the engineering team have truly produced something undeniably heroic. I’m not sure theirs is my favorite version of the symphony as a whole, although it is certainly right up there, but I find their performance of the opening Allegro con brio the most exciting I have ever auditioned. My goodness…


The planning, preparation, and passion that Savall, his players, the recording engineer (Manuel Mohino), and the Alia Vox staff who produced the meticulously conceived and beautifully executed physical package (one of the finest I have ever run across) have brought to this project have resulted in a Beethoven box that excels in every way. Not every music lover will prefer the period-instrument approach, but if you are a Beethoven fan who is looking for a really first-class recording of these symphonies, this is definitely a set to consider regardless of your opinion of period-instrument approaches to Beethoven. This is reference-quality Beethoven, no doubt about it.

If you do wind up auditioning and enjoying this album, you will very likely find yourself looking forward to hearing what Savall and his crew can bring to the final four Beethoven symphonies. Unfortunately, it is not clear when the rest of the set might become available. Savall explains, “it was our intention to finish our version of the complete Symphonies in 2020, concentrating on Symphonies 6 and 7 in the spring and Symphonies 8 and 9 during the months of August and October. Of course, all these plans are now on hold because of the social consequences of the tragic pandemic currently affecting the world, and nobody can predict what will be possible in this uncertain future. Depending on the evolution of the pandemic, therefore, we shall see what we are able to do regarding the second part of our Complete Beethoven Symphony project.”  Meanwhile, at least we have this set to savor.

Bonus Recommendations: In light of the excellence Savall recording of Beethoven’s Eroica, let me pass along some quick recommendations on some other fine recordings with which I am quite familiar. As I mentioned above, David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (Pro Arte ANO 592140) offer a brisk, refreshing performance that combines a nod to Beethoven’s tempo markings with the sonority of a modern orchestra. It is coupled with an equally attractive version of Symphony No. 4. A much different take on the Eroica is offered by Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics 7243 5 67741 2 4). This is a magisterial account, slow and noble. Don’t be put off by the mono sound, this truly is a “Great Recording of the Century” as the CD cover proclaims. Discmates include Leonore Overtures Nos. 1 & 2. Still something of an old-school performance but in stereo sound is Bruno Walter’s account with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (a crack studio orchestra assembled in California for the express purpose of giving Walter a chance to record the Beethoven symphonies in stereophonic sound), a loving, flowing rendition of the symphony that is well worth seeking out (CBS Maestro MYK 42599), Walter’s performance is coupled with the Coriolan Overture. A straightforward, well-recorded account by Christoph von Dohnanyi leading the superb Cleveland Orchestra is available on Telarc (CD-80090), a disc that includes just the Eroica. Finally, a relative newcomer (released in 2018) is the Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra version on Reference Recordings (FR-728SACD), taken from live performance that is captured in splendid sound quality by the technical wizards at Soundmirror. Not surprisingly these days, Honeck has points to make about the music and his approach to it in his extensive liner notes, including his fascinating opening remark, “I view all four movements of the ‘Eroica’ as dance movements, each one with a distinctive character.” He then goes on to dig deeply into the music, in his closing paragraph asserting, “In conclusion, it is clear to me that the ‘Eroica’ paved a new path forward as a dance symphony with dramatic inventiveness, full of new elements that had never been heard before, I am sure that music lovers in the time of Beethoven were not at all ready for this radical originality and I can only imagine how shocking it must have been for them. The modern ear, though, in our current day and age, and now over 200 years removed from the time of the ‘Eroica’s’ premiere, has become accustomed to many of these sounds and only absorbs and register them as extreme when they are intensified. And this is exactly what I have tried to work out clearly in this recording, as it was my intention in these performances that one can experience the novelties of the ‘Eroica’ as one might have for the very first time.” Hmmmmm. I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but it is an energetic and splendidly engineered account, for which the unexpected but dazzlingly delightful coupling is Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1.
 
For those music lovers who thrive on such things, here are the comparative movement timings for these recordings. Enjoy!
 

Mvt

Gardiner

Savall

Zinman

Klemperer

Walter

Honeck

Dohnanyi

3-1

15:34

15:31

15:34

15:54

16:05

16:15

16:30

3-2

12:41

12:49

12:58

14:43

15:33

15:11

15:10

3-3

5:32

5:29

6:15

6:26

6:03

5:36

5:12

3-4

10:42

10:08

10:22

12:25

12:16

11:50

11:25

 
 KWN
 

 

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa