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Beethoven, Complete Symphonies, Nelsons / Vienna Philharmonic

Music review – Beethoven, Complete Symphonies, Andris Nelsons, Wiener Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon

The High Arts Review Rating: ★  ★  ★  ☆ ☆

Writing about this new set from Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic is not an easy task. On the one hand, we have the absolutely gorgeous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. Their string textures, brass and especially the winds are jaw-droppingly beautiful. On the other hand, Nelsons’s conducting is way too literal in most cases: I don’t mind the fact that these are middle-of-the-road performances not following the HIP (Historically-Informed Practice) trend. The weakness of the set is to be found in the lack of drama, fire, punch and sense of mystery–all of which are essential elements in Beethoven’s music.

The first two symphonies fare very well, the outer movements brisk, with transparent textures. And despite some HIP touches the timpani, in particular, could have been more prominent, as in the Menuetto of the First or in the first movement of the Second. Speaking of the Second, Nelsons shapes the Larghetto nicely with some exquisite string playing (even though, at just over 12 mins, it is a bit of a stretch). Still, the finale of the same symphony, especially the last bars, is impressive for its textual clarity.

The Eroica benefits a lot from the rich playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, but the first movement seems to go nowhere: there were times I thought the flow had come to a standstill, the lack of drive making it sound routine. The noble Marcia Funebre fares much better with some grand gestures by Nelsons: this is a big, romantic approach that suits the character of this music. I had great expectations from the Scherzo, and I was looking forward to the Vienna brass, which sounds curiously understated here–in fact, I think the whole movement could have more contrast overall. As for the finale, it begins impressively but again the textural contrast is missing. Perhaps we have been spoilt by the transparent HIP interpretations of recent years, but I did feel Nelsons doesn’t deliver the punch this music demand. Having said that, there are some fantastic contributions from the woodwinds that really stand out.

The Fourth Symphony is the highlight of the set. Everything here sounds fine and I have to stress the beauty of the strings in the Adagio and again the winds in the Menuetto and in the Allegro ma non troppo finalewhich is furious and brilliantly performed. This is indeed an excellent rendition.

As for the Fifth, it receives a good but unremarkable performance, everything is executed to the letter but again, from all the symphonies, it is the Fifth that needs that extra ruggedness, the aggressive contrasts, the raw power and attacks–and, unfortunately, these ingredients are missing. There is a lot of polished playing, but the latter is not a characteristic one would associate with this furious work.

Not paradoxically, it is precisely this approach that fits the Sixth like a glove. The refined playing of the Viennese strings really makes a difference in the Pastoral. To say that the orchestra here is spellbinding, would be an understatement. There are moments of breathtaking beauty from both strings and woodwinds. If I want to nitpick, I will argue that Nelsons could allow for some more detail from the brass to be revealed, but overall the orchestra produces such lush sounds that if this was released as an individual recording, I’d urge you to go out and buy it. The Szene am Bach is more calm than flowing but this is not a criticism. I just wish Nelsons would emphasize the background string playing from 5:57-6:14 more, but again we are talking about minor details. The truth is that the first time I heard this Pastoral, I caught myself wishing to replay it instantly: the Vienna Philharmonic is that good. The only caveat here is the soft-edged Storm movement, which is a bit of a letdown.

The 7th is also one of the best efforts in the set, an excellent performance overall, with a very beautiful Allegretto (the slow movements are proving to be Nelsons’s strong point) and a finale that starts off with hints of the “apotheosis of the dance” but falls short just before the climactic ending. True, despite the energy Nelsons unleashes, there are performances where both brass and timpani make more of an impact. And speaking of impact, I think that in the Eighth it is the excessive legato that robs the symphony some of its sharp attacks, especially in the first and last movements.

Along with the Fifth, the Ninth is, I believe, the weakest performance in the set. There are conductors who take their time in the first movement (Solti’s Chicago reading is at 18 minutes for example) and I really don’t mind that at all. Nelsons, at over 16 minutes, is on the slow side but the weaknesses lie elsewhere. First, all climaxes and fortissimo parts are a bit understated. Second, the lack of drive that ruined for me the first movement of the Eroica is even more apparent here. Nelsons follows an unusual ritardando at 0:42 which is a welcome touch. In fact, I wish he had taken more such liberties, for after a while the musical flow seems to stall and, at that point, I was looking forward to the recapitulation. But when this arrives, it is subdued. Overall, the whole first movement is rather uneventful. Where is the mystery of the quieter parts, the ferocity of the recapitulation, the menacing drive of the last minutes?

The Molto Vivace second movement also suffers from Nelsons’s soft approach, more obvious here since thematic contrast and punchier attacks are vital elements. Previously, I expressed my enthusiasm for the conductor’s treatment of the slow movements. And the slow movement of the Ninth is as transcendental as late Beethoven can get. I was expecting the Vienna strings to be the highlight here, but the opposite happens: Nelsons’s handling is too gentle and hesitant to the point of quietness. A great test for this movement is the introduction of the second, rich-heavy, theme. Some conductors emphasize the string playing here even more, others take a swifter approach. Nelsons picks up the tempo much later and, in fact, under his baton the overly soft playing of the Viennese strings makes the music sound like a lullaby. To be honest, the playing can get so quiet that I had to readjust the volume a few times. Even the string pizzicato is hardly audible (again, I had to raise the volume to make sure it is there!)

As for the choral finale, kudos to the highly disciplined Wiener Singverein, while the tenor Klaus Florian Vogt brings a unique freshness to the score. My only real complaint here is that some important instrumental detail gets lost in in the louder choral outbursts. If you want your finale to be more dramatic than cathartic, then this might not be your cup of tea. When the fugue parts arrive though, they are impressively clear and defined.

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Overall, the set is uneven. Symphonies 4 and 6 are excellent, while nos. 3, 5 and 9 receive the weakest performances. As I have previously stated, I don’t mind my Beethoven old-school. But when it comes to Nelsons, the heavy legato robs the music most of its punchiness (it is probably unfair to make this comparison, but for all its legato-heavy style, Karajan knew how to drive these symphonies ferociously). Add to this the lack of ruggedness and rhythmic drive (for me the main weakest), and what you get is a soft-edged, very middle-of-the-road account of the symphonies. Nelsons does employ his own individual gestures here and there and they are convincing to the point that I really wish he had done this more often. As for the recorded sound, it is excellent with plenty of bloom and presence, but not perfect. Hints of stage noise are present at the beginning of some movements (barely audible though), while the antiphonal effects could have been emphasized more.

Nelsons fans should get the cycle, but collectors who already have the first-rate accounts of Karajan, Barenboim and Wand -to mention only non-HIP sets- should stick to them.

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