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Review: Beethoven, Symphony 5 & 6, Janowski/WDR

Review – Beethoven, Symphony 5 & 6, Marek Janowski/WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne / Pentatone

The High Arts Review Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This new coupling of Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies by Janowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne is excellent throughout, with the 5th, in particular, receiving here an outstanding rendition.

And having just reviewed the 5th by Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it is surprising how this Janowski performance, which came out roughly at the same time, follows a similar big-band approach. Why surprising? Because in the last few years we’ve been accustomed to the HIP practice, which is not a bad thing in baroque but sometimes makes Beethoven sound spineless. Well, not here. In fact, Janowski keeps all the good aspects of the HIP movement and adds weighty sound and some personal touches.

“the 5th here is among the best in recent years “

Indeed, both the 5th and 6th on this release are very much influenced by the HIP standards. The tempi are fast, the articulation clear, the attacks precise, and there is plenty of dramatic contrast. And all this by a modern orchestra that produces a rich, substantial sound.

The above contribute to a magnificent account of the 5th Symphony. The first movement has all the needed thrust and rhythmic drive, culminating in a glorious finale. 

The string playing really stands out, both for its weight and its precision, especially in the inner movements. The Scherzo, in particular, benefits from some idiosyncratic gestures from Janowski who brings out the dance elements of the music. Notice, also, how he stresses the end of specific phrases, adding to the dramatic impact. But it is the fourth movement that is a marvel here. The strings cut through the textures, the timpani are thundering, but above all, it is Janowski with his relentless conducting who keeps propelling the rhythm heroically. I have already applauded the impressive string playing, and the same can be said for the individuality of the woodwinds.

The 6th is also excellent, but I do have a couple of minor reservations. First, let me say that the playing from the WDR is also here uniformly excellent. But if you are used to slow tempi in the first two movements, be warned that Janowski’s pacing is on the fast side — in fact, a bit too brisk in the Scene by the Brook (the brook here sounds more like an impatient torrent). Of course, one should respect the composer’s metronome markings. And while I am an advocate of faster tempi, I wish that the second movement was slightly more relaxed, to give one the chance to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Still, the beautiful playing of the WDR makes up for it and is impressive overall.

My other concern has to do with the Storm movement, which could sound more aggressive and loud, even though many listeners will prefer this tamer approach. When the fourth movement begins (one of Beethoven’s most beautiful transitions), the refreshing opening theme is, once more, greeted by a rather brisk tempo. And, from all the movements, it is here where the clipped rhythms sound a bit constrictive: again, one wishes Janowski would give this movement some more room to breathe, despite the characterful playing of the WDR brass and woodwinds.

Despite my minor complaints about the 6th, the 5th here is among the best in recent years, and this release is worth getting for this performance alone. There are many things to admire, and it makes one eager to listen to the rest of the symphonies in the future, under the same forces.

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Reference recordings:
Symphony 5: Karajan/BPO (DG)
Symphony 6: Bohm/VPO (DG)

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