Beethoven: Symphonies 1-5 - Savall
Alia Vox AVSA9937 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: Symphonies 1-5
Le Concert des Nations
Jordi Savall, conductor
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Review by John Broggio - September 24, 2022
This first part of Savall's cycle of Beethoven's symphonies is very different to Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 - Bruggen, the only other modern recording on period instruments on SACD (there is a reissue of Bruggen's earlier thoughts Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 - Bruggen but this is limited by its CD quality master tapes). But this cycle should not be considered in only these terms when we can enjoy notable cycle from Paavo Järvi and Osmo Vänskä that are leading choices for modern chamber and symphony orchestra sized forces respectively. Savall is perhaps unsurprisingly closer to Järvi than Vänskä when looking at size of ensemble but as those who have heard both cycles will attest, size of orchestral forces isn't everything but how they are used most definitely counts for a lot.
A few exceptions aside, Järvi leads the way in terms of fleet-of-foot tempo choices in the first five symphonies; some are so quick that it would be unsurprising for the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen to deliver muddled textures but the quality and clarity of their playing is even more astounding than speeds demanded of them. Vänskä might be consider more mainstream when it comes to tempo choices found in concert today - certainly a good notch or three faster than most performances set down before HIP took hold but definitely with more room to breathe. The tempo choices Savall adopts are often found to be close to Vänskä's although there are times he challenges his players to match Järvi's - no mean feat.
Leaving aside the use of period instruments, what sets Savall apart from Järvi and Vänskä is his less "confrontational" view of dynamic contrasts, particularly accents. This is still far from the "ironed out" approach of Karajan's studio recordings in Berlin but for those yearning for a cycle with a modern view of tempo choices without a hyper-contrasted range of dynamics, Savall's approach could be very appealing.
With Bruggen, one is transported back in time to when Herbert von Karajan was in his pomp. In the opening movement of the Eroica, Bruggen takes a monumental 19 minutes, a full three and a half minutes longer than Savall or Järvi. Today, such an approach is arguably more reactionary than the revolutionary which is how this ground-breaking symphony comes across in the hands of Savall, Järvi and Vänskä. Like many modern accounts, Savall offers a flowing Marcia funebre but his players manage to find space around each phrase to accord them due weight. Special mention is deserved by the (valveless) horn players - not just for their quite brilliant efforts in the outer movements but the astonishly clarity of their playing in the Scherzo is a joy to behold. But they are not alone in their virtuosity - every member of Savall's orchestra is playing as if their lives depended on their performance - it really is tremendously life enhancing, akin to both the cycles from Järvi and Vänskä.
What may strike some ears as a backwards step is the far less "blended" sonorities of the woodwind and brass - memories of Norrington's cycle from the late 80s are perhaps evoked. For example, the stopped notes of the horns mean the textural balance sometimes gets a little "bumpy" but having lived with this set for a while, these ears find it completely fiting with the revolutionary impact each and every one of these symphonies had on audiences in Beethoven's time and beyond. Intonation is not suspect but the sense of struggle that imbues every bar of these scores is vividly conveyed in a way that elite ensembles on modern instruments have to evoke in other ways.
This sense of almost evangelical discovery is true for all five symphonies but Savall and his orchestra are sensitive to the individual demands of each work. The genial relaxation and jollity of the first is delightful and Savall carefully positions the performance of the second to tee up what is perhaps the highpoint of this set, the Eroica. There is less of an audible impression of "bursting at the seams" in the fourth symphony - here Savall is perhaps looking back at Haydn. This relative (although definitely not absolute) relaxation then paves the way for the fifth symphony to be dramatic without needing to be unyielding in intensity. What illustrates the compelling nature of this performance is that Savall adds in a da capo repeat which nearly doubles the time of the scherzo but sounds as if you'd only ever heard it performed in this way. The set is accompanied by the usual insightful essays, including one by Savall.
All that is left is to comment about the sound. Like Bach: Mass in B minor - Savall, these recordings were made in a similarly resonant acoustic but this time in the Château de Cardona, Catalonia. This feature to the sound is most noticeable when the timpani are played loudly (with wooden heads) when listening in stereo; multi-channel listeners have the benefit of resolving the echo of these strikes spatially in a way that cannot be replicated in stereo. It's not a huge problem though for the level of detail that is audible in the Scherzo of the Eroica allows every note of the exacting horn passages to be heard. This is nothing approaching being a deal breaker to these ears but one should not expect the extraordinary clarity of sound afforded to both Järvi and Vänskä.
Musically, this joins the exalted levels of Järvi and Vänskä, all of whom speak to a modern view of Beethoven in their own way. At times, the exhilirating speed, clarity and "attitude" of Järvi is inspiring although sometimes a more relaxed view of these miraculous works may be desired. Both Vänskä and Savall readily address such a need and if a modern instrument orchestra is preferred, Vänskä has the advantage of superlative sound but Savall though remains special and - despite the relative sonic shortcomings - I would not wish to be without this set or its companion.
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