Beethoven: Symphonies 6-9 - Savall
Alia Vox AVSA9946 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: Symphonies 6-9
Sara Gouzy (soprano)
Laila Salome Fischer (alto)
Mingjie Lei (tenor)
Manuel Walser (bass)
La Capella Nacional de Catalunya
Le Concert de Nations
Jordi Savall (conductor)
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Review by John Broggio - October 9, 2022
This set completes the cycle started by Beethoven: Symphonies 1-5 - Savall.
Unsurprisingly, many of the same comments apply here as it did for the first volume: Paavo Järvi's superb cycle tends to be the most fleet-of-foot married to incredible articulation and superb recording, Vänskä achieves similar results with larger forces and slightly more relaxed tempo choices, Bruggen (despite conducting a period instrument orchestra like Savall) indulges in some positively pre-HIP tempo choices that are quite maddening at times. As in the first volume, the symphonies are presented in ascending numerical order.
Savall's Pastoral symphony is - next to Järvi - delightfully relaxed, both in choices of tempo and also by not treating accents and dynamics as acoustic weaponry. (I reserve a special place in my collection for Järvi but there are times when listeners may feel it is just a bit too intense to be engaged with in all moods.) Adopting the more modern sensibilities when it comes to tempo choices allows phrases to flow beautifully from one into another naturally where adherents to slower tempos have to audibly impose this on the music making. When returning to accounts that treat this work as a completely Romantic composition, one cannot help notice that Savall (and Järvi, Vänskä) ironically achieve this sensibility in the first two movements almost effortlessly whereas those who went before them audibly strive for (and don't always achieve) this blissful state. The third movement dances away with itself most delightfully - the first oboe is especially delightful and the strings lend necessary heft without ever approaching weight that post-Wagnerian ears used to expect here. The storm is perhaps the one movement that may be a little controversial to some listeners. Not because of a lack of weight (here the wooden sticks for the timpani and double basses are really let of the leash) but at the other end of the audible spectrum: the piccolo in Savall's orchestra is a bit restrained compared to many modern accounts - it's all there but the level of blending employed called to mind Karajan, somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the performance! That said, the relaxation into the finale is wonderfully handled and the music making of the last movement itself flows and is wreathed in smiles. Lovely.
In the outer movements of the seventh symphony, Savall once again finds himself in the company of Vänskä albeit with very different timbres. In the inner movements, Savall channels Järvi - the second movement really flows and the third dances away with itself. Throughout there is very liberal use of the E string in the violins and in comparison to when done on modern instruments, although it still stands out, it's not quite as jarring - opinions may differ which is better! At the other end of the string family, the insistent cello/bass figuration towards the end of the first movement gnaws away at the ears but perhaps not as prominently as some modern instrument accounts. Although not usually indulging in the hyper-dynamic phrasing that is common to many modern performances, there is some wonderful sotto voce playing in the second movement and some of the drops in dynamic are quite breathtaking. Although the third movement is definitely quick, it is also fleet-of-foot thanks to the lighter timbre of period instruments; all the accents have plenty of bite but do not sting the ears. In common with the whole cycle, the violins are either side of the podium and it is perhaps the finale to this incredible symphony that pays most audible dividends; it is thrilling from beginning to end without ever being breathless.
Savall's performance of the eighth symphony stands out for the consistently sprightly tempo choices, even by the standards of today; Järvi has the edge here but only just. As ever though, the lighter timbre of period instruments brings a more relaxed sound and mood to proceedings. The playing in the most challenging sections is miraculously clear and a joy to the ears. The second movement in particular benefits enormously from Savall's approach and - in contrast with many earlier symphony orchestra accounts - the minuet is stately without undue weight and the finale has all the energy and clarity one could desire.
The ninth, as one would hope, caps the cycle with a reading from Savall and his marvellous players that is imbued with all the best aspects of the accounts of the earlier symphonies. Opening with an urgent but never harried first movement, there is plenty of drama and passion that is firmly viewing Beethoven as struggling to (finally) break the mould of the Classical symphony, a feeling that is common throughout the whole cycle. That is, musical mannerisms that would have been familiar to Mozart, Haydn and Schubert (and a younger Beethoven) are used to explore the new breadth and range of the musical language bequeathed to us. In the same way that, for this listener at least, Abbado’s Mahler is so compelling because it looks forward in time as much it looks over its shoulder, a similar approach from Savall (and shared by Järvi, Vänskä and many others) is also highly satisfying compared to those conductors who approach Beethoven’s music from a primarily Romantic perspective.
The second movement is also taken at pace and, of HIP era recordings, is possibly the most fleet of foot of all; in spite of this there is no sense of undue haste nor a lack of clarity or weight - reflecting the wonderful performers under Savall’s baton. The slow movement is a radically different conception to what listeners who grew up with accounts from the pre HIP era. Where the emphasis seemed to be placed very much on “molto” and (placed ahead of) “adagio”, here it is felt as four crotchets. In keeping with other HIP era accounts, this allows much of the violin writing to become decorative and the woodwinds to sing in an unforced manner that is really rather beautiful. Savall is relatively quick here, leaving even Järvi trailing in his wake but such is the care and quality of the playing, it never feels remotely hurried.
The finale returns to more conventional HIP era tempo choices and the use of period instruments despite using numbers of a modern symphony orchestra allows the soloists and chorus to project more easily and without strain. Manuel Walser’s opening recitative is arresting and his fellow soloists are scarcely less impressive. For musicians that have devoted so much of his career to the Baroque and Renaissance eras, Savall and his orchestra are unsurprisingly very compelling in the fugal writing and this follows the military march sequence that no longer jars at such a pace. Some of the Del Mar piquancy is underplayed - for example the “faltering” horn rhythms just before the triumphant chorus “Freude schöner, Götter funken, …” are underplayed. Savall still has the sense to grant the meditative contributions sufficient repose although one must note the irony that some modern instrument accounts manage to invoke the sound of a viol consort in these moments more convincingly than arguably the most prominent of modern viol players does here! Although Savall and his musicians keep a clear head throughout, they do allow themselves to be intoxicated by this marvellous score and the sense of wonder and joy is vividly transmitted. Perhaps most tellingly is the sheer clarity of the choral contributions - every note and syllable is audible and sends us off to the heavens, presumably as Beethoven intended.
The sound is, again, not quite top draw although the extra numbers of participants in the ninth symphony do seem to have tamed the worst excesses significantly. As noted for the earlier companion set, the sound is good enough for all except the most demanding of listeners, even if it’s not affording these wonderful musicians the same levels of clarity as Järvi and Vänskä.
Even were there greater competition from other period instrument accounts, I suspect this cycle would be in the top handful of recommendations; it’s certainly a more HIP era approach than Frans Bruggen’s last cycle adopted and the more I listen to these performances, the more I am convinced they will long be remembered alongside those of Järvi and Vänskä. Highly recommended.
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