Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. John Nelson conducting Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ambroisie. $41.99 (5 CDs).
Whenever a new set of the Beethoven symphonies is released, someone is sure to ask, “Why?” A better question would be, “Why not?” There is no possibility that any one conductor and orchestra will ever plumb all the depths of these works, and in fact it is perfectly justifiable for a conductor to want to record them several times as his or her approaches and insights change.
John Nelson’s set with Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, of which Nelson is music director, is attractive on many levels and for many reasons. The first is that it is French: Beethoven, unbeknownst to many listeners, was highly influenced by the French music of his time. For example, he admired Étienne Méhul (1763-1817); he wrote some pieces in French style (notably, in the symphonies, the march with tenor in the finale of the Ninth); and Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is nothing less than a French rescue opera. Secondly, this orchestra is chamber-size, which means it is the size of orchestra with which Beethoven was familiar and for which he wrote (although it does use modern instruments and tuning). Thirdly, Nelson is admirably eclectic in his use of Beethoven editions: he primarily follows the most definitive, by Jonathan Del Mar, but occasionally harks back to the old Breitkopf edition, which has many inaccuracies but also some felicities.
Of course, these are somewhat academic reasons for finding this set enjoyable. Here is a decidedly non-academic one: it sounds wonderful and is played marvelously. It is too much to expect a modern conductor to approach each Beethoven symphony as if it were new, but Nelson and his orchestra mostly do an excellent job of playing each work as if Beethoven would never write another – that is, playing them on a forward-looking basis rather than retrospectively. After all, when Beethoven wrote his first symphony, he had not yet written his second and did not know what the second would sound like.
The First in fact sounds like Haydn here. It is light and fast – Beethoven’s tempos were mostly faster than modern orchestras use, and Nelson generally adheres to them (at least more than other conductors do). The symphony is precisely played and well balanced. It is easy to follow thematic lines, and in the fourth movement, brass and timpani are very clearly audible without being played too loudly. The orchestra seems to enjoy this light and lively work, especially the Scherzo – which Beethoven here divorced from earlier dance movements, although he did not originate the term (that, like much else, is from Haydn). The very reverberant sound seems a little out of place here, but otherwise the performance is excellent.
The speed of the Second is attractive and structurally revelatory, with the brass in the first movement unusually clear and clean. The Larghetto sounds more like an Andante, but the effect – here as in the other symphonies – is of a composer eager to get on with it, not of an orchestra rushing the music.
The horns are excellent in the “Eroica,” where the quick pace actually increases the drama – and where Nelson’s observation of all Beethoven’s repeats is especially welcome (the first movement seems truncated without a repeated exposition). Hearing the “Eroica” with small orchestra helps you understand why it was originally thought unplayable – this is genuinely difficult music, and the symphony is Beethoven’s longest, aside from the Ninth of 20 years later. Textures are very clear in Nelson’s performance, and those dramatic chords are more effective because of the smaller orchestra – they really make an impact. The funeral march is heroic and funereal in equal measure, not merely a dirge, and paced so its segments flow naturally. Quiet sections are really quiet. The second theme of the finale seems unusually fast, but Hogan makes it persuasive.
The Fourth bubbles, but the strong chords and intense brass make it clear that this symphony came after the “Eroica” and is neither a throwback nor an afterthought. If anything, some of the winds in the first movement look ahead to the “Pastorale.” This Fourth has more drive and less simplicity than usual – hence more depth – with a natural movement-to-movement flow that shows it to be a better integrated symphony than the “Eroica.” Nelson’s speed especially benefits the scurrying opening of the finale – and the rest of the movement.
The Fifth starts in dramatic but not overpowering fashion – this must be much the way the original audiences heard it – and its fast first movement sounds better with a small orchestra than a large one, with clearer opposition between brass and winds, on the one hand, and strings, on the other. The second movement offers respite but is not draggy or hyper-Romantic – in fact, it sounds a bit like Haydn here (a surprise). The third and fourth movements come together wonderfully, especially with all repeats observed, with the finale especially propulsive.
The “Pastorale” drags in some performances, but not here, and the brook in the second movement really flows (some conductors play this movement so slowly that the water seems stagnant). The third movement is very bouncy, and the “village musicians” sections really sound simple, unaffected and a little silly. The quiet start of the storm is especially effective, while the thunder and lightning are impressive but not threatening – making the finale into a gentle celebration of the passing of the storm, not a great victory over nature. This is a highly unusual and very successful approach to Beethoven’s Sixth.
The Seventh and Eighth feature first-movement tempos closer to those used in other recordings, and they work just fine. The first movement of the Seventh is joyous and light, with bright flute work a highlight. The second movement is very quiet and gentle; the third is fast and lively; and the finale is far too quick for dancing but undeniably exciting.
The Eighth is brisk but not fast – and sounds almost like a tribute to Haydn, although certainly not an imitation (Beethoven said he never learned anything from Haydn, but perhaps, against his will, he learned quite a bit). The accentuation and use of brass are pure Beethoven, and the interesting structure, lacking a slow movement, flows particularly well in this recording. The third movement is Beethoven’s only symphonic one referring to a minuet, but it is “Tempo di menuetto” rather than the old dance itself. Nelson makes the interplay between horn and cello in the trio very clear, and the finale has chamber-music lightness but also considerable power – this is, after all, Beethoven at the time of the Seventh (1812). Incidentally, one flaw in this set is that the timings for this symphony’s third and fourth movements are significantly misstated in the booklet and on the back of the CD case.
Beethoven produced the Ninth after more than a decade of writing no symphonies at all, so the quantum leap of style after the Eighth comes as no surprise intellectually. But in this recording, where even the Ninth uses a small orchestra, it is sonically a very big surprise indeed. The dissonances and unusual harmonies of the first movement are super-clear here, where the reverberant sound of the whole set is especially helpful. The intense brass is very prominent, the tempo is quick but not rushed, and if there is less outright grandeur here than in other recordings, there is greater complexity. In the second movement, the timpani sound very clearly without needing to be pounded into submission, the brass-vs.-strings sections are dramatic, and the quick trio makes a strong contrast with what comes before and after. The “Adagio molto e cantabile” offers less adagio and more cantabile than most performances: it is quiet, gently flowing, but without swooning, with especially effective winds and pizzicato strings. The finale, surprisingly, opens slowly, with dissonances emphasized, and the instrumental sections have the strangest sound in this whole set – rather thin and even tentative (the main theme practically sneaks in). This takes some getting used to, as do the vocal sections, primarily because bass Hao Jian Tian pronounces German oddly and rather uncomfortably – a pity, because his voice itself is high-quality. Tenor Donald Litaker is much more assured, his sections being light and expressive, while both women – soprano Guylaine Girard and contralto Marijana Mijanovic – sing with pleasant intensity. The chorus, Chœur d’Oratorio de Paris, is excellent, singing strongly and pronouncing the words of Schiller’s poem unusually clearly. Indeed, the effect of this movement is not operatic in this recording – as it often is with more high-powered singers and a larger chorus. Instead, the conclusion sounds more like an oratorio, which may be much closer to the way Beethoven saw it.
Every performance in this set is interesting, and some are fascinating – different listeners will rate different ones more highly. As a bonus, and typically for a French production, the set’s presentation is physically gorgeous. Each CD is solid black, with black-on-black printing except for white numbers for each symphony. Each CD is in its own cardboard case that opens book-style, and each case has an art-quality photo on the front. The five CDs and accompanying booklet nestle vertically in a handsome thick-cardboard box whose top lifts completely off, and the box has a beautiful night photo of the