May 19, 2011


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Sinéad Mulhern, soprano; Carolin Masur, mezzo-soprano; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritone; Chœur de Chambre Les Éléments and La Chambre Philharmonique conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Naïve. $41.99 (5 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. RPO. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     Emmanuel Krivine, in a brief booklet essay accompanying the new Naïve Beethoven set, directly confronts the question that some people – some critics, anyway – are likely to ask: another set of Beethoven symphonies? Who needs it? Then Krivine, more in his role as conductor than in that of writer, answers the question directly, appropriately and unarguably: we may not need another Beethoven symphony cycle, but we can certainly use this Beethoven symphony cycle. Krivine’s way with the music is absolutely wonderful – and it is not entirely Krivine’s way, which is one of the wonderful things about it. La Chambre Philharmonique, whose very name challenges convention (both a chamber group and a philharmonic?), is a collaborative orchestra, whose size and membership change depending on the music it is playing. It is a group in which Krivine, as founder and leader, is first among equals – about as far from the old, dictatorial Toscanini model as it is possible to get. And it is a period-instrument ensemble – not only when performing older music but also when playing late-19th-century works and, of course, the symphonies of Beethoven, from the early years of that century. This Beethoven set comprises nine live recordings from 2009 and 2010, and there is an immediacy, an excitement and an occasional bit of thoroughly winning imperfection in almost every symphony – the performances feel live, which, oddly enough, is not always the case with live recordings. There is palpable excitement here from the very start (a wonderfully precise plucked first note of No. 1) to the finish (a resplendently triumphant coda to the finale of No. 9).

     These are simply marvelous interpretations, not only because they sound so good (gut strings and natural horns do make a difference in presenting Beethoven’s sonic world and in showing how it differs from those of Mozart and Haydn) but also because they show, time and again, that the Beethoven symphonies were, each and every one, genuinely new, each offering an approach to symphonic construction and emotional communication different from that of the previous one. One of the many big surprises here is discovering that the great leap in the early symphonies was not so much from No. 2 to No. 3 as from No. 1 to No. 2. The first symphony is light, fleet and very, very Haydnesque in this recording; the second has considerably more weight and depth, and the relative times of its four movements are very similar to the relative times in the “Eroica,” even though each movement of No. 3 is longer than the corresponding one in No. 2. It is the second symphony that here sounds like Beethoven’s break with the past – the third comes across as an expansion of the second and a long stride into the future. And the sunny No. 4 then sounds not like a step back – not at all – but like a reinterpretation of the Haydn/Mozart model in the context of a world in which the “Eroica” already exists. These performances are, again and again, revelatory, whether showing Beethoven’s expansive side (No. 6), his compressed and dramatic one (Nos. 5 and 7), or his wonderful combination of small scale and intimacy with expansive sound (the still-misunderstood, still-underplayed No. 8, which sounds simply marvelous here). No. 9, whose recording was previously released in standalone form, thus becomes the capstone not only of this set but also of Beethoven’s symphonic thinking – and Krivine and La Chambre Philharmonique provide it with one of the most satisfyingly poetic, humanly scaled performances recorded in recent times. Krivine and the orchestra, far from turning the first three movements into mere buildups to the climactic finale, play each with strength, intensity and understanding, so that the symphony seems to climb ever higher and higher from the depths of the first movement’s opening to the emotional heights of the Adagio molto e cantabile – and it is only then, using those heights as a launching pad for something still higher, that the performers begin the finale. This is a performance in which the “recollections” of earlier movements at the start of the last one are not a mere device – they are an explanation of where Beethoven and his listeners have been and of where they still need to go. And these performers take them there, to an experience that is truly sublime. Who another Beethoven symphony cycle? Hard to say. But why this Beethoven symphony cycle? Because listeners, however familiar they may be with these works, would be poorer without it.

     There is also some very special playing by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth in the new RPO recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, but here the nonstandard elements of the performance are less fortunate and result in a (+++) rating for the two-CD set. This is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet by far, with some 160 minutes of music – so much that the third and final act, which lasts about 45 minutes, is sometimes performed all by itself as “Aurora’s Wedding.” Unfortunately, that third act runs only about 22 minutes in this performance, and it ends not with Tchaikovsky’s finale but with the Polacca that the composer put earlier in the act. That means half the act has been excised – part of some 50 minutes of musical cuts in all. It is true that The Sleeping Beauty is often cut in stage performances, because it makes for quite a long evening and tremendous strain on the dancers. But there is little justification for making such deep cuts in a recorded performance (Wordsworth’s is not a live recording). Again and again, Wordsworth sensitively brings out the beauties of Tchaikovsky’s score, and again and again, listeners familiar with the ballet (or simply finding themselves swept up in its beauties) will wait for just a little more; but they will wait in vain, because that “little more” has been removed. This is particularly frustrating in a ballet so filled with symphonic music and symphonic treatment of themes as The Sleeping Beauty, in which Tchaikovsky creates and varies a series of leitmotifs (although of course he did not call them that) that foreshadow and comment upon the stage action. There are beauties galore in this performance, Clio Gould’s solo violin and Jessica Burroughs’ solo cello among them. The action sequences are well paced, the character pieces amusingly handled, the lovely variations and gorgeous Act I Valse played with warmth and great rhythmic beauty. But it is impossible to hear this recording as anything but a truncated Sleeping Beauty, which of course is just what it is. True, it runs nearly two hours even in this shortened form, and that may be enough for some listeners, especially those unfamiliar with the ballet or with Tchaikovsky’s original conception. For them, the beautiful playing and sure-handed conducting here will be more than enough to make these CDs highly desirable. But for anyone who really wants to hear The Sleeping Beauty rather than Some of “The Sleeping Beauty,” this RPO set, for all its quality of conducting, playing and recording, will be tinged with disappointment.

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