July 02, 2020
(++++) NOT JUST ANOTHER NINE
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Kate Royal, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Tuomas Katajala, tenor; Derek Walton, bass; MSO Festival Chorus and Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino. Ondine. $39.99 (5 SACDs).
A Beethoven-symphony cycle is an inevitable rite of passage for young conductors, and one that will likely be held to even-higher-than-usual standards during this 250-year anniversary of Beethoven’s birth – when all things Beethovenian have proliferated to an even greater degree than usual. So Ondine’s release of a five-SACD set, featuring live performances from October 2019 by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino (born 1984), faces unusually stiff competition among recordings – to the extent that it is valid to turn performances of this music into competitive endeavors. Trevino himself is still developing as a conductor, and although the Malmö Symphony Orchestra is a full-scale modern symphonic one (the booklet included with the release lists 91 musicians), it is not an ensemble routinely deemed among the very best in the world, or even in Europe. So it is particularly enjoyable to find out that Trevino brings some genuine thoughtfulness and a few new ideas to Beethoven’s symphonies, and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays them expertly and enthusiastically – if perhaps not quite with the highest precision or best sectional balance at all times.
Trevino’s care with the music is everywhere apparent. At the very start of No. 1, he is careful not to rush things, to let the music of the Adagio molto opening bloom naturally before the ensuing Allegro con brio bursts forth at quite a quick pace. Speed turns out to be a characteristic of Trevino’s mostly bright and lively interpretations, although he does not rush the music – the first movement of No. 1 sounds playful as much as quick. The second movement is finely balanced between its walking pace and songful lyricism, just as its tempo indication, Andante cantabile con moto, indicates. The third movement is a headlong burst of enthusiasm, with well-considered dynamic contrasts. The chord that opens the finale is as surprising as the famous one in Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, and the movement as a whole is bright and perky in a very Haydnesque manner, showing Beethoven’s debt to the older composer from whom he famously and rather churlishly claimed never to have learned anything. The clear articulation of the Malmö Symphony’s strings is a particular pleasure here, helping to compensate for the fact that the ensemble is really too large for the delicacy of this music.
Symphony No. 2 announces itself with powerful opening chords that anticipate the more-famous ones that begin the “Eroica.” Trevino clearly sees these symphonies as a progression, not just as individual, independent works. In the first movement of No. 2, he contrasts a slow and stately opening with a propulsive main Allegro con brio section. The second movement comes as a surprise: it is lovingly paced as a true Larghetto, pretty rather than profound – and played with great delicacy and warmth without, however, lapsing into any inappropriately Romantic gestures. This entire symphony is under-appreciated, and Trevino shows in this movement why its poise and beauty mean that it should be seen and heard as more than just a transitional work between Nos. 1 and 3. The third movement of No. 2 here has rough good humor that looks ahead to No. 8, with Trevino doing a particularly good job highlighting the swift changes of dynamics. The finale opens at a quick tempo that could challenge the strings, but the Malmö players handle it well, and Trevino finds some especially attractive balance between the string section and the rest of the orchestra, even to the extent of highlighting the bassoon line as well as the more-usual horns, and bringing out the timpani effectively at the very end.
To present the symphonies in order on five SACDs, this release needs an 85-minute second disc for Nos. 3 and 4. And this disc sounds just as good as the other, shorter ones – which is to say, very good indeed – showing yet again that it has become possible to offer top-quality sound without adhering to the 80-minute length previously considered the limit beyond which digital-disc audio would deteriorate. The fine sound quality is noticeable in the “Eroica,” which Trevino launches with a first movement that is a well-balanced mixture of drama and lyrical flow. Although the movement does not lack scale, it is not as grand and intense as in some other performances; as a result, Trevino’s reading ties the second and third symphonies together in interesting ways, showing the “Eroica” as growing from the earlier work rather than being a complete break from it. In this interpretation, the second movement comes as something of a shock: it opens in deep sorrow of a proto-Romantic type, with a halting rhythm that belies the notion of a funeral march. Only gradually does the notion of a cortège emerge. The lower strings are very fine here, solidly underpinning the entirety of a dirge that, as lengthy as it is, seems even longer because of its emotional depth. This performance offers a movement that blends high drama with deep sadness to very fine effect. Where to go after this second movement is always a problem for conductors. Trevino opts for a third-movement opening that breaks the spell of the funereal second immediately, with scurrying strings and particularly bright woodwinds playing at a tempo that immediately leaves the gloom of the second movement behind. The effect is to split the symphony into two parts – a common enough result in performances, and one that works well here because the third movement is played with enough enthusiasm (and pointed-enough horn parts) so it does not seem a comedown or afterthought in the wake of the second. As if to emphasize the structure of this “part two” of the symphony, Trevino leaps attacca into the finale and sets a faster-than-usual pace for it, with a genuinely breakneck coda. The result is intriguing: this “Eroica” in effect has three movements of approximately equal length – the first, second, and third-plus-fourth. Heard this way, the symphony has clearer through-darkness-to-light progress than it usually possesses. This is an unusual approach that may not be to all tastes: certainly the finale is propulsive, but its pacing, especially in the presto conclusion, makes it less weighty than it can be. Still, Trevino’s handling of the symphony is convincing on its own terms and shows that he has really thought through the ways in which the “Eroica” both fits into the cycle and marks the beginning of a new symphonic approach after the first two, comparatively Classical symphonies.
Symphony No. 4, like Nos. 2 and 8, tends to get short shrift, or at least shorter shrift than the others, from many conductors. Given Trevino’s propensity for speed, listeners may expect a somewhat hectic approach to No. 4 here. Happily, though, Trevino again shows himself to be a thoughtful conductor. No. 4 is not really a “small” symphony, seeming that way only because it follows the “Eroica” and is about one-third shorter. But the orchestration, the emotional connection, the rhythmic development that Beethoven used in No. 3 are all refined further in No. 4, and Trevino recognizes this – showing his understanding, for instance, in the grandness of the chords that end the first movement’s slow opening section and introduce a well-paced and strongly rhythmic main portion of the movement (in which the bassoon and other winds sound particularly good). There is a sylvan quality to this movement that looks ahead to the “Pastoral,” and Trevino highlights it effectively. The gentle flow of the second movement, in which Beethoven explores contrasting piano and forte passages, is well-handled, with the quietest passages being played in exemplary fashion by both strings and winds. The overall scale of the movement comes through quite well – it is as long as the first, and as long as the third and fourth combined – and shows that this is in no way a “little” symphony. The third movement starts with a strong contrast: as he often does, Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, which in this case effectively pulls the symphony into brighter territory than it inhabits for the first two movements. This also happens in the “Eroica,” of course, but the change here is more seamless and feels less abrupt – one instance of the ways in which No. 4 moves beyond No. 3. The slower Trio of the third movement does come as a bit of a surprise here, since the main portion of the movement is so quick, but Trevino gives it an almost dancelike quality that works quite well. At the movement’s end, Trevino takes the same approach as in the “Eroica,” starting the fourth movement attacca. And this again has the effect of having listeners hear the last two movements as a whole, giving them, and the symphony as a totality, additional cohesiveness. Despite his penchant for quick tempos, Trevino does not rush here, adhering to the Allegro molto designation but not pushing past it. The result is a conclusion that is almost the symphony’s capstone, although not quite – Beethoven does not become thoroughly finale-focused until his next symphony. No. 4 is, in retrospect, something of a transitional work, and Trevino’s performance does a fine job of showing that while preserving the symphony’s individuality.
Although the insistently hammering first movement is by far the most famous part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the second movement is some 50% longer; and this is the first of his symphonies in which Beethoven builds toward making the conclusion the climax – by himself connecting the third and fourth movements directly and adding certain instruments only in the finale (trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon). Trevino gives the first movement plenty of drama, taking it at a suitable tempo and not rushing it (it is marked Allegro con brio). The orchestra’s strings show their mettle here, and so does the brass – which, however, is not as warm and rounded in sound as are the brass sections of the very best European orchestras. The brief periods of quietude in the movement, and the always charming but slightly odd oboe cadenza, are well-contrasted with the overall momentum and drama. The second movement, which so often comes across as a letdown after the intensity of the first, here starts with exceptional beauty in the strings that relieves the first movement’s tension almost at once. But here as in Symphony No. 4, Beethoven resolutely uses strong dynamic changes to carry over some of the emotions of the first movement and transform them. Trevino’s close attention to the dynamics is a big plus for his interpretation. In the third movement, when the first movement’s four-note “motto” theme returns after its absence in the second movement, the orchestra’s brass again shows its strength, making up in pointedness what it somewhat lacks in tonal warmth. Trevino quickly restores the drama level of the first movement in the third, and the strings’ handling of the Trio – especially in the lower strings – is first-rate. The justly famous sense of the orchestra “falling asleep” near this movement’s end, preparing for the tremendous “wake up!” call as the finale begins, is well-handled; and the finale itself rings forth immediately with a tremendous sense of triumph. It is, however, another movement in which Trevino pushes the pace, in this case perhaps a bit too far: there is lyricism as well as splendor in this movement, but rather less in Trevino’s reading than there could be. However, the palpable excitement of the music certainly comes through very clearly. The slow and delicate section midway through the movement contrasts well with the rest of the material, paving the way for a recapitulation as forceful as anything that has gone before. Trevino highlights the glaring dissonances and some nice instrumental touches just before the coda – including the brightness of the piccolo – and the very end, which is taken very quickly, leads to as effective an insistence on the key of C as anyone could desire.
Conducting the “Pastoral” has proved a challenge for many conductors of Beethoven cycles, even the most distinguished among them. Herbert von Karajan, for example, never seemed to know quite what to do with the symphony’s rather meandering gentleness and thematic simplicity: none of his many recordings of the work was quite satisfactory, no matter how well-played. No. 6 would also seem likely to be a particular challenge for Trevino, with his fondness for brisk pacing and thematic clarity. Trevino doers indeed have some difficulty at the symphony’s start, choosing a speed a bit beyond the designated Allegro ma non troppo. But a slight, barely perceptible slowdown early in the movement improves the pacing considerably, and the delicacy with which the orchestra handles the flowing themes is winning. Having settled on a satisfactory tempo, Trevino sticks with it and lets the music unfold at its own pace, focusing mostly on varying the dynamics – the very quiet pianissimo sections are especially effective. The second movement is the symphony’s longest and often feels that way, its Szene am Bach coming across as essentially static. But Beethoven wants this movement paced Andante molto mosso, not a crawl but a fast walk. Trevino does not take it quite that quickly, but he maintains a consistent walking pace with, as in the first movement, careful attention to the dynamic contrasts that provide what drama this essentially undramatic-by-design movement contains. The feeling here is of a pleasant waterside stroll with occasional pauses to sit and admire the scenery – a most justifiable portrait, although Beethoven made it clear that he was not writing “program music” so explicitly. Trevino does seem to be more comfortably in his element in the somewhat-more-ebullient remainder of the symphony. There is a pleasant jauntiness to the third movement, whose deliberately coarse rhythms Trevino handles very well, although the Trio sections are a bit too fast to be fully convincing. Unsurprisingly, the fourth movement’s storm is managed with great aplomb, the timpani pounding out the thunderclaps and the rest of the orchestra cutting loose to fine effect. Then the finale enters a touch tentatively, as if Trevino is reluctant to let the storm go – but the pace soon becomes a very pleasant Allegretto, and the sense of joy at the storm’s passing comes through well. What Trevino gets right here is that the music needs to sound entirely natural, unforced and straightforward, although it is scarcely simple in structural terms. By letting the movement flow with gently rocking motion, Trevino allows the symphony to conclude warmly and effectively. This is, all in all, a sensitive and very nicely balanced reading.
The enthusiasm with which Trevino approaches Beethoven’s Seventh is scarcely surprising, but his statuesque handling of the first movement’s opening is a touch unexpected. He allows this introduction, Beethoven’s longest, to unfold at an unrushed pace and build in its own time, so it comes across almost as a self-contained four-minute piece that contrasts strongly with the quick, celebratory Vivace. The orchestra’s winds shine especially brightly here, and there is unflagging enthusiasm from the whole ensemble, with Trevino sometimes shading over almost into impatience to get to the next delightful episode. The performance is not so much rushed as it is eager. The very quiet opening of the Allegretto therefore comes as something of a shock, pulling listeners into an altogether different world. Trevino adheres closely to the Allegretto designation, not pushing the music but not allowing it to drag or become over-serious. It flows quite well, Trevino’s care with dynamics making the gradual crescendo about two minutes from the start very effective. The following decrescendo is handled with equal thoughtfulness, as is the full-throated delivery of the main theme as the movement’s end approaches. The performance is a trifle on the cool side, a bit studied, but otherwise very convincing. The third movement bursts forth with vigor and at a slower tempo than might be expected, given its Presto indication and Trevino’s tendency to keep things brisk. Here the rhythmic contrasts among the movement’s sections come through with fine clarity, and Trevino’s usual care with dynamics serves the material very well. The finale, taken attacca, goes beyond jauntiness and almost borders on hysteria through sheer speed and rhythmic insistence (the horns hold up well but are clearly being pushed close to their limit). The undeniable excitement of the movement comes partly from wondering whether the orchestra can possibly keep together at this speed – and it does, but the performance could not have been an easy one for the musicians to get through. Certainly Trevino’s flair for the dramatic is on full display here: the movement is a whirlwind of sound and orchestral color, concluding as if the music simply runs off the page in sheer delight.
And then we get to the puzzle of Symphony No. 8, the toughest nut to crack in the cycle. Beethoven thought it better than No. 7 and said he was not pleased that people generally preferred the Seventh. No. 8 is the only symphony in which Beethoven repeats a home key: F major, the same key as the “Pastoral” and therefore an indication of a similarity of intended mood and effect – but certainly not of method. In most cycles, including Trevino’s, No. 8 is the shortest of all the symphonies; but this is a work that is compressed, not truncated. It has no slow movement, although both central movements partake of a reduced tempo. It is certainly Haydnesque, among other ways in its touches of humor and its third-movement Tempo di Menuetto. But it is not really a tribute to the older composer, who had died three years before this symphony’s creation in 1812 and for whom Beethoven seems to have had at most a grudging respect. Despite its brevity, the Eighth is not a “little” symphony – it requires the same power and dynamic range as the Seventh. Most conductors have no very clear idea of what to make of it, and therefore tend just to present the music and let the audience make of it what it will. That is what Trevino does, offering a very well-played rendition that is a performance but not really an interpretation. There is greater stateliness to the first movement than might be expected, thanks to a tempo that is slower than would seem likely from Trevino in a movement marked Allegro vivace e con brio. The second movement percolates along pleasantly, being perhaps a touch more serious than its Allegretto scherzando marking would indicate – the sudden dynamic changes here are among the ways in which this symphony’s humor channels that of Haydn. The third movement, which is almost a second Scherzo, is well-paced here and features nicely accentuated rhythms and well-highlighted brass – especially so in the Trio, where the horns are warmer in sound than usual. The fleet finale, another movement in which Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, is bubbly and suitably outgoing – once more showing parallels with Haydn, although again Trevino is a bit on the too-serious side. The performance as a whole is very pleasant, if scarcely revelatory.
If conductors tend to be unsure what to do with Beethoven’s Eighth, all of them seem to be quite certain of how to handle the Ninth – although their certainty inevitably changes over time, being transformed into some other, more-mature certainty that is in its turn transformed yet again. So Trevino’s handling of the Ninth in this cycle will surely not be his last word on the symphony – but it is a very fine, as it were, “first” word, from a recording standpoint. The first movement opens with suitable drama and is, as it should be, un poco maestoso, although the pacing is a bit quick for the designation Allegro ma non troppo. The orchestra plays with sufficient weightiness to make this a strong opening for so extended a symphony, with a sense of turbulence quite different from that in the “storm” movement of the “Pastoral.” Trevino is not quite as attentive here as he is in the other symphonies to changes in dynamics, but the quieter passages of the movement are nevertheless quite well handled and are suitably contrasted with the grander and louder ones. Interestingly, the pacing results in Trevino’s performance having nearly equal lengths for the first three movements: the first and third run 14½ minutes each, the second just one minute less. This conveys balance in a way that is rather unusual for the Ninth. The second movement builds strength onto the first, but the pacing here, surprisingly, is a touch on the slow side: the primary tempo is supposed to be Molto vivace, but in this performance the speed is a bit slower than that of the first movement – resulting in a rather curious effect, in which the Scherzo seems more a continuation of the opening movement than a contrast to it. The movement’s subsequent Presto material retains the same basic pulse as the main portion, being differentiated more through instrumental emphasis than by its pacing. The movement is quite well played but not particularly distinctive. The third movement, on the other hand, is lovely in every way: Trevino clearly takes to heart the cantabile portion of the tempo marking, drawing a songful, warm and rather sweet performance from the orchestra. The sheer beauty of Beethoven’s themes here stands in marked contrast to the craggy and turbulent nature of those in the first two movements, and Trevino lets the pleasures unfold with natural flow surpassing that of flowing brook in the second movement of the “Pastoral.” Indeed, there is a touch of pastoral quality in this performance, a sense of simplicity and manifest beauty that sweeps away the concerns of the first two movements and aptly sets the stage for a resumption of drama in the finale. The last movement duly returns to the symphony’s earlier mood, after which the fourth movement’s main theme is introduced so quietly that it seems to sneak into listeners’ ears – an effective approach that gives Trevino plenty of opportunities to build the theme’s orchestration and volume, which he does to good effect. When bass Derek Walton enters to proclaim “enough of these sounds,” there is a genuine sense of change, and the woodwind accompaniment in the first verse of Schiller’s An die Freude is handled with excellent precision and balance. The MSO Festival Chorus sings with enthusiasm and voices the words clearly – and clarity is also a hallmark of the performance of soloists Kate Royal, Christine Rice and Tuomas Katajala. The Turkish march midway through the movement has some piquancy here, neatly anticipating the use of “Turkish” percussion at the movement’s very end – which, not surprisingly, Trevino takes at a genuine Presto. In fact, throughout the finale, all the instrumental passages maintain solid forward momentum as they provide bridges between and among the vocal ones. And in the sung portions, the verse starting with Seid umschlungen, Millionen is here delivered with a great deal of feeling, and the prayerful feeling of this section shows considerable sensitivity. Overall, it is the sensitivity of this performance, and of Trevino’s readings of the symphonies as a whole, that is the primary impression left behind by this very finely played, clearly recorded, thoughtful and frequently elegant entry among the many available releases of Beethoven’s complete symphonies.