Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3; Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 each (SACDs).
The question – “Who needs more Beethoven symphonies?” – is inevitable whenever a new set appears or, as in the present case, is in progress. The answer, of course, is that there are innumerable ways to perform Beethoven and innumerable things to be learned about his music by listeners and players alike; so there is always room for new performances of his symphonies if the conductor has something new to say about them. Philippe Herreweghe clearly does – but it is not what you might expect. Herreweghe is a longtime specialist in original-instrument performances of music up to and including the Romantic era, and it would be reasonable to expect them here – but the Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays on modern instruments. However, Herreweghe’s special understanding of performance techniques in Beethoven’s time leads to renditions of the symphonies that sound quite different from today’s norm – in tempos, instrumental emphasis and articulation.
Symphony No. 1, for example, has very good balance and unusually prominent brass and timpani. The second movement is quite fast – although Herreweghe makes the tempo convincing – while the finale is particularly genial. The handling of Beethoven’s famously emphatic chords is unusual here and in all Herreweghe’s performances: the chords are punctuation points, but they are closer to semicolons than exclamations – Herreweghe does not allow them to slow the forward impetus of the many movements in which they appear.
This is immediately evident at the start of the “Eroica,” whose opening chords are emphatic but not heavy and whose first movement is taken at a brisk pace throughout. The second movement is lighter than usual – no Romantic-era tragedy foreshadowed here – and perhaps a touch too fast. The third movement is taken at a more moderate tempo than a listener might expect after the first two; and it is quite well balanced, with especially good brass. The finale features fine handling of the scurrying strings, emphatic but not overly dramatic chords (again), and a speedy coda.
In Symphony No. 5, the first movement is dramatic but not overdone, with good instrumental detail but a distinctly odd handling of the oboe cadenza. The second movement offers genuine respite, even though it flows fairly quickly and is by no means placid. The third movement strides strongly along, with especially good cellos in the trio and prominent timpani in the transition to the finale. And that fourth movement offers a strong but, yet again, not overdone opening, the chords distinct and insistent, after which the movement’s pulse sweeps effectively ahead to a very strong coda.
In some ways, though, the most interesting performance on these discs – and the best – is of Symphony No. 8, which (along with No. 2) is something of a stepchild in Beethoven cycles. Not here. Herreweghe has clearly thought this symphony through from start to finish, realizing that it is not a throwback – it was written at the same time as the Seventh – but a commentary on the past, a summing up, and a rejection (or surpassing) of what came before. Herreweghe, always a stickler for detail, is hyper-focused on it here. The first movement is quick and light, but with emphatic chords, and amusing instrumental balance – especially in the timpani – is integral throughout. The second movement is light, well balanced and well paced. The third is quick, but with outbursts quite deliberately interrupting the flow, and the horns are especially good. The finale percolates along brightly, and the timpani near the end are particularly impressive. What Herreweghe does here is to find the little instrumental touches that Beethoven used to comment on – not duplicate – the shorter, lighter symphonies of an earlier (but not much earlier) time. The result is a very impressive reading that actually makes the symphony as amusing as Beethoven intended it to be.
The sound is good on both these SACDs, but it is not the same: the two were recorded in different venues, and it shows. There is a lighter, more transparent quality to the sound of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 than to the recording of the later works. On both SACDs, though, instrumental detail comes through quite clearly, and both recordings sound very good on standard CD players as well as on multichannel units. It will be most interesting to see where Herreweghe goes with his recordings of the remaining five Beethoven symphonies.