The French record label Naïve has released a new Beethoven Symphony cycle as a single 5-CD unit, forgoing individual releases of the symphonies, which have typically come out two to a disc, with the last reserved for the lengthy Ninth Symphony. Other notable characteristics of this set is that it is the product of the relatively young La Chambre Philharmonique led by conductor Emmanuel Krivine and is performed on period instruments. We might have expected Rinaldo Alessandrini's very fine Concerto Italiano to have driven forward through Mozart and taken on this project first, but it wisely did not, staying where it excels.
Regarding the historically informed aspect of the performances, Krivine claims to have "compared the critical editions (and) studied all of the sources, the better to free ourselves from them." Krivine asserts that his Beethoven cycle does not aspire to be an authentic interpretation, but an "authentic interpretation." The conductor readily admits that these symphonies say nothing new on the subject of themselves but that that is no reason to not cover them.
In this spirit, Krivine and La Chambre Philharmonique render a wholly unpretentious Beethoven cycle, full of woody and organic zest and verve. These performances immediately recall the bold strokes of Nikolas Harnoncourt's early-1990s modern instrument cycle with The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec, 1991) and Sir John Eliot Gardiner's 1994 period instrument set with Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv Produktion).
Unrestrained by contemporary performance dogma, Krivine and his orchestra actually sound like they are having fun and covey this in these effervescent live performances. A perfect juxtaposition of this sunny cycle would be with the dead seriousness of Christian Thielemann's DVD set with the Vienna Philharmonic in their DVD symphony cycle. It is a grand comparison of two dramatically different approaches toward the same music. It also offers a good comparison of modern-to- period instrumentation.
Beethoven does not translate as readily or successfully using period instruments as do Vivaldi, Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven envisioned a sound that needed the horsepower of a Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan), a Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Solti) or a Vienna Philharmonic (Kleiber) before it could be fully realized. As the piano forte was no match for Beethoven's immense talent and vision and the true realization of his keyboard corpus had to wait on the Hammerklavier, the standard contemporary period-instrument band has proven no real match for the Master's Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonic powerhouses. That is, at least until now.
Advances in engineering and mixing has well evolved since the first popular period- instrument recordings of the 1980s. Too often the period-instrument band would be rendered tinny and thin by the cold, digital and brutally crystalline expanse of the early compact disc. While the performances were very fine, their sonic value was impugned by the harshness of the environment the recording. Warmth has again begun seeping into the period-instrument recording, filling out the tonic character of the orchestra Beethoven must have heard when he could.
Krivine and La Chambre Philharmonique do more to update the sound of the period- instrument orchestra in the past decade than anyone and they drag Beethoven with them in making the "revolutionary from Bonn" safe once again for gut strings and natural horns. They accomplish this with practice and a very fine-tuned tempo dynamic, that across all nine symphonies, falls sensibly between the often plodding Thielemann and the Hayden-frenetic Beethoven pace of Sir Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players' cycle of the 1980s (EMI/Angel, 1987).
Krivine chooses a sensible "quick" pace for the cycle, one that never rushes (and, ipso facto, never drags). The most "classical" works,Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, bear a larger than recent bouquet of Haydn while allowing the incandescent Beethoven to burst through. It is in the Third Symphony that Beethoven flexes his muscles, informing everyone that things are going to be different, making the opening two E-flat Major notes terribly important in kicking things off. Krivine directs them delivered like conversation, an interjection before an elaborate point is to be made, then allowing things to evolve from there.
The Fifth and Ninth Symphonies are joyful expositions of high art, presented for all to appreciate and enjoy. Again, the tempi are simply perfect, setting a melodic hook hummed long after the disc stops spinning. Krivine's Beethoven is a celebration of the composer for no other reason than Beethoven represents the best in humanity.
Tracks: CD1: Symphony No. 1, in C major, op. 21; Symphony No. 2, in D major, op.36. CD2: Symphony No. 3, in E flat major, op.55; Symphony No. 4, in B flat major, op. 60. CD3: Symphony No. 5, in C minor, op. 67; Symphony No. 6, in F major, op. 68. CD4; Symphony No. 7, in La major, op. 92; Symphony No. 8, in F major, op.93. CD5: Symphony No. 9, with a choir and soloists, in D minor, op.125.
Personnel: La Chambre Philharmonique; Emmanuel Krivine: conductor; Sinéad Mulhern: soprano; Carolin Masur: mezzo-soprano; Dominik Wortig: tenor; Konstantin Wolff: bass; Choeur de chambre Les Eléments.