The first release in what promises to be a valuable series of the complete Beethoven symphonies has Roger Norrington conducting a period-instrument ensemble called the London Classical Players in the Second and Eighth symphonies (Angel 47698, CD only).
The orchestra, whose members Angel fails to identify, is absolutely first-rate. And Norrington's lively interpretations avoid the sighing phrases, wide-ranging dynamics and, although not completely, the string vibrato of the Romantic performing style. Quite what one would expect of an enlightened, lively scholar.
These readings move briskly without being rushed and there is a bracing clarity in the execution: The trumpets really bite, the strings are crisp in tone and execution, oboe and clarinet tones do not thin-out in extended phrases, and the timpani crackle rather than reverberate. In all, an orchestral sound not so far removed from what George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony used to get in their Beethoven. Which is a point worth pondering.
Another British antiquarian orchestra, the conductorless Hanover Band (whose members are also consigned to anonymity), conforms to a rather different set of values in their Nimbus CD recordings of Beethoven's First (5003), Second (5031) and Fifth (5007) symphonies.
These are more thickly textured, less crisply articulated than Norrington's efforts, and in a couple of movements of the Second Symphony slower-moving as well. This in spite of the fact that Hanover plays at a higher pitch than the London Classical Players and that the two orchestras would seem to be of roughly the same size--16 to 18 strings in addition to the precise number of wind players prescribed by the composer.
The First and Second symphonies are generously coupled by Nimbus with the composer's First and Third piano concertos, respectively. The Third Concerto is played with warmth and vivacity by Mary Verney (no biographical information provided) on a 1798 fortepiano, with the Hanover Band producing its most cohesive and bright-toned playing; the woodwind sound--and the instruments really are made of wood here--is particularly appealing in its gentle, dusky smoothness. The First Concerto by the same performers is, however, glumly lethargic.
The Fifth Symphony shares a CD with a pair of overtures: a becomingly dark, tense "Egmont" and an unbecomingly scrappy "Prometheus."
The first flickerings of a cross-fertilization of modern and period performance styles can be perceived in the latest release, the Ninth Symphony, in the original-proportions (as regards size of orchestra) if not the original-instruments edition of the Beethoven symphonies by the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
Contrary to expectations, the mighty Ninth rings out not only with clarity but with fullness of tone and dramatic punch played by an orchestra of, probably, no more than 40 players--one wishes the recording companies would not force us to guess about such an important fact--and, in the finale, an appropriately reduced chorus.
The conductor refuses to give us just another brooding, expansive, constantly fluctuating in tempo and dynamics interpretation. Tilson Thomas, rather, leads this Ninth forcefully, with lean, mobile phrasing, and an ear keenly attuned to textural clarity and balance of sonorities.
The Tallis Chamber Choir sings well in the finale, as does the solo vocal quartet comprising soprano Suzanne Murphy, mezzo Carolyn Watkinson, tenor Dennis O'Neill and bass Gwynne Howell.
In the more graceful measures of the Eighth Symphony, with which the Ninth shares this pair of CDs (CBS 39711), the results fall short of Norrington's achievement--less for stylistic considerations (although it is a beefier performance) than for the rough playing of the ECO strings.
Chamber music by Beethoven in period renditions is also on this week's agenda: his sonatas for cello and piano. The two sonatas of Opus 5 are played with terrific vitality and skill by a pair of the most respected figures of the period movement, the Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma and the American fortepianist Malcolm Bilson (Elektra/Nonesuch 79152, LP or CD).
The Bylsma cello has a dark, buzzy sound that may not appeal to those hooked on the light, suave tones of a Yo-Yo Ma, but it does provide an ideal complement to the the pingy, woody sound of Bilson's reproduction of an instrument owned by Mozart.
Nowhere in the printed material provided with the Harmonia Mundi CD (901180) are we informed that the Beethoven program by cellist Christophe Coin and pianist Patrick Cohen (again, no bios are provided) is played on period instruments. It is, and handsomely.
While in the great Sonata in A, Opus 69, Coin gives indication of being a less agile performer than Bylsma, the cellist's tone is brighter and otherwise more accessibly "modern" sounding, even with a touch of vibrato.
The accompanying material is a pair of Beethoven variations on Handel's "See the conqu'ring hero comes" and Mozart's "Bei Maennern welche Liebe fuehlen." Both are neatly dispatched by Coin, with Cohen's gleefully virtuosic playing quite on a level with that of the fortepiano master, Malcolm Bilson.