Saturday, 7 May 2011

Beethoven: Symphonies

Collecting classical recordings often seems daunting with many hundreds of recordings being issued over the decades and made available in differing forms. Beethoven was an early passion of mine from hearing many of his works on the radio or through borrowed discs.
To me at least there is a difference between seeking out outstanding versions of individual symphonies and finding a set to live with, and while there are undoubtedly performances of single symphonies available which could compete with the best, it is as a coherent and aesthetically consistent survey that Cluytens accounts - available in this set - are best considered .
I feel there is a rightness to his judgement which proves enormously satisfying on repeated listenings and there is a special interest in hearing the fruits of a combination of several stellar talents: the virile, robust sound of the pre-Karajan Berlin Philharmonic, the production genius of Walter Legge working in a congenial recording acoustic, the Romantic but never indulgent interpretations of am under-rated conductor who died all too soon, and the especially fine vocal contributions from an unusual team of soloists and the wholly committed choir of St Hedwig's Cathedral - wrapped up in a set available cheaply from the likes of Amazon.

In my teens I became acquainted with Beethoven's symphonies through these performances when they were available as budget LP's on the EMI Classics for Pleasure label collecting the complete set and was worried that many years later my judgement would be clouded by sentimental attachment, however having listened intently to a good many other versions, I find that this set stands up remarkably well. The Pastoral (my favourite of the lot) and the Ninth have long been praised but you will find equally enthusiastic endorsements of every symphony here in one review or you'll be hard pressed to find a discouraging word. They are not the last word in individuality, nor do they bear the stamp of a particular approach, but Cluytens seems to understand and appreciate the spirit and heart of this music. Absolutely no-one captures the cat-like tread of the opening of the Fourth the way Cluytens does; rhythms and accents are beautifully sprung and he pays close attention to dynamics. I was also especially pleased to discover that Nicolai Gedda, was much more impressive than I remembered him in the Choral, and the soaring refulgence of Gre Brouwenstijn's soprano is a special treat.
Herbert von Karajans recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic are often interesting but to me he's never conducted an even as set as this Cluytens set with the same orchestra.

The remastered stereo sound is warm and spacious preserving a sense of being present at the session; excellent for recordings made between 1957 and 1959.

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