Mightily Superfluous Excellence: Saraste and Beethoven Cycle No. 176

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Raise your hand if you really, truly need another, a new set of the nine Beethoven symphonies—the 176th* such cycle? No one? I thought so. Well, maybe you are a fan of Jukka-Pekka Saraste or the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and you were at some of the concerts where these performances were recorded, between 2017 and 2018. In that case you will get a perfectly fine cycle that ticks many of the boxes of 21st century Beethoven-listening. Saraste and his technically very accomplished band play with finesse and attention to detail. That works particularly well in a very nicely crafted, lively First symphony. Bands like Martin Haselböck’s charming rag-tag Vienna Academy Orchestra will make Op. 21 sound even more akin to Haydn (analogous to how the Op. 18 string quartets are very much stylistically of the Haydn mold), but for what might be dubbed “mainstream Beethoven”, this is as invigorating and playful as it gets. The Fourth is terrific, too, with compelling forward movement in the Adagio to rival reference versions like Osmo Vänskä’s.

The WDRSO is a modern symphony orchestra, of course, making use of the colors and range advantages their instruments are capable of. There is nothing undernourished or wimpy about this Beethoven. On the other hand, the lessons of Historically Informed Performance haven’t passed Saraste by entirely, and the phrasing is varied and nuanced and less “thick” than it likely would have been with the same orchestra in decades past. The tempos are generally crisp—a backdrop against which a couple of surprisingly slow movements (the leisurely opening Allegro and certain Variations in the finale of the Eroica, for example) stand out. Nothing outrageous, though, here or anywhere else in this set. This has the twofold consequence of making this set recommendable-in-principle, since it’s a one-size-fits-most approach, and well done at that—and also making it a bit pointless to all those who already have their go-to Beethoven symphonies, because Saraste offers nothing that is so new or headstrong or perverse that you have to hear it to believe it.

The quartet of quality but run-of-the-mill singers in the Ninth symphony does very well, not least because the young tenor Maximilian Schmitt neither struggles with the high notes nor pushes his voice. Laura Aikin—incidentally also Haselböck’s soprano for his very HIP Ninth—has a fine, just slightly strident voice, as if gently electrified, and it rings clear and pleasant through the dense writing.

With fairly average tempos in the first two movements (the opening Allegro is even on the slow side by today’s standards) but rather quick tempos in the Adagio and the Finale (nothing crazy like Benjamin Zander; rather like Abbado and Karajan at their zestiest), the feeling Saraste generates in the Ninth is more one of excitement than sweeping grandeur, which is fair enough. For a more lavish approach, listeners can always head down Furtwängler lane.

The West German Radio players don’t quite have the sheen of the very best orchestras (Abbado’s “Rome Cycle” with the Berlin Philharmonic comes to mind, or the interpretively more willful but often very beautiful Bernstein set with the Vienna Philharmonic), but that’s not actually a deal-breaker: Neither does its cousin-orchestra, the NDR SO under Günter Wand, which is decidedly one of the reference cycles out there. What we’re left with here, then, is a kind of excellence that feels pointless but sounds perfectly good. Precious Vanilla. Even just 20 years ago this might have been a reference recording itself. In 2019 it’s the equivalent of a delighted shrug.

* According to the ionarts Survey of Beethoven Symphony Cycles, not counting haphazard or Liszt/piano cycles.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Paavo Järvi, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (RCA); Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra (BIS); Wand, NDR SO (RCA); Chailly, Gewandhaus Orchestra (Decca); Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin (Warner)

  • Laura Aikin (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (alto); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Tareq Nazmi (bass)
  • WDR Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, NDR Chorus, Jukka-Pekka Saraste

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