Robert Trevino’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

It may seem bold and even brash for a relatively young conductor like Robert Trevino to launch a new label relationship with a Beethoven symphony cycle recorded in live performance. Yet he has an obvious affinity for this repertoire, compounded by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra’s polished and responsive music making. Ondine’s engineering captures the orchestra in fine detail without artificial spotlighting, conveying a genuine concert hall ambience, minus the warmth and richness we hear in, say, Profil’s recent Beethoven cycle under Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

In a perceptive interview with David Patrick Stearns published as part of this set’s annotations, Trevino cites consultations with David Zinman and Daniel Barenboim concerning interpretive matters. Indeed there’s evidence of Zinman’s chamber-like aesthetic and fast tempos, as well as the power and dynamism distinguishing Barenboim’s great Berlin Staatskapelle Beethoven symphony cycle. But Trevino goes his own way, with variable results.

His brisk outer movements in Symphony No. 1 are akin to Toscanini’s opera buffa approach, particularly in the Allegro con brio development section’s playful woodwind repartée. Certain phrases in the Minuet push ever-so-slightly ahead of the beat, yet remain securely locked in, ensemble-wise. In No. 2, Trevino effects an assiduous transition between the Adagio introduction and an enchantingly rollicking Allegro con brio. For all its suppleness of execution, I prefer the more pointed string articulation in Paavo Järvi’s similarly conceived traversal. The controlled delicacy in the Larghetto’s softer music makes this movement sound faster than its actual duration, although it’s on the square side when compared alongside the more robust and inflected Harnoncourt reading.

Trevino undersells the cross-rhythmic sforzandos in the Eroica symphony’s first movement, while the exposition’s basic tempo gradually spreads and slows down: not a lot, but the energy flags. Trevino’s Funeral March is as eloquent and moving as the catalog’s best versions. The conductor accelerates for the Fughetta, yet the carefully layered counterpoint and tremendous dynamic build reflect the music’s shattering intent. The Scherzo has all of Szell/Cleveland’s surface perfection, minus its nervous energy, while the finale variations brilliantly showcase the Mälmo woodwinds’ proficiency.

Trevino largely underplays No. 4. The opening Adagio’s blended string and woodwind passages are super clear but lack the foreboding aura of Thomas Fey’s marked dynamic contrasts and stinging accents. The slow movement’s two-note phrases are not as well-defined as in the Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony recording.

Some may find No. 5’s first movement overly driven, yet Trevino’s attention to linear interplay never derails. If the Andante con moto doesn’t aspire to Beethoven’s “dolce” directive, notice the uncommon clarity of the upper strings’ staccato 32nd notes. The Scherzo’s clipped detaché tuttis and difficult cello/bass fugal entrance in the Trio are appropriately forceful, while the Allegro finale mirrors the first movement’s relentless momentum.
In the Pastorale, Trevino emulates Zinman’s transparency and fast tempos, but with more distinctive first-desk soloists. The bird-call intimations in the second movement are deliciously shaped, but the fourth-movement storm doesn’t break out into a Klempererian or Kleiberian torrent.

No. 7’s fast-paced outer movements border on glibness, missing the force and drama with which Barenboim/Berlin Staatskapelle, Wand/NDR, the first Solti/Chicago, and Carlos Kleiber/Bavarian State Radio Orchestra grab you by the jugular, figuratively speaking.

Trevino’s first-movement tricks in No. 8 don’t quite work, such as a diminuendo in the opening phrase that telegraphs the subito piano that follows, plus odd accelerandos here and there. The conductor gives short shrift to the cross-rhythmic accents, and to the cellos and basses who carry the melodic burden in the transition leading into the recapitulation. The Allegretto’s woodwind gurgles are recessed to polite effect, when they ought to be in your face. The rollicking finale stands out for deft interplay between orchestral strands, yet the similarly lithe Haitink/London Symphony recording proves more incisive in every respect.

Trevino maintains the basic tempo of No. 9’s first movement with little modification, and makes expressive points solely through variety of articulation and specificity of phrasing. The Scherzo’s vibrantly shaped Trio compensates for the main section’s coolness and lack of fervency. In the briskly reserved Adagio, the decorative string passages still manage to sing out and breathe. And the “Ode to Joy” finale benefits from fine singing and “centrist” tempos that are intelligently unified and not too fast nor too slow.

The conductor observes all repeats, eschews the traditional brass reinforcements in the Ninth’s Scherzo, and opts for the trumpets continuing their phrases in the Eroica first-movement coda. If this Beethoven cycle falls short of our reference versions’ consistent satisfaction and seasoned authority, Robert Trevino’s stylish flair, astute musicianship, and good taste are never in doubt.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Wand (RCA); Barenboim (Warner Classics); Blomstedt (Brilliant Classics); Harnoncourt (Warner Classics)

  • Derek Welton (bass-baritone); Tuomas Katajala (tenor); Kate Royal (soprano); Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
  • Malmö Symphony Orchestra & Festival Chorus, Robert Trevino

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