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BEETHOVEN Symphonies

South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart/Roger Norrington
Gächinger Kantorei, Stuttgart; Camilla Nylund; Iris Vermillion; Jonas Kaufmann; Franz-Josef Selig.
Includes illustrated discussion in German of Symphonies Nos. 1-8 [five discs + bonus disc] Europäisches Musikfest, Stuttgart (live concert performances, 2002)


Padova e del Veneto Orchestra/Peter Maag
Athestis Chorus; Ruthild Engert-Ely, Friedemann Kunder, Zeger Vandersteene, Amanda Halgrimson
(Live concert performances 1994-95)
ARTS 47244-2 - 47248-2 (separate) or 473702 (complete)

Two live recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies are to be welcomed, though neither is likely to rate as an overall 'best' version. Sir Roger Norrington in his latest recorded cycle is the more didactic, and his concerts and discs are coupled chronologically from No 1 to No 8, with No 9 having a disc on its own. His concert talks are included and the audience responses are enthusiastic. A believer in Beethoven's controversial metronome markings, the tempi are swift and the delivery often brusque, running to the brutal. He has generalised his period instrument discoveries to modern symphony orchestras and is currently Chief Conductor of the versatile Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, who respond to his approach with unflagging energy in a way which keeps you listening, thinking and wondering. Nothing serious is lost by these being live performances; indeed I am one (probably unusual) reviewer who tends to avoid studio recordings of canonic masterpieces. The Stuttgart strings have been schooled to use less vibrato than is the norm, resulting in a convincingly ‘period’ feel. Norrington's line-up is mainly modern, with some period wind instruments and valveless brass. That mixture had me worried quite often in the balance, which as recorded favoured often raucous brass, to the particular disadvantage of the dulcet flutes, which are sometimes barely audible. (For a movement by movement review I would refer you to Colin Clarke on MusicWeb.)

Peter Maag is a curious case; a fine, possibly great, Swiss conductor who died in 2001 (as I have just learned, q.v. a review reproduced below). He worked mostly with relatively unfamiliar orchestras in Italy & Spain, though there were earlier recordings of Mozart & Mendelssohn with the LSO. In recent reviews I recalled Maag's only appearance at Glyndebourne, and have acclaimed his ARTS recordings of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Gluck.

These, his only recordings of Beethoven's symphonies, are taken from concerts with the small Venice-based orchestra, that of Padova e del Veneto. It is truer to the size of Beethoven's own orchestras, but Maag does not seek an 'authentic' sound, towards which Norrington strives. The winds are far more forward and prominent than is the case with the large symphony orchestras, with which some older conductors used to indulge in doubling to restore the balance. I like this and, especially, the feeling of naturalness and 'rightness' that Maag brings to most of his work. Maag's couplings in his concerts were more conventional: 1 & 3; 2 & 4; 5 & 6; 7 & 8. The playing and recorded sound are, to my ears, perfectly satisfactory and suggests long familiarity before the interpretations were entrusted to disc.

I take this opportunity to commend Amazon's democratic approach and, in a spirit of New Year collaboration rather than competition and reduplication, I have pleasure in pointing readers to one of their several contrasting published reviews of this set, which will probably give purchasers more lasting satisfaction than Sir Roger's latest. And, to help you decide which to add to your collections, excerpts (not all of them those that they purport to be!) of Maag's Beethoven can be heard on the Amazon websites.

Peter Maag's Magnificent Legacy: Peter G Watchorn, Amazon.com April 3, 2003
For those who wonder what Peter Maag was up to in the many years since his classic recordings for Decca in the 1950's and (early) 1960's, here is perhaps the "last will and testament" of this uniquely great Swiss conductor, who, to the incalculable loss of all music-lovers, passed away in November, 2001. Maag's accounts of the nine symphonies of Beethoven constitute one of the very finest sets, a genuine "sleeper" which is destined (especially in view of Maag's departure from us) to become a classic. Perhaps only Nikolaus Harnoncourt's exemplary readings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe can truly match the present set in fire, verve and imagination.

Maag, a one-time piano student of Alfred Cortot, and disciple of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, was one of the most impressively sensitive conductors of his era, noted for his beautiful and searching interpretations of, especially, Mozart and Mendelssohn, whose spirits, he clearly felt, were closely related to one another. His complete recording (with the London Symphony) of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" has been rightly revered for forty years, and his more recent achievements with the Orchestra of Venice and Padua are no less impressive. In addition, the recordings are remarkably well engineered (fine ambience, excellent attention given to matters of balance).

The orchestra should also be singled out for praise - wonderfully warm string tone, and some of the finest wind-playing to come out of Europe in recent times. It is damning with faint praise to characterise this set as the work of a major conductor directing a minor league orchestra. There is nothing second rate about these musicians and Maag's presence lends an authority and assurance that places the results well beyond the goals and achievements of many so-called "star" conductors. Simply put, Maag was one of the great musicians of the century and these recordings are a worthy testament to his extraordinary gifts. Those interested in discovering details in the Beethoven symphonies that they didn't imagine existed should invest in this set forthwith. Contributing strongly to the overall effect is Maag's decision to reduce the size of the string section. Far from representing any handicap, this results in a satisfyingly "classical" Beethoven, with winds and brass suitably prominent, and with plenty of fire and drama where and when it's called for.

Has any other conductor better realised Beethoven's cautionary designation "non troppo", attached to the opening Allegro of the Pastoral? Or summoned more energy in the great seventh symphony? Or shaped the opening of the slow movement of the same work so tellingly?
The delights which await the listener are far too numerous to enumerate in any detail here. Suffice it to say that those wise enough to invest in this set (knowing Maag's reputation) will be rewarded by performances of almost transcendental beauty, conducted by an undisputed master, in state-of-the-art recorded sound. At one time, Peter Maag removed himself from the professional conducting circuit to devote his life to Buddhist study, in part to reclaim his "humility" as an interpreter. What is presented here (as well as in Maag's equally fine set of Mozart's later symphonies, also recorded with the Italian orchestra, of which he was chief conductor) is music-making of the greatest power, insight and humility by one of the most fascinating and satisfying conductors of the twentieth century. Strongest recommendation. Five stars.


© Peter Grahame Woolf