The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music CD review: Riccardo Chailly’s new cycle of Beethoven symphonies and overtures sets a new standard and makes a great holiday gift. | December 4, 2011

CONCERT ALERT: I couldn’t make it to the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s annual Christmas Spectacular. But if you are thinking about attending the last performance today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, here is a link to a review by my colleague Greg Hettmansberger of Madison Magazine: http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/December-2011/Madison-Symphonys-Christmas-Spectacular-Everyones-Home-for-the-Holidays/

By Jacob Stockinger

Another holiday shopping weekend is upon us. That is why on Friday, I posted the complete list of classical music nominations for the 54th Grammy Awards, to be given out in February, and then in Saturday offered the New York Times critics’ gift-giving guide to the Top 25 Classical CDs of 2011.

But some wonderful recordings aren’t eligible for these Grammys — they will have to wait until next year — and the New york Times capsule review didn’t provide a lot of information.

Here is a CD review of one such recording. My comments might provide some guidance about giving one of the staples in every classical music fan’s collection of recordings.

Expectations were high when Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly (below) took over the podium of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Germany,  which was playing Beethoven when Beethoven was alive and writing “new music.”

After all, in its 200-plus year history this venerated orchestra (below), located in the city that hosted J.S. Bach, had boasted on 18 music directors, including the composer and Bach-reviver Felix Mendelssohn and the human rights activist Kurt Masur.

That’s a lot to live up to, but Chailly — who also has out some remarkable recordings of Bach for modern orchestra and modern instruments — has done so.

The latest proof is his cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies and eight major overtures for the Decca label.

There are many things to like about this cycle, which to my mind supersedes all others, including justly famous ones by Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado as well as my on personal favorites by David Zinman and, for period performances, John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

One thing to like the great sonics, the engineering that offers a crisp, close up and alive sound that only adds to the excitement and puts you in the historic Leipzig concert hall (below).

Another reason is that Decca is generous with timing: each of the five CDs in the set clocks in at about 75 minutes, coming close to the 80-minute maximum of the CD.

Presentation and packaging are yet more reasons to like the set. The photographs and the critical commentary in the booklet are sure to add to the enjoyment of the music, the recording and the performers.

But of course the biggest reason to like the set is the consistently high and virtuosic high-octane level of interpretation that Chailly (below, in action) brings to this iconic and often over-programmed orchestral music. (It makes you understand why several major symphonies in the US and abroad are reportedly chasing Chailly with big-buck contracts to recruit him.)

Chailly is famous for his up-tempi interpretations. But it is not just some personal idiosyncrasy based on Attention Deficit Disorder or the desire to be different or to rush and get it over with.

Most of what Chailly brings to Beethoven (below) is a superlatively successful and even thrilling fusion of period performances and big symphony–modern instrument performances. With Chailly, you don’t have to choose between period or modern approaches to Beethoven. You get the best of both.

Just listen to the first two symphonies of the young Ludwig. Has anybody ever captured better the impatient snap and crackle of these Mozartean and Haydnesque works which also shows the aggressiveness that Beethoven possessed right from the start?

Listen too to the more familiar works – the Fifth, the Seventh and the Ninth symphonies – and you can clearly hear how motifs and sections are organically tied together. You hear how the structure Beethoven so carefully constructed coheres and how his music machines work.

No cycle, of course, is perfect. Some listeners might like a bit more lyricism and gentleness with the Sixth Symphony (the “Pastorale”); but even there I find new discoveries each time I listen to Chailly’s reading.

I wonder now whom Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus will do the Beethoven concertos with? I can’t wait for that.

I suspect the smart money says there is no way that the Leipzig payers could ever surpass the precision and excitement of the Berlin Philharmonic. Me, I am not so sure. I think Chailly is THE maestro to watch today, no less than Beethoven continues after more than 200 years to be THE symphonist to listen to.

I would put this set of Beethoven’s symphonies right up with Richard Goode’s recording of the five piano concertos; Alina Ibragimova’s set of the 10 violin sonatas; and the Emerson String Quartet’s complete set of the 16 string quartets. They are both convenient and first-rate, and they set a standard. It is a building block set, a back-t0-basics choice, a Beethoven MUST-HAVE.

If you don’t buy this ear-opening set for someone else, buy it for yourself.

Or hope to receive it.

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