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The Critic's Chair series ended in March 2015.

The Critic's Chair for 23 December 2012

BEETHOVEN: Complete Symphonies; 8 Concert Overtures Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch/Riccardo Chailly (Decca 478 2721). Dianne James explores the first five symphonies in this exciting cycle of Beethoven symphonies.

Dianne James explores the first five symphonies in an exciting new cycle of Beethoven symphonies for The Critic's Chair

riccadro chailly beethovenBEETHOVEN: Complete Symphonies; 8 Concert Overtures
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch/Riccardo Chailly
(Decca 478 2721)

This is extremely distinguished playing from one of Europe’s oldest and most respected orchestral institutions. A feature of Chailly’s new recording is the sheer beauty of the orchestral sound. The strings have a gorgeous sheen, and they play with incredible vitality and agility, but have a beautiful lightness and delicacy as well. The woodwind playing is exceptional, and the pungent, earthy quality of the brass rival that of any period-instrument orchestra. An attractive bonus of Chailly’s new set is the inclusion of eight of Beethoven’s overtures; these too receive first-class performances.

Symphony No 1 in C Op 21

Chailly’s performance of the first symphony is extremely well-judged. He manages to project its special blend of 18th-century and more forward-looking procedures, and he captures the exuberance and joy that Beethoven expresses so clearly throughout this astonishingly self-confident work. One of the strengths of Chailly’s reading of this particular work is the way he captures its audacious originality right from its inception.

Symphony No 2 in D Op 36

Chailly’s performance of the second symphony positively overflows with vigour and energy. The drama is all in the score, but Chailly brings an extra level of intensity and urgency to the music. He observes dynamic changes rigorously and realizes Beethoven’s numerous accent markings with a ferocity that I found wholly satisfying. I do however have some reservations about Chailly’s performance of the lovely slow movement of this work. There’s no doubting the beauty of the string sound, or the ravishing blend of the woodwinds and strings on the varied restatements of each strain of the theme. But I find the speed simply too fast for the material.

Symphony No 3 in Eb Op 55, Eroica

Chailly’s account of the first movement is electrifying from start to finish. It conveys a sense of urgency, without becoming hectic, as well as contributes to the ferocity that stalks the pages of this score. A touch-stone of any new version of the Eroica is of course the funeral march slow movement which lies at its heart. Chailly’s approach is surprisingly dispassionate, with the music allowed to speak pretty much for itself. In the finale, Chailly has the measure of the movement’s epic narrative, and turns in a performance that makes for edge-of-the-seat listening.

Watch Riccardo Chailly discuss Beethoven's Symphonies 1-3.

Symphony No 4 in Bb Op 60

Chailly’s account of the Fourth Symphony is also excellent, although I did at first have reservations about the speed he chooses for the slow movement. However, the more I listened, the more I was convinced by what Chailly achieves here. Beethoven’s gorgeous melody unfolds in one long line, animated by the delightfully buoyant phrasing of the accompanying voices. Chailly’s performance of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony really captures the contrast between darkness and light that is such a feature of this movement. His way with the finale is equally fine.

Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67

Chailly’s performance of this work is absolutely stunning. In his hands a work that can often seem hackneyed suddenly seems new and fresh. Chailly succeeds in revealing the revolutionary character of this work more than most of the other recordings I’ve heard of this symphony – including the period instrument performances by Norrington and Gardiner. And he does this largely by following all the leads Beethoven provides in his score. This is a performance that lives and breathes; it’s a performance that almost transcends the limitations of the recorded medium.  Chailly unleashes the full power of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, to create an account of the finale that’s almost overwhelming in its intensity.

Watch Riccardo Chailly discuss Beethoven's Symphonies 4-6.

Next week, join Dianne for her reviews of the symphonies 6 through 9.