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The Critic's Chair series ended in March 2015.

The Critic's Chair for 30 December 2012

BEETHOVEN: Complete Symphonies; 8 Concert Overtures Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch/Riccardo Chailly (Decca 478 2721). Dianne James explores symphonies 6 through 9 of this exciting cycle of Beethoven symphonies.

Dianne James explores symphonies 6 through 9 of this 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)

My thoughts on the first five symphonies last week were overwhelmingly positive. Chailly’s approach represents a fusion of older and newer approaches to Beethoven performance. Speeds are on the fast side, yet the music rarely sounds driven as a result. And the sound that this orchestra produces is ravishingly beautiful. Combine all these wonderful qualities with a first-class recorded sound and the result is top-drawer Beethoven that will probably set the standard for all subsequent recordings of these works.

Watch Riccardo Chailly discuss Beethoven's Symphonies 4-6

Symphony No.6 in F Op.68, Pastoral
Under Chailly the first movement of the Sixth springs into life. The fast one-in-a-bar tempo, specified by Beethoven, enables him to shape the music in long-breathed phrases. As a result the music flows beautifully, yet never feels frantic or urgent. In traditional performances the second movement can often seem overly long. Chailly mitigates the problem of length by playing it reasonably straight and in an engagingly direct manner. His conception of the “Storm” movement is electrifying as he transforms Beethoven’s written intentions into sound. This is a performance that sizzles and crackles from start to finish.

Symphony No.7 in A Op.92
Chailly’s performance stands out as one of the best I’ve listened to in recent weeks. It’s undoubtedly one of the most invigorating, a quality that’s enhanced by the superb recorded sound achieved throughout this set. This new performance of the Seventh is a glorious blend of weight and dashing high spirits. The orchestral sound is huge at times, as it must be at some of the powerful climaxes that surface throughout this work. But at no time does size undermine the detail in this performance. Chailly brings all his Italianate temperament to bear in the exhilarating final movement. He really lets his hair down as he and his musicians power through Beethoven’s score at top speed.

Watch Riccardo Chailly discuss Beethoven's Symphonies 7-9

Symphony No.8 in F Op.93
Most interpretations that I’m familiar with treat the Eighth as a light-weight work, and emphasize its connections to eighteenth-century symphonic style. Chailly by contrast takes this work very seriously. Under his leadership, the work assumes a more powerful character. It’s as if the 18th century veneer has been stripped away, revealing a work of considerable drama, complexity, and imagination. This performance won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially those accustomed to the more traditional genial, laid-back approach. Although I remain unconvinced by Chailly’s diminuendo tapering of the opening phrase of the first movement, there’s plenty else to enthuse about. Chailly uncovers a raw, edge-of-the-seat power in this movement that’s usually completely downplayed or overlooked. This really increased my enjoyment and appreciation of this symphony.

Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125
I suspect that Chailly’s new reading of the Ninth will be one that critics of this generation will turn to when making comparisons of future recorded performances. It’s without doubt one of the swiftest on record, but I rarely found that this got in the way of the overall musical expression. There’s some terrific playing in the first two movements, and there’s a hushed, meditative quality to this performance of the slow movement that had me completely transfixed. Its only real drawback, in my opinion, is the choice of baritone soloist, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, whose voice sounds so stretched at the start. But the other soloists are excellent, as is the choir. And Chailly’s direction allows the drama of the finale to emerge more powerfully than in most other accounts.


Hear Dianne's review of Beethoven's Symphonies 1-5