Symphonies 1 à 5 and Symphonies 6 à 9
Le Concert Des Nations
Alia Vox AVSA 9937 and 9946
Two sets, 3x Hybrid SACD each.
By Roy Gregory
The 250thanniversary of Beethoven’s birth has spawned a rash of re-issues and recording projects, many of which are predictably crass. I haven’t actually seen a copy of Now That’s What I Call Beethoven! But I’m confident it exists… Yet in amongst the dross are rare gems: Mitsuko Uchida’s set of live concert piano concerto recordings with Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker (BPHR 180243) is a perfect case in point. But perhaps the most interesting and, in some ways surprising example that I’ve come across is this set of the symphonies, performed by the small ensemble Le Concert Des Nations, directed by the iconoclastic Jordi Savall, a man best known for reinventing (or reintroducing) the Viola Da Gamba and recording a veritable flood of early music on original instruments. Ever a Savall fan, I was first astonished, then amused and finally intrigued to see him taking on not just Beethoven, but the symphonies at that.
I bought the first set (symphonies 1 to 5) on impulse, only to discover performers and performances alight with energy, life and vigour, full of purpose and balance and perfect contrasts, imbued with Savall’s effortless grasp of musical language and idiom. These were symphonies that were full of emotion, drama and humour, performances that showed Beethoven’s most popular and familiar works not just in a new light, but from a totally different – and utterly captivating – perspective.
Les Concert Des nations revolves around a core group of 30 players. Augmented here by extra musician’s drafted in, the aim of the project was to play and record the symphonies on the number and type of instruments that Beethoven’s orchestra would have used, along with the musical directions and scores he would have used – at least as far as possible. That means an orchestra of between 55 and 60 players (rather than the 100-120 more familiar these days), original instruments (naturally) and Savall’s musical genius behind the baton (of course).
The results are superb. Far from being ‘small’ or ‘lightweight’ this is music played with serious attitude and intensity. Look at the accompanying booklet(s) and you’ll see the orchestra crammed into an impossibly cramped church transept, the closely packed instruments and solid surrounding walls generating a dense energy and momentum when required. Yet Savall’s deft phrasing and subtle direction draw unsuspected layers and nuance, instrumental conversations and musical contrasts from these familiar works. Your listening is constantly illuminated by small musical flourishes, details that remain subterranean with larger orchestras, jaunty lines and contrasts that are swamped in the ponderous sweep of heavier orchestration. It reveals a lightness of touch and a deep vein of humour – a whole new side to the Beethoven we so often hear…
The remarkable sound (especially fine from the SACD layer) and engaging performances have made this a ‘reach for’ recording whenever new equipment or new systems arrive – as well as (apparently) a surprise viral success amongst the SFO string players! There’s a sheer joie de vivrein the playing and direction that make this a perfect example of what recorded music replayed on a great system can achieve. How smart of Savall to limit his ambitions to the first five symphonies – or so I thought! Only to have the second set released, a set I approached with some trepidation. After all, could the performers repeat the quality and commitment of their earlier performances? Could the whole concept scale the challenges presented by the later, larger works? I needn’t have worried. Not only is the second set a roaring success, it is, if anything even better than the first!