Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Mandy Fredrich (soprano), Marie-Claude Chappius (mezzo-soprano), AJ Glueckert (tenor), Tareq Nazmi (bass), Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, September-October 2021, September 2022, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy
No text or translation
Dynamic CDS7950 [5 CDs: 395]

Although Zubin Mehta has had a long and distinguished career as a conductor, his recordings seem to tell a different story. After a sensational start with recordings in Vienna and Los Angeles which are still in circulation and admired, his later recordings seem to have attracted much less attention. However, he is very much a musician of consequence and so, when I found out that in his late eighties he has finally recorded a Beethoven symphony cycle, I was intrigued to find out what he made of it. In fact, he has recorded some of the symphonies previously, but not, I believe a complete cycle.

Mehta was for a long time Chief Conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, where he has both conducted opera (I saw an excellent Figaro there with him years ago) and made symphonic recordings. He has chosen to make his Beethoven cycle with them, and these are live recordings. I wait to be proved wrong, but I think this may be the first Beethoven cycle given us by an Italian orchestra, though goodness knows they must have played these works often enough in concert.

As this is traditional big orchestra Beethoven, I thought I should compare these versions with a well-known and well regarded set which is also big orchestra Beethoven. I chose Barenboim’s 1999 set with the Staatskapelle Berlin, originally on Teldec, but now on Warner Classics – I have the 2017 reissue.

I have to say straightaway than Mehta starts out at a disadvantage. His orchestra is a decent second-rank orchestra. Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, however, is a front-rank one and you can tell this in such things as the more precise balancing of chords, better ensemble in tuttis, the gusto with which they play, the adroitness with which they manage sudden shifts in dynamics and the sheer quality of the wind playing. And there is a depth and richness to their sound which is simply not there in the Italian orchestra. Mehta does not make the adjustments to the orchestration which Wagner and Weingartner recommended, affecting chiefly the brass parts, where the instruments of Beethoven’s day were unable to play a complete chromatic range. I myself think it is mistaken piety not to use these, particularly in playing the works with a large modern orchestra, and I note that Barenboim adopts them.

The first symphony sets the tone. Despite the size of the string body, Mehta ensures that the winds come through, though for some reason the bassoons seem fainter than the rest of them. The woodwind playing itself is delightful.  The dynamics are scrupulously observed, and I liked the distinctions between sf, ff, fp and sudden piano so characteristic of the composer. Mehta’s tempi are unexceptional.  In the slow movement the phrasing is closely observed. The scherzo is somewhat heavy on its feet, but the trio is deftly done. The finale is neat and precise. However, when I turned to Barenboim it was a different world. His orchestra was bursting with vitality, fiercer and more intense, keen to press on and relishing the dynamic contrasts. In comparison, Mehta’s performance, though adequate, seemed lacklustre.

Fortunately, matters improve rapidly in the second symphony, where I felt there was a greater urgency in the playing. There is better shaping of phrases in the opening Adagio, and more incisive rhythm in the Allegro. I was particularly pleased by the precise wind chording in the second subject, and, in the development the sense of mystery before the vigorous fugato which the orchestra engaged in with relish. The Larghetto is taken at a flowing speed and the ornamental writing for the violins comes over well. The Scherzo, however, though neat is not specially exciting. In the finale, Mehta manages to make the main theme sound less trivial than usual, and he builds a fine sense of tension in the climaxes. This is altogether a better performance.

Mehta is much too easy going in the opening of the Eroica. The phrasing is beautiful but there is a distinct lack of tension, particularly when compared to Barenboim’s account. This lasts up to the big dissonant climax in the development, after which things improve considerably, and I particularly liked the way Mehta shaped the rising bass line and the famous long drawn out return of the opening theme. Something similar happens in the Funeral March second movement, where again the tension is slack until the big double fugue in the middle, which is finely done, as is the rest of the movement. The Scherzo is neatly observed but lacks the urgency which Barenboim brings at an only slightly faster tempo. In the grotesquerie at the opening of the finale honours are even between them and this continues through the first fugato up to the march variation, where Mehta is sluggish where Barenboim is fierce. The second fugato, in which the themes are inverted, is far more pointed by Barenboim. In the Poco Andante honours are about even until the sublime haunting passage just before the final Presto, where the strings and wind answer each other in double notes. Here Barenboim manages a sense of mystery which Mehta just misses.

The fourth symphony is the most successful performance so far, and I really enjoyed it. This is largely because Mehta here keeps the momentum up, including in the Adagio, where he keeps it moving. There is nimble work by the strings in the outer movements and good playing by the wind choir throughout – incidentally, the microphones must have been adjusted, as the bassoon line is perfectly clear. Only in the Scherzo is there a touch of sluggishness.

The fifth symphony relies even more than most Beethoven on a strong force driving the music through, except in the easy-going Andante, a deliberate contrast to the rest of the work. It is here that Mehta excels, nicely characterising the individual variations. The quick movements go reasonably well, except that he totally fails to convey the sense of menace in the Scherzo, except in the recapitulation and transition passage to the finale, where the main theme is played pizzicato and pianissimo on the strings, where he does manage it. Here Barenboim is fiercer and Carlos Kleiber, in his celebrated version, positively ferocious. However, at the recurrence of the scherzo theme in the finale, the most haunting passage in the whole work, Mehta completely fails to catch the atmosphere. The triumphal music, however, is satisfactory.

I thought Mehta’s easygoing approach would suit the Pastoral symphony, one of Beethoven’s happiest works and this is indeed a satisfactory but ultimately a rather ordinary performance. I liked the way he kept the Andante going, though the wind seemed a bit out of sorts at the beginning. The peasants’ merrymaking was cheerful enough and the storm adequate though hardly alarming. In comparison both Barenboim, and also Böhm in his classic version, whip up storms of Wagnerian proportions, but then they are both Wagnerians. The final thanksgiving after the storm was also rather restrained.

The seventh symphony, like the fifth, needs a strong driving force. I had not thought anyone could make the first movement dull, but that is what Mehta does. There is insufficient momentum and insufficient contrast. The strong accents which help drive the music on are simply not there. Add that the opening tutti chords are unacceptably imprecise and that the slow section tends to plod, and the performance gets off to a weak start. Listen to a few minutes of Barenboim here and the contrast is almost painful. Fortunately, the remaining movements are much better. The Allegretto shows Mehta at his best: it really sings. The Scherzo has the sharp accents which the first movement so sadly lacked and the finale, though not of the highest voltage, also goes with a will.

The eighth symphony, though short, is fierce, particularly in its outer movements, and I did wonder how Mehta would get on with its offbeat accents, sudden explosive outbursts, equally sudden silences, abrupt changes of key and occasional rather alarming jokes. It opens weakly with imprecise playing and a stodgy feeling giving a sense of dragging; fortunately, the repeat is much better, and the performance somewhat recovers. But Barenboim relishes the strong contrasts and presses on, though not going noticeably faster. The Allegretto goes much better, with neat and nimble playing from Mehta’s forces, though the fortissimo outbursts are scarcely forte. The main section of the Tempo di menuetta  – a rare indication at this stage of Beethoven’s career – is dull, though the bassoonist acquits herself well in her solo, as do the brass in their fanfares. The Trio, however, really suits Mehta and it goes well, with nice interplay between the horns and the principal clarinet. Mehta treats the finale as mainly a witty, dance-like piece, which almost works for much of it, but Barenboim surely has the heart of the matter in driving it hard, arguably too hard, but it is a fault on the right side.

The ninth symphony starts well but the first movement loses momentum about halfway through the development section, and the tremendous moment when the opening material returns, but this time fortissimo, which Tovey said was like the heavens on fire, goes for nothing. The scherzo is stodgy, lacking the wit and force of Barenboim’s version. However, the serenity of the slow movement suits Mehta. He keeps it flowing, but not so fast as to obscure the increasingly elaborate writing for the violins, which are given time to phrase and shape their lines. There is some fine playing by the wind too. The Schrekensfanfare at the beginning of the finale and on its return is far from alarming, and the orchestral statement of the joy theme is rather dour. Matters improve when the voices come in, and Mehta has an excellent team of soloists and a large and enthusiastic choir. Matters improve further at the Alla marcia. The ensuing double fugue could be more exciting, but the return of the chorus is excellent, and all goes well up to and including the invocation of the stars where the creator dwells. From there to the end is all fine, and I should note that the sopranos hit and hold their high A to splendid effect.

The five discs are housed, not, as is normal nowadays, in cardboard sleeves in a box, but in an expanded jewel case. The booklet is skimpy in the extreme and does not include the words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. Fortunately, these can easily be found on line. The recording is live and is adequate. Applause is included.

I cannot disguise my disappointment with this cycle. Only a few days ago I was listening to Mehta’s well-known recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, made in Vienna in 1975 and still sounding splendid. What has happened to that fiery young conductor? Perhaps he has simply left it too late to record his Beethoven cycle. He is now in his late eighties. By comparison, Barenboim recorded his in 1999, when he was fifty-seven – Beethoven’s age at his death. Some conductors retain their vitality into old age; sadly, Mehta has not. How I wish he had made his Beethoven cycle during his glory days in Vienna or Los Angeles.

Although I used Barenboim as my point of comparison, as offering a well-regarded big orchestra Beethoven cycle, there are plenty of others. If you want big orchestra Beethoven there are Jansons and Chailly among recent contenders. Older ones include Karajan (1962 or 1977) and Szell. If you would like historically informed performance practice (HIPP) then there is Abbado’s final Berlin cycle or Mackerras’s Scottish one. If you want period instruments, the obvious choice is Gardiner. Compared to any of these, Mehta is simply not competitive.

Stephen Barber

Previous review (Blu-ray): Gregor Tassie (November 2023)

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