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Ludwig van Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies
Camilla Tilling (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Issachah Savage (tenor), Ryan McKinny (bass-baritone), The Washington Chorus, National Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Rogers (artistic director), Gianandrea Noseda (music director)
Live recording: Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C. (January 2022 [First, Third, Fourth, Fifth], May 2023 [Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth] & June 2023 [Ninth]) – 338’26
Five SACD set and two Blu-ray (of symphonies and film performance of Ninth) National Symphony Orchestra NSO0013 (Distributed by [Integral]) – Booklet in English and Spanish

For many conductors, recording the cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is one of the milestones of musical accomplishment. Gianandrea Noseda, music director, and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) (Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.) prove in this boxed set that they are ready for the challenge. In a series of live performances, with applause happily omitted, the conductor and orchestra offer a fresh view of these old favorites in CD and Blu‑ray collections. Although beginning with the First and ending with the Ninth, the symphonies are not presented in chronological order either in the collection or in the paragraphs that follow. I have reviewed several symphonies in pairs and devoted greater attention to my personal favorites.

Symphony n° 1 in C major (1799-1800), Opus 21, and Symphony n° 2 in D major, Opus 36 (1802)
Beethoven’s first two symphonies will forever be linked, one to the other, much as his first two piano concertos make an inevitable pair. The chief merit of the first two symphonies is to provide vivid testimony to Beethoven’s innovative, ever evolving approach to symphonic writing. For example, the First Symphony begins with a slow introduction in a foreign key (F major) and uses a more powerful dynamic range than that used by Haydn and Mozart in their compositions. In the Second Symphony, Beethoven is even more adventurous with his material in the first and final movements, with an energetic drive that hurls the symphony forward.

In this recording, there is no room for the pallid voices of early instruments. Noseda’s modern orchestra provides a rich, full sound which is consistent throughout the five CDs of this album (two Blu‑ray discs that duplicate the content plus include a film of the Ninth Symphony also are enclosed). Overall, the NSO’s performance of these two symphonies is warm and attractive, though I found the “Menuetto” in the First rather dull, and the second and third movements of the Second Symphony in need of some more expression beyond the playfulness of the “Scherzo”. Performances of both works are enjoyable if not particularly memorable.

Symphony n° 3 in E‑Flat major, “Eroica”, Opus 55 (1804)
Where we encounter Beethoven the titan is in the Third Symphony. If the first two symphonies are steppingstones, the third is a rocket launched amid a fiery explosion, barreling to the unknown reaches of the universe. Ideas and imaginings that have shaped Beethoven’s developing musical consciousness find full expression in this towering creation, which is long, syncopated, and as relentless as the beating of a human heart. While on their own, Noseda’s readings of the first two symphonies may have lacked fervor and, in some cases, direction, there is no doubt that they have taken Beethoven exactly where he wants to be. There is an apt inevitability in the way the Third grows out of the First and Second and discards them, like a spaceship shrugging off its boosters. If any listeners have nodded off during the two earlier symphonies, Noseda gives them a good shake in all four movements, with crashing discords—each one perfectly honed to the needs of the moment—that shocked by‑standers at the first rehearsal, and, indeed, shock us still today. The heartbreaking funeral march, the jubilant “Scherzo”, and an uproarious concluding movement, make this a triumph for Noseda and the NSO, a mesmerizing treat for audiences of any era.

Symphony n° 4 in B‑Flat major, Opus 60 (1806), and Symphony n° 8 in F major, Opus 93 (1812)
Symphony n° 4 begins with a three-minute-long, slow introduction, but once the main thematic material enters the picture, Noseda captures the snappy spirit of this cheerful work through to its conclusion. There are some wonderful displays by the bassoon and timpani, and a sense of connectedness, internally and in relation to the other symphonies composed by this time. The Eighth Symphony, completed some six years after the Fourth, begins immediately in a fresh, upbeat mood. Noseda captures Beethoven’s peculiar attitude in this work—a mix of the robust and the bacchanalian—in the opening movement and throughout. Did Beethoven really consider it his best symphony before the Ninth, as the story goes? I don’t think so. But Noseda gives it fair treatment, full of energy. I found some passages, that I had scarcely noticed in other performances, clarified in the conductor’s keen interpretation. This recording is a satisfying Eighth for musicians and listeners alike.

Symphony n° 5 in C minor, Opus 67 (1807)
Now, here is music. I told a fellow listener many years ago that I would never grow tired of Beethoven’s Fifth. And I haven’t. In fact, thanks to recordings like this one, I am still learning, appreciating, and most important, feeling this music in a way that combines the timelessness of the past with the immediacy of the present. I like virtually everything about this performance except the iconic opening eight notes. The off‑beat first four notes are fine, but I didn’t care for the way the next four rushed right in, as though that fermata didn’t exist. But my initial irritation was quickly ameliorated by passage after passage and section after section of breathtaking beauty wrapped in the cloak of power. That unparalleled crescendo that links the third movement to the fourth could not have been more enthralling. It still amazes me to think that the composer was working on n° 4, n° 5, and n° 6 at roughly the same time and concurrent with his struggles with deafness.

Symphony n° 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Opus 68  (1808) and Symphony n° 7 in A major, Opus 92 (1812)
And speaking of the Sixth, this is a lovely performance with the full resources of the modern symphony at Noseda’s disposal. One small observation, noticed particularly in the Pastoral, but also present in the other symphonies, is the way individual solos tend to blend in with Noseda’s vision of the work as a whole. If one wishes to be acclaimed for individualism in symphonic oboe passages, for example, the NSO may not be that musician’s first choice for a home base. I like to hear musicians having their moment in the sun and taking maximum advantage of it. Here, the solo passages still reflect the integrity of Noseda’s perspective and the brilliance of Beethoven’s mind, but the parts bow in deference to the whole. This is less obvious in Symphony n° 7, which opens with its glorious upward sweep, a sort of stairway to a heaven where we can snatch moments of ecstatic joy despite the onerous burdens of everyday life. So different from the symphonies just before and just after it, the Seventh gives Noseda an opportunity to unleash the orchestra’s pent‑up vivacity, and, in the enigmatic second movement, tease us with a glimpse of wonder and impenetrable mystery.

Symphony n° 9 in D minor, Opus 125 (1817‑1824)
And so we come to the end of the cycle, and perhaps the beginning of a new musical intelligence. Beethoven was possibly toying with the idea of the Ninth before he had even begun the First. In this recording, Noseda keeps the pace lively and connected, with a visceral energy that not only links the movements to each other, but also to the symphonies which have come before. The first three movements fare remarkably well in this interpretation, including the dreamy third movement which unfolds like a flower in time‑lapse photography. The discord which leads to the choral finale is assertive, if not sufficiently grating for my taste. It should shock and startle us like a stake through the heart of mediocrity. But this is a fine final movement, with well‑articulated performances by the four vocal soloists and a chorus brimming with conviction and beautifully modulated voices.

I left my audio room with some new insights into these nine symphonic pillars of Western classical music, and—with thanks as well to the poet Schiller—emerged a more appreciative listener for the experience.

Linda Holt




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