Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Abbado) – ‘Beethoven: Symphonies No.7 in A major and No.8 in F major’ A DVD-Audio review by Mark Jordan

On October 17, 1917, in unusually hot weather, the players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Dr. Karl Muck squeezed in front of a large recording horn in Camden, New Jersey, and made the first recording of the last movement of Beethoven’s ‘Seventh Symphony’. Now, nearly a century later, Claudio Abbado’s Deutsche Grammophon recording has come to DVD-Audio, allowing us to hear a great performance in a format better than anything Thomas Edison ever dreamed of. Interestingly, after we’ve been subjected to decades of alternately straight-laced, ponderous, and bland performances of Beethoven, Abbado moves the modern art of Beethoven interpretation forward by looking backward at historical performance styles. In doing so we come full circle: Abbado’s fast and fleet rendition seems like a latter day fleshing out of the exhilarating fragment we have from Karl Muck in 1917 (only the master for the first half of the movement has survived). Though Harnoncourt, Norrington, and Gardiner have reminded us that there is much to be learned from detailed study of books and letters from Beethoven’s time, both Muck and Abbado (as well as Erich and Carlos Kleiber and a very few others) prove that interpretive greatness takes a performance to the heights instinctively, whereas scholarship is ultimately only a map.

Most conductors slow down over the years, their performances broadening out radiantly. In Beethoven, however, Claudio Abbado has done the opposite. In his Vienna Philharmonic recordings of the Beethoven cycle in the 1980’s, his tempos were often broad and not entirely convincing, as if he were going through the gestures of a traditional Furtwängler-style interpretation without truly believing in it. By the time Abbado redid the cycle late in his tenure in Berlin, his concept of Beethoven had undergone a complete makeover, becoming lithe, clear, and light on its feet. It takes courage and insight to change, especially when the artist is so far into an established career, and Abbado deserves enormous credit for daring to remake and remodel his conception, for refusing to be satisfied with a stale tradition.

This ‘Seventh’ ultimately carves out a niche among the finest recordings of the piece. Abbado’s tempos are swift, his phrasing flexible, and his commitment strong. There is an amazing sense of forward flow from event to event that reminds us that no matter how athletic and balletic this work may be – and in Abbado’s hands, it is very much so – it nonetheless stands tall as a rigorously symphonic piece, too. Considering Abbado’s carefully controlled poise, it is interesting to see his adrenaline briefly get the best of him: The finale takes off like a bat out of hell, at a tempo that proves not quite supportable. But the burst of excitement is exhilarating, even if the main tempo eventually settles in ever so slightly slower than that opening dash.

To compare this to other important ‘Sevenths’, Abbado is sleeker than the late great Carlos Kleiber’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, also on Deutsche Grammophon (its multi-channel reissue on Super Audio CD is reviewed elsewhere on this site); nor is he as volcanic, though Abbado can fly like the wind where he wants to, such as in the aforementioned finale. Kleiber remains treasurable for his uncanny way of always finding freshness at the core of this music, whereas Abbado maintains more reserve. With Abbado, one is more aware of the polish (and what polish the Berlin Philharmonic provides!), but much life still pulses through the music. One could describe Abbado as atmospheric or airy in manner, which is very different from any of the recordings of this work made by Charles Munch. This was one of Munch’s party pieces, and his way with it was more earthy, both in richer textures and in heavier tempos. But one could also compare the two as a contrasting Apollo and Dionysus. Abbado is Apollonian, bright and pure, whereas Munch responded with his typical devilish gleam in a Dionysian fashion that builds up to an almost drunken frenzy in the finale. In that, Munch seemed influenced by the interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler, though Munch retains a French insouciance that the über-serious Furtwängler lacked. Speaking of great conductors of the monophonic era, Arturo Toscanini was always in his element with Beethoven’s ‘Seventh’, and both his New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony recordings are full of fire and fury. The latter is especially fury-laden, which may leave some listeners feeling more like they’ve been assaulted than entertained. In comparison, Abbado is gentler, with greater spring to his rhythms, and of course Toscanini’s orchestras don’t even approach the gleam of today’s Berlin Philharmonic.

Another earthy recording of the ‘Seventh’ which is not encountered as often as it should be is the live Columbia recording made at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1969, with the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals in his alternate role as conductor. Sony reissued several recordings of Casals conducting about a decade ago, and I advise snapping them up if you can find them (you might try the Berkshire Record Outlet), especially the disc that couples the Beethoven ‘Seventh’ and ‘Eighth Symphonies’. Casals is in no hurry in the ‘Seventh’, with pacing broader than is the norm throughout most of the work. But what is remarkable is his unwavering control that allows what may initially seem like rather foursquare tempos to accumulate an overwhelming momentum. The finale, for instance, is moderately paced, but Casals holds that tempo with an iron glove, letting the players dig into their parts with visceral intensity. The unbridled roar of the crowd at the end sounds like a tidal wave of pent-up energy being released. Some live recordings don’t replay well on disc, but Casals’ Beethoven ‘Seventh’ would be on my short list of all-time great live recordings of anything. It is not directly comparable in style to Abbado’s performance, indeed, it stands as perhaps the very polar opposite of Abbado’s graceful manner, and listeners who don’t restrict themselves to one approach would do well to acquire both.

One of the other greatest live recordings ever made is also of this work. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the piece in a pulse-pounding rendition with the Royal Philharmonic caught on the wing by the BBC during a Promenade concert in 1957. That performance is now available in the BBC Legends series, and it quite lives up to that billing, for no performance has ever outdone it in terms of forward-moving adrenaline. Some may find it a bit blithe and impatient, but it is exciting like no other. Even the Scherzo comes off well, despite Beecham’s infamous description of it sounding like “a bunch of yaks leaping about”. No one would want to turn to this rough-and-ready mono recording for sonic reasons, but it is an unforgettable snapshot of a masterful conductor at work.

Another great Italian conductor with an operatic background like Abbado is the now-retired Carlo Maria Giulini. If his later recordings bask in an autumnal glow equal to the late Bruno Walter, it is nonetheless instructive to revisit his earlier discs, which gleam with a poised fire quite distinctive to the younger Giulini. As Simon Rattle once pointed out when he guest conducted in Los Angeles during Giulini’s tenure there, the orchestra would have a dark, burnished sound left over from Giulini when he started rehearsals, and throughout the week it would fade because he didn’t know how to keep that sound. This dark, burnished sound is impressive indeed in Giulini’s 1971 Beethoven ‘Seventh’ with the Chicago Symphony on EMI, which was just restored to the catalogue in EMI’s essential “Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century” series. The performance is neither slow nor rushed, but the conductor’s steady hand allows a tremendous momentum to build up along the way, with the punchy Chicago horns living it up when allowed. What is interesting is that this was Sir Georg Solti’s orchestra at that time, yet if it weren’t for those lusty horns, it would be hard to tell. The legendary athleticism of the orchestra is turned to intensely lyrical ends in Giulini’s hands, with a much greater forward flow than can be heard in Solti’s own recordings of the work (for Decca) which nail Beethoven’s dancing feet to the floor with over-emphasized rhythms (a sin that could be charged against the Toscanini/NBC Symphony recording, too). Thus in its vocal phrasing and flowing coherence, Giulini’s approach is at least a distant cousin to Abbado’s. But Giulini’s lyricism is painted with rich oil colors on a broad canvas, which is worlds removed from Abbado’s deft water colors. Softer in contour and even more glowing in color is Giulini’s remake of the work with the La Scala Philharmonic on Sony. The voltage is not very high, but the heartfelt, singing manner is still there, in pleasant digital sound from 1991.

Among modern recordings, Sir Simon Rattle’s EMI recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is direct competition, inasmuch as Rattle has likewise been influenced by the historically-informed performance movement, using smaller forces, less vibrato, and more historically-aware phrasing choices. Rattle, however, can’t quite bear to give up the old, treasured, big-orchestra, larger-than-life, secular-humanist heroic image of Beethoven, and thus attempts a synthesis of the two approaches. It works well enough to make one suppose that this is the probable future path of Beethoven interpretations. But, as always, there’s nothing new under the sun, for Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven performances from the seventies achieved almost the same synthesis by pure inspiration, without all of Rattle’s academic chest-thumping and pulling of curly hair. In its finest moments, Rattle’s ‘Seventh’ reaches exhilarating heights, but there is an inescapable feeling of fussiness and obsessive detailing that makes it even more frequently a labored event, whereas Abbado is almost effortless. I suppose it ultimately depends on mood. There are times when I like to hear an airy performance of the piece, but I can imagine times when I would feel Abbado’s performance would seem too effortless, ungrounded.

Another historically-informed modern instrument performance comes from the complete cycle Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for Teldec in 1990. Harnoncourt is alternately spacious and swift, achieving a similar sheen to Abbado, but with a characteristically darker, heavier orchestral sound. Harnoncourt’s finale is so fast, the main theme is basically lost in the mad scramble. While this proves that a fast tempo can be sustained, it by no means proves that it is a good idea to do so.

There is much pleasure to be derived from Christoph von Dohnányi’s Cleveland Orchestra recording on Telarc. His entire cycle was largely dismissed when it first came out as being too unheroic, too deconstructionist, but those with a little more insight will have caught the breeze and recognized that he was a little ahead of the curve. Though it is hardly period-instrument Beethoven, it is scaled-down and demythologized, with a hearty vigor applied to the trademark Cleveland clarity. This sort of approach is becoming more and more standard over the years, thus making Dohnányi’s point of view seem much more insightful now than it did in the mid-1980’s. In fact, though, Dohnányi’s approach was not created out of thin air: His cycle is heavily influenced by the work of his idol and mentor, French conductor René Leibowitz, who recorded a brilliant though often overlooked Beethoven cycle for Reader’s Digest in the 1960’s, portions of which are now available on the Chesky label. Leibowitz was likewise not fashionable in his day, with his sinewy, intellectual approach to the composer. Among the current fashions, however, Leibowitz and Dohnányi stand prouder than ever, while many other cycles have become quaint relics of decades past.

One relic of the past that still commands a fair amount of respect would be the early 1960’s Beethoven cycle by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. In many ways, it marks the apex of Karajan’s style and career. Never was his velvet-covered steel more convincing than in that cycle, with his grandeur and lushness being mistaken by many (including numerous critics who should know better) for being the one real and true picture of Beethoven. In its own right, the ‘Seventh’ still stands impressively. Though human warmth is largely absent, the performance impresses with its majesty and sheen. And what is undeniably there is Karajan’s superhuman energy, galvanizing textures that in lesser hands (including his own in later years) could become a plush end in themselves, something akin to Mantovani for snobs. I make no secret of my unease with Karajan’s style, but I do not deny that at his best he was a stunningly great conductor, and his 1963 Beethoven is among his finest work. His remake of the cycle from the 1970’s is also good, and is being reissued on multi-channel SACD by Deutsche Grammophon, which should please Karajan acolytes. For what it’s worth, even most Karajan fans would agree that the third remake of the Beethoven cycle from the 1980’s is nowhere near the level of the first two, and should generally be avoided.

One detail of the 1962 Karajan ‘Seventh’ is instructive: Compare the first loud entry of the horns in the finale to Abbado’s (at about thirty seconds into the movement). The melodic idea starts in the horns, and then moves to the woodwinds, while the horns drop back to playing harmony. Beethoven, however, simply marked both horns and woodwinds with the same loud dynamic, evidently assuming that perceptive performers would sort out what was happening. (It is, of course, the failure of performers to adequately do just that which later inspired the exhaustively detailed instructions in the scores of Gustav Mahler.) Karajan, like far too many other conductors, fails to notice the melodic changeover from the horns to the woodwinds. Thus, the second half of the melodic phrase is completely lost in the orchestral texture because the horns are blasting away their harmony notes so loud the woodwinds can’t even be discerned. Abbado, on the other hand, has actually thought through what Beethoven was doing here, and has his horns suddenly lower their volume when they get to the harmony notes, so that the woodwinds can soar out above them with the continuation of the theme. Granted, Abbado eschews the larger-than-life glamour of Karajan, but the intelligence of his musical thinking makes one appreciate the genius of Beethoven all over again.

One other Beethoven ‘Seventh’ which should be mentioned is the Euro Arts DVD of Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic playing the work live in concert in Italy in 2001 (coupled on the DVD with the Beethoven ‘Fourth’). It is a fine performance, playable in good DTS or Dolby Digital surround sound. This concert comes from about two years after the Deutsche Grammophon recording, and it has a somewhat different feel, presumably because of what Abbado went through in those intervening two years: He was afflicted by cancer of the stomach, and was just beginning to recover when this concert was filmed. In it, he looks distressingly gaunt and frail, though enormously vitality is still there. Indeed, Abbado can often be seen smiling radiantly, finding the music to be the best medicine for curing himself. But the tempos are a little slower, except for the Allegretto second movement, which is even more urgent. Overall, the performance seems very fresh, but it also has less self-assured sweep than the 1999 recording. Coming as it does from the good but by no means exceptional acoustics at the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome, it also lacks the atmospheric wash of Berlin’s Philharmonie.

Indeed, the bright reverberance of the Philharmonie has often proved troublesome to recording engineers, but here the engineering of the multi-channel recording by Emil Berliner Studios helps sort out the sound, providing a dramatic sweep back to the rear channels whenever full, punchy chords are played. Some may find the mix a tad aggressive – it is impossible not to notice the sound from the rear channels here – but the acoustics of the hall lend themselves ideally to this sort of treatment. The sound remains brightly atmospheric, ideally exhibiting the gleaming sheen that this orchestra developed during Abbado’s tenure. Unlike several current conductors, Abbado keeps a traditional seating plan, placing the first and second violins on his left. The 96kHz advanced-resolution recording pinpoints locations so well, however, when the two violin sections pass motivic fragments back and forth in the finale, it is easily possible to tell which section is playing what. This layered depth of the soundstage gives this release a considerable advantage over the regular Compact Disc version, which seemed glassy and airless when I listened to it for comparison. It sounded as if all the reverberation had been squeezed down into the same plane as the original orchestral sound, making the orchestral image opaque instead of transparent. The multi-channel DVD-A, by contrast, gives a very pleasant sense of sitting not quite halfway back on the main floor of the concert hall, listening to sounds ringing out into the distant corners of the cantilevered balconies. The extra edge of the DVD-Audio may also come from the fact that it was specially remastered for this multi-channel release.

The notes point out that a small invited audience was present for the recording, but they do not contribute extraneous noises, nor do they dampen the liveliness of the hall’s acoustics. At the risk of belaboring a point, I reiterate that the high-resolution surround sound makes an enormous difference. The boomy sound of the standard CD version puts it at a disadvantage when compared against other CDs, to the point that it would rate only a 70% rating. The multi-channel high-resolution version, however, positively blossoms and moves this recording up to a strong 80% rating. The only reason I wouldn’t rank it higher is because of my personal preference for a closer perspective than what we have here. Anyone preferring a more spacious pick up should be delighted with it. The 96kHz 24-bit advanced resolution stereo program contained here is also an improvement over the regular CD, but when moving into higher-resolution formats, it would be a waste not to take advantage of the multichannel capabilities of a recording such as this, for they bring it to life in ways that no stereo recording ever could.

The coupling for this release is Abbado’s recording of Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No.8 in F’, written around the same time as the ‘Seventh’. Overall, though packing considerable punch in places, it is a lighter work than the preceding symphony, something of a throwback to Beethoven’s earlier works. With this in mind, Abbado reduces his orchestral forces to a classical-sized group in order to gain maximum clarity. His performance is a deft and bright one, falling into the general camp of those conductors who remember that Beethoven had a sense of humor. There are a great many performances that come off more or less heavy-handed, with the conductor trying to make the work sound like the heaven-storming titan of the larger symphonies, but even Beethoven himself acknowledged that he was in “aufgeknöpft” (“unbuttoned”) mood in this work. Thus, overemphatic and solemn performances are not ideal. Abbado keeps his tempos moving, while always finding plenty of space to shape the orchestral sound most attractively. Significantly, he finds the relationship of tempos from movement to movement that help tap into the lifeblood of this high-spirited music, without forgetting to cut sharply through the textures whenever Beethoven deploys one of his surprises.

The sharpest wit ever deployed in this work can be found in the hyperactive performance of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950’s, led by the unpredictable Hermann Scherchen in a recording that was originally released on Westminster, and has reappeared on other labels over the years. One hopes that Universal (who now owns the master tape) will release it on CD, as they have Scherchen ‘Eroica’ and ‘Pastoral’, although those have the advantage of being later stereo recordings, whereas the ‘Eighth’ is monophonic, and not even especially good monophonic, at that. But what a performance! Scherchen takes the work at a tremendous clip, matching or even surpassing Beethoven’s metronome markings. For instance, he rips through the notoriously difficult finale in six minutes and twenty seconds. One almost expects to hear the sound of players falling out of their chairs in exhaustion after the closing chord, or perhaps the sound of the them cursing the conductor under their breaths, but no other performance has ever matched it for thrills.

Pablo Casals is very effective in most of the work, although he plays it safe in the finale, going slow enough to allow the players to articulate the tricky triplets in the main theme, and thus losing much of his momentum from the previous movements. I remain fond, though, of Casals’ “let’s get on with it” approach the third movement Menuet, which so often seems interminable. The Casals is from 1963, and does not feature as good a recorded sound as the ‘Seventh’ discussed above.

The Dohnányi ‘Eighth’ shows more humor than this conductor is generally credited with, but it was one of his first recordings in Cleveland, and it sounds as if conductor and orchestra were still getting to know one another. Additionally, Telarc’s recorded sound from Severance Hall is less effective than their later recordings in the cycle (including the ‘Seventh’ discussed above), which were made in Cleveland’s large Masonic Auditorium.

The ‘Eighths’ of Rattle, Harnoncourt, and Karajan all fall prey to a misguided search for grandeur, and they largely miss the composer’s sense of fun (although Rattle shows a glimpse in places). Interestingly, one performance that does capture Beethoven’s humor, though at completely unconventional tempos, is the stereo recording from the late 1950’s by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI. Klemperer’s slow Beethoven is of course legendary, but the key characteristic of his style is that it never seems nearly as slow as the timings are indicating. Klemperer’s secret weapon was sprung rhythms. A conductor can take a much slower speed and still make it effective if he (or she) makes sure that the musicians are playing rhythms by feel, instead of as literally subdivided on the printed page. That crisp lift keeps Klemperer’s ‘Eighth’ from becoming bogged down in what would be elephantine pacing in less experienced hands. And Klemperer points up all of Beethoven’s surprises, giving his version a gruff sense of humor that seems as authentically Beethovenian as the faster feistiness of Scherchen or Abbado.

The extra features on this Deutsche Grammophon DVD-Audio title are fairly limited, consisting of a small gallery of photographs of Abbado, and a catalogue of his recent recordings, with audio extracts. But it should be mentioned that the program booklet contains a lengthy interview with Abbado, where he discusses his use of the new Jonathan del Mar critical edition of the symphonies, as well as more general matters both musical and spiritual. This glimpse into the normally shy Abbado’s thoughts is valuable and, moreover, is not included in the booklet for the standard CD version.

In sum, this is a very important release featuring one of the greatest conductors of our time leading highly insightful performances of core classics of the orchestral repertory. Abbado’s entire cycle is currently being released by Deutsche Grammophon on DVD-Audio, and has justly been nominated for the High Fidelity Review People’s Choice Award (which you can vote for elsewhere on this site) which will be presented at the Surround Professional Awards show in Los Angeles on August 31, 2004. Abbado’s main competitors in the high-resolution field are Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim, but I am convinced that Abbado has trumped them to give us the most important Beethoven cycle of our time.