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 Recording of the Week  Beethoven Symphonies from Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Simon Rattle has described performing a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies as “not only an Everest to climb, but an extraordinary journey in its own right”. No doubt this imposing sense of tradition is even more acute if you just happen to be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, who through conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Claudio Abbado, and Herbert von Karajan have something of a formidable pedigree in this music.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle

Even when faced with such a noble tradition, in this new set recorded in October 2015 and released on the orchestra’s own label, Rattle ensures that there is no sense of creaking under the weight of history, bringing his own interpretative insights to every single one of these pieces. Tempos occasionally tend towards the fast side, particularly in the first movement of the Eroica, the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, and the Trio of the Fifth Symphony. In the latter example the clarity of articulation and unanimity of purpose from all sections of the string department, but most notably the cellos and basses, is especially impressive. Those cellos and basses excel themselves again in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony: their tone, quality of attack, and intonation during their recitative-like passages are all immaculate, a perfect demonstration of the sheer class that this orchestra brings to this music.

Not everything is fast just for the sake of it, though, and Rattle allows space where the music needs it: the Funeral March of the Eroica is suitably solemn and grand, the slow movement of the Ninth is warm and expansive without ever grinding to a halt, and in the Scene by the Brook from the Pastoral he offers an amiable stroll through the countryside (incidentally the end of that movement contains some of the most delightfully characterised bird calls from the principal woodwind players that I have ever heard!)

I lost count of the number of times I was staggered by the transparency and balance achieved. I could hear absolutely everything in the score: from the quietest of bassoon burblings to the most delicate of string counterpoint, it was all effortlessly audible. Of course this is in part a testament to the expert recording engineers, but no less so to Rattle's keen ear for detail. This is most evident in the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony: about ninety seconds or so before the end, there are some piccolo runs that usually have to fight to be heard over the rest of the orchestra. Rattle's solution is quite brilliant: he changes the articulation of the orchestral chords so that the players hit each one and then immediately decay, which means that the piccolo can cut through without having to fight. It's a simple alteration but incredibly effective, and demonstrates Rattle's thoughtful and perceptive treatment of these symphonies.

There are plenty of other examples: he adds a diminuendo here and there in the First Symphony, and throws in occasional off-beat accents in the Scherzo of the Eroica to create a thrilling hemiola effect. Everything fizzes and crackles with energy, and there's a drive to the last movements of the First, Fourth and Seventh Symphonies that is extremely exciting, with the infectiously exuberant rhythms thrusting, throbbing, and leaping out of the speakers. I should add that the choral singing from the Rundfunkchor Berlin in the Ninth Symphony is exemplary. Not only is their diction impeccable in even the most punishingly unrewarding bars of Beethoven's choral writing, but they sing with such discipline that there's not a stray consonant or untidy phrase ending to be found.

This new set is certainly a lavish production – as well as five CDs you get a blu-ray audio disc with all nine symphonies in uncompressed, studio master quality audio, filmed concert performances from the Philharmonie on two blu-ray video discs, and a code to download 24-bit audio files from the orchestra's website, so you can't complain that they're not giving you enough ways to enjoy these performances! The live video performances are a treasure, as it’s wonderful to see the interaction between Rattle and his players. So, a fine set that can easily hold its head high amongst this orchestra’s several previous recorded encounters with these symphonic cornerstones.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (complete)

Annette Dasch (soprano), Eva Vogel (mezzo), Christian Elsner (tenor), Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass), Berliner Philharmoniker, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Rattle

Available Format: 5 CDs + 2 Blu-ray Videos + Blu-ray Audio