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Is there a musician alive right now who can claim the sort of career and achievements accomplishments of the great Catalonian viol virtuoso, conductor, cultural ambassador, musicologist, record-label-creator, writer, editor, and humanist, Jordi Savall? Just the sheer number of CDs Savall has produced—it must be getting close to 250 or so by my count, which is more than six a year ever since the CD was invented—is mind-blowing, and every one of them under the label he created (Alia Vox) is a masterpiece of production values, let alone the stratospherically high standards of musical performances he inspires in every one of his extraordinary diverse and talented collaborators. Amidst this, Savall—having just turned 79—still maintains an exceptionally active performing schedule as a viol virtuoso, as well as his conducting, and all his other projects. Then there is Hespèrion XX, and after that, Hespèrion XXI. The man is a miracle.
So, in the Beethoven year of 2020, it is hardly surprising to see that Savall’s latest project is a complete set of recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. It is a venture that has been tragically interrupted by COVID-19—with only the first part able to be completed—but that does not diminish the triumph represented by what has so-far been done, namely the recording of the first five symphonies, all played by the crack specialist period instrument orchestra Savall himself founded back in 1989: Le Concert des Nations. Never content to accept any half-measures, Savall’s latest project entailed assembling a hand-picked iteration of Le Concert des Nations made up not just of their regular players, but also of the very finest of the new, younger generation of period-instrument players from across Europe, all individually auditioned by Savall himself. Next came a period of detachment from the outside world, where Savall and the players got together in four “Academies”—held from April through September 2019—to immerse themselves in all aspects of Beethoven’s world, before then performing these symphonies in concerts across Spain, France, Germany, and Italy in the last quarter of last year. The recordings we now have were put down in sessions at the Collégiale du Château de Cardona, Spain, in October 2019. I will now go through these performances in detail from first to last. The review of the First Symphony is a little longer than of all the others only because here we set some standards and benchmarks for performance values that will hold true throughout the entire set, so much of what is spoken of in a generic manner regarding the Fist Symphony will apply across the board.
I simply cannot believe that the First Symphony has ever been performed better than this, anywhere, any time. This is a performance to treasure, to rejoice in, to be inspired and to be thrilled by. Wow! From the very first entry, everything—the playing, the recording, the conducting, the music—is utterly compelling. From the brief, almost otherworldly introduction, to the sheer infectious joie de vivre that then bursts forth, this is astounding playing. We know what to expect from original-instrument woodwinds, brass, and timpani, and we get that in spades here immediately. No bland or ever less than fascinating sounds are ever to be heard, and the playing from these instrumentalists is right up there with any of the best period ensembles anywhere. The timpanist, in particular, brings something to this music that has simply never been heard before, and needs to be heard to be believed.
But it is the string playing that is truly, truly astonishing. I have never heard any orchestral strings—period or modern—play this music anywhere near as well as do this hand-picked group of virtuosi. The detail, the unanimity of articulation and dynamics, the perfection of the bowing, the intonation—all leave one in complete in awe of the magnitude of the achievement being witnessed here. Clearly Savall’s preparation for these performances (already mentioned above) has paid off in ways hardly imaginable, and it is such a privilege to listen to music-making on this utterly exalted level.
If the first movement is a revelation, the revelations just keep coming as the symphony unfolds. The second movement is taken at the absolutely perfect tempo, emphasizing the “con moto” of Beethoven’s marked Andante cantabile con moto. It is just amazing to hear how every single note has presence, vitality, and life, with the central development simply incredible in its revolutionary characterization and unprecedented dramatic intensity. (Indeed, I was struck on many occasions throughout both the First and Second Symphonies just how revolutionary they both sound in Savall’s hands: every bit as much as the “Eroica,” in fact).
The third movement was never going to disappoint, and it surely doesn’t with the palpable excitement of the supposed “Minuet” section (this movement is absolutely a “Scherzo” rather than a “Minuet and Trio”; the nomenclature just hadn’t caught up to Beethoven yet!) contrasting gloriously with the milky wind playing in the Trio.
But the best, believe it or not, is still to come with a Finale of astonishing bravura, conviction, and virtuosity that just beggars belief, and left me (literally) in tears of joy even on the fourth playing over numerous days. In this movement, the interplay and imitation between groups of instruments, the simply unbelievable exposed unison playing by the first violins, the constantly hair-trigger-sprung rhythmic excitement, and the edge-of-your seat intensity of Savall’s focus on the manifestation of Beethoven’s singular genius unfolding before us all, is simply thrilling: a musical experience that cannot under any circumstances be missed.
It is also impossible to overstate the importance of the part played by the recording itself in what I have just described, as this (all three CDs) is simply the finest audio recording of a Classical-period orchestra I have ever heard, bar none. I am an unashamed supporter of multichannel SACD/Blu-ray Audio as simply the finest reproduction technology that has ever been available for recorded sound, and this recording is an unqualified masterpiece. The impact, the sense of “being in the space,” the fidelity to the actual sounds of (and within) the ensemble in the space itself, is simply extraordinary. Even more miraculous is the fact that this is a micro-detailed recording, but in a space with a full four seconds of acoustic reverberation. The result is truly, truly special, and the full utilization of the rear channels—allowing the listener full-immersion into the experience—is something that all recording companies should aspire to, lest the critically endangered species that is multichannel audio die of criminal neglect.
As we have begun, so we now continue with Symphony No. 2. Again, from the opening chord, which is unleashed all around the listener, we know this is going to be a special experience, and throughout the introduction to the first movement, the listener is held in dramatic suspense. This is visceral music-making: stopped horns, acerbic attack from the low strings, pungent timpani strokes, fantastic bass presence: everything is there right in front of you, only—when the first movement proper begins—to be unmasked in mischievous and scintillating ways by the sheer élan of the playing and interpretation that unfolds.
As we saw in the First Symphony, the tempo in the second movement is also perfectly captured. Yes, this will be faster than some listeners will have been used to, but these days it really is not that fast. Indeed, I will take the opportunity to state this right now: there is not a single moment in any of the performances of any of these symphonies where the tempo set by Savall seems too fast. Not a single moment. More: every single player in this orchestra is clearly more than able to play every single note at the tempo demanded. Very, very few orchestras of any description could boast that level of artistry from every single player. I have never heard a period-instrument orchestra present the sort of gossamer string sounds that feature here, and the only reason this happens is that every single player in every section is playing in tune (without vibrato). Gorgeous!
The third movement is equally compelling and convincing, but I am prepared to almost gloss over this so as to get to the last movement more quickly! I have long held great affection for the last movement of Beethoven 2, ever since—if I remember correctly— Karajan’s second complete set, when he took the Finale far faster than was approved by the then conventional wisdom. I thought it was amazing. This is more amazing. We are now far more used to hearing this movement at the “right” speed, and the playing here is just stunning. When the end is in sight the glorious passages featuring everyone—particularly the cellos and basses—going at it hammer and tongs on rapid, almost mechanical-sounding sixteenth-note passagework, is utterly thrilling.
So, now we come to the “Eroica,” and many people will be aware that this symphony was indeed recorded earlier by the same forces—back in 1994 at exactly the same venue—a recording that was later remastered onto multichannel SACD and rereleased in 2016. That has long been my reference “Eroica,” and it will not come as any surprise that Savall’s new 2019 reading is very much consistent with the 1994 recording, especially in terms of tempo for the first movement, where the old recording is 15:23 and the new one is 15:31. That said, while the first movement is indeed similar in both recordings, after that (and even during that), the new recording is also clearly subtly superior. For the rest of the symphony, however, the new recording is markedly superior to the older one, and truly vindicates Beethoven’s original concept. Even in Savall’s first recording I often felt that movements 2 through 4 of the “Eroica” were a bit of a let-down after the monumental first movement. Not here.
The Funeral March has surely never sounded so war-like and threatening, and it was just the next year that Napoleon invaded Vienna, so the portents of doom were well justified in this visionary score. That said, the contrasting major second section has also never sounded more struttingly majestic, and the massive climax at around the five-minute mark is overwhelmingly glorious. Of course this makes the return to the war-like music of the opening—now extended—all the more impressive, and Savall and his orchestra are simply extraordinary here, extracting haunting, creepy, and even terrifying sounds from their seemingly inexhaustible palette of colors.
The outer sections of the Scherzo are characterized by exactly the sort of restraint and also complete abandon that the music absolutely demands, and the orchestra is just as tight as a drum throughout, with all the syncopated accents and implied cross-meters always detailed with exquisite precision. In the Trio, the natural horns are as bucolic as I have ever heard them and surely rightly so. They must have had such a great time, and it shows!
If in some hands the variations last movement can perhaps be tricky to pull off, that absolutely cannot be said of this performance, which starts uproariously, and then proceeds to showcase the dazzling array of Beethoven’s orchestral imagination. Once again, the detail in the playing and the sound itself is absolutely spectacular, and the final Presto is simply mind-blowingly thrilling and exultant. This is a truly great “Eroica.”
It was very difficult when first encountering these performances not to go straight from one stunning performance immediately on to the next, as the experience really is quite intoxicating. Before attempting these reviews, however, I made myself take time between listenings to allow impressions to really settle, and I didn’t write anything until I had heard every symphony at least three times right through. I was really looking forward to number 4 because I feel that symphony has been wrongly cast in a shadow, separating as it does the two titans 3 and 5 on either side. I was not to be disappointed!
In the introduction to the first movement one is immediately struck by the liquid-smooth sounds emanating from the wind players, achieved by beguilingly warm and in-tune straight-tone. Allied with a few moments of perfectly placed rubato from Savall, this opening has surely never been so picture-perfect. Of course the incredible contrast this sets up for the movement proper in and of itself further exalts the effect here, and the palpable excitement the rest of the movement achieves is ever-present. The orchestral balances achieved here are exceptional, with absolutely everything crystal-clear and always in the right quantity. The weight in the low strings is truly spectacular, and dynamics are pungently executed when that is what Beethoven wanted, or inexorably controlled and graded at other occasions. The timpani-induced transition into the recapitulation is far, far and away the best I have ever heard.
In the “slow” movement we immediately hear a compelling contrast created between the emphatic dotted rhythms that punctuate the beautifully controlled legato manner with which the melodic material is presented. There is some absolutely gorgeous wind playing here, just two highlights being the silky clarinet solo half-way through, and—just before the end—the most beautiful flute sound imaginable upon the final recall of the opening of the movement. Just stunning.
Many commentators have remarked that this symphony shows the influence of Haydn, and while I simply don’t agree with that for the first two movements, I do hear echoes of Haydn in the last two. The quasi-Scherzo and Trio third movement is oddly—but symmetrically—proportioned, with the Trio returning a second time, contrary to the expected fashion, and resulting in an ABABA structure. The wind work in these twin Trios is exemplary, and the ideas that Beethoven tosses around, up and down, in and out, of the strings in particular in the “A” sections is always spectacularly well played.
The final movement of the Fourth Symphony is also somewhat Haydnesque in its never-ceasing good humor. Once again here just the intricate detail in both the playing and the recording is quite amazing, and the aural impression of the orchestra in what must be an incredibly rewarding space in which to perform is truly magical. This movement can also easily sound almost trite, but in the hands of a great conductor like Savall it is utterly and completely compelling. The playing—once again—is flawless: detailed, at times beautiful, at other times visceral; always virtuosic, and never, ever anything but totally committed to the music.
So we come to the last—sad to say—symphony in this set: the iconic number 5. I mention below the famous version conducted by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic, which dates from 1975, and that is a great, great recording. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would hear this piece done better, but now I have, and it is not really even very close in the end. Everything the Kleiber has this new Savall has as well, but it is simply also better played, and the recording—unsurprisingly—is simply in a different class, a different galaxy even.
The tempo for the opening movement is great, and not at all over-the-top. Once again the low strings and timpani are particularly sensational, driving the music forward with unquenchable energy and vitality. The development is dramatic and mysterious, and the recapitulation is ushered in with just the perfectly judged amount of rubato, rightly eschewing the horrendous full-scale ritardando and halt some conductors seem to think works here. The long coda just seems to build and build without limit, and once more the timpanist is triumphant at the end!
For the variations second movement, Savall takes the perfect tempo, and throughout this movement what fascinates is how masterfully conductor and orchestra characterize the dual facets of the music: the highly articulated and finely etched gestures that are primarily rhythmic in nature, and the totally different treatment received by the ideas that are melodic in function. In fact, this aspect of the music-making is one of the great triumphs of the set as a whole, and here it is showcased quite superbly.
The Scherzo is wonderful. After all that has come before how could it not be, but it is the Trio—in both of its iterations—which is so utterly electrifying. The cellos and basses play the living daylights out of this, and I guarantee you will jump out of your chair when you hear the spectacular timpani-driven hemiola in the climactic phrase both times around. This was one of the many occasions I was forced to shout out loud over the top of the recording when I first heard it (and perhaps all the other times too!).
After this, that magical transition into the sheer unabashed joy of the Finale was all one hoped it would be, and the final movement is just fabulous. If there has ever been more exultant music ever written then I have certainly not heard it. Everything is right here: the braying, brazenly heroic horns, the full brass, the driven strings. Piccolo and contrabassoon are heard to make their own special impact, and the final Presto is just breathtaking. I just cannot imagine how gloriously, wonderfully, thrillingly exciting it would have been to have been present at one of the concerts these inspiring musicians presented prior to recording this set.
I have made comment at various points through this review about the quality of the recording itself, and I just wanted to underline the fact that I find this simply the best orchestral recording I have ever heard. The multichannel SACD sound places the listener right within the orchestra, and I simply can’t imagine a better place to be to experience these life-asserting performances. When experienced in a full-range multichannel system, the detail, timbral fidelity, dynamic range, acoustic imaging, sense of space, and sense of occasion conveyed by this recording is simply incredible. All of this has been achieved in a space with four seconds of reverb, and it is therefore not surprising that clearly the Collégiale du Château de Cardona is Savall’s preferred location in which to record. Bravo to everyone involved. Of course the recording is also beautifully packaged (as are all Alia Vox releases), with a 156-page multi-lingual booklet including many color plates of the recording sessions and original score pages.
How to wrap up these performances then? I have lived these symphonies for my entire life. The first set I owned (on vinyl) was Karajan’s second complete survey, and I have since owned complete sets by Norrington (period instruments), Gardiner (period instruments), Harnoncourt (modern instruments), Zinman (modern instruments), and Rajski (modern instruments/SACD multichannel). Then there are the many single recordings, including Carlos Kleiber’s justly famous accounts of 5 and 7 (remastered on SACD), through to Honeck’s highly regarded 5 and 7 on Reference Recordings (multichannel SACD). For Symphonies 1 through 5, all these recordings have brought great enjoyment over the years, but all of them are now superseded by Savall’s new set, which has set the bar so high for these works that I find it difficult to believe they will ever again be equaled. The only thing that disappoints here is that the complete project was interrupted by COVID-19, and I fervently hope Savall gets to complete this landmark recording venture in the coming year or so. That will be something to truly look forward to!
I have no doubt that some reading this, admittedly, complete rave-review, will disregard it as being just too over-the-top for words: surely nothing can be that good! At the risk of validating that potential criticism even further, however, I am going to double-down on the hyperbole and state the following: in my opinion, there has never been a finer recording made of any music, at any time, in any genre, then this recording of the first five Beethoven symphonies. This recording represents the very best of what humanity has to offer, and—especially at this harrowing time in human history—it should be rejoiced in and celebrated for the truly glorious achievement it is. Only people such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Jordi Savall can save humanity from total annihilation, and every politician on the planet should be made to sit down and listen to this until they finally get it.
This recording is a priceless gift beyond measure to us all, and I hope every person who reads this review will go out and buy this straight away. You will be immensely the richer for it, and may even see some hope in the world again.