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Fanfare Magazine: 45.4 (03-04/2022) 
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Reviewer: William Kempster


Most human cultures recognize the concept of a “miracle,” or events and/or actions that are described as being “miraculous,” and this is outside of the more specific interpretation of that concept tied to religion. In this regard, therefore, the existence of the second volume of Jordi Savall’s Beethoven Revolution is genuinely a miracle. When this ambitious project was commenced in 2019, no one could have predicted it would have been so rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, or that its completion would have to be undertaken in the middle of that pandemic. Nor would anyone have been able to predict the personal toll COVID-19 would inflict on many of the performers involved, least of all the 80-year-old conductor himself, the man whose vision this extraordinary set of recordings represents. Exactly a year ago, I gave the first volume of this series—the first five symphonies—a rapturous review in these pages. I am thrilled to say that the completion of the project—Symphonies 6 through 9—carries on from Volume 1, retaining very similar approaches and achieving similarly wonderful results. This new recording completes a Beethoven symphonies set that represents, in my opinion, not only the greatest interpretation of these iconic works ever set down, but also a genuine landmark in the history of recording itself.


I will not review these performances in quite the same detail as I did with the five symphonies of Volume 1 in the January/February 2021 issue of Fanfare (44:3), as all of the more general comments I made there—concerning the playing, the recording, the conducting choices with regard to things like tempo, dynamics and articulation—apply here as well. All of the new recordings, bar one, were made in the same space as those in Volume 1, the one exception being Symphony No. 8, which was recorded in Wroclaw, Poland. I will address this in more detail below.


The four symphonies of Volume 2 are presented on three hybrid multichannel SACDs: the Sixth Symphony on the first disc, Seven and Eight on the second, and the Ninth complete on one SACD as the third. As usual with Alia Vox, the presentation is outstanding, with a 270-page booklet in five languages, replete with dozens of color plates. It is fascinating to find in this booklet some images taken in rehearsal at the numerous Beethoven 250 “Academies” that were a part of the preparation Savall and Le Concert des Nations dedicated to this project. There were four such “Academies” for each set of recordings, Volumes 1 and 2. It is exceedingly rare these days for a professional orchestra to have dedicated “sectional” rehearsals, but photographs in the booklets confirm that this was indeed the case here. The benefits really show, as these recordings feature just stunning playing from all concerned.


The recording of the “Pastoral” symphony here is glorious, and should appeal to just about everyone. Period-instrument ensembles and conductors are often accused (mostly unjustifiably) of taking tempos that are too fast, or doing unpredictable things just for the sake of it, but here I can’t imagine even “traditionalists” taking issue with tempos or pacing. Savall and his orchestra capture the beauty and serenity to be found in the opening two movements quite wonderfully, and it would be a cold and heartless person who would not respond with a smile. Moving from the third movement into the storm, and then through to the Finale, however, sees this performance graduate from the excellent—up until then—to the exceptional. I have never heard these movements played better, with all the principal winds, in particular, quite stunning in their color, technical proficiency, wit, and nuance. The detail in the lower strings in this recording is tremendous, and the timpani is very present and dramatic when required, but never “boomy” in the audio mix. It is my impression that the left to right balance in the recording of this symphony is perhaps not quite as good as in all of the recordings of Volume 1, but that may also be on account of Beethoven’s string writing, which is pretty Violin 1 heavy in this piece.


Moving on to the iconic Seventh, things are perhaps even better—mostly. In the first movement’s introduction, tempos are spot on, and there is a delightful interplay between the “dramatic” and the “cajoling” that many performances seem to miss. This leads into a Vivace that also seems perfectly paced, with the horns quite magnificently heroic in their big moments. There is a freshness and a dynamism to the playing here that is enormously impressive. The development is tightly rhythmically controlled, and the inner detail exhibited by the recording makes you want to listen as if hearing the piece for the first time. The wonderful bass ostinato that drives the movement towards its end is tremendous here, and the movement closes in exultantly triumphant fashion.


It seems to me that both the middle movements strike exactly the right tempos in Savall’s new recording. The second movement particularly shines in this regard, as the sadness and gravitas of the music is balanced perfectly with its undeniable dignity and power. Once again, the audible detail in the inner parts is quite a revelation here. This is actually somewhat surprising, as the acoustic is quite reverberant, and at the end of loud passages one can count at least four seconds of decay. Nonetheless, the recording is always exceptionally detailed and has amazing immediacy. In the third movement, the timpani is fabulous, and the tempo relationship between the outside sections and the musette-like central Trio is exactly correct. This is not something one can say about every performance of this movement.


Only in the Finale would I be slightly critical of the tempo taken by Savall, as I find this drags just a little. Having said that, in the one recording where I find the tempo to be better, if still not quite ideal, Carlos Kleiber’s legendary 1976 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, Kleiber is only 15 seconds faster for this roughly nine-minute movement. Savall may even have been aware that the tempo might have flagged a bit towards the end, as just as the coda is starting, there is an almost imperceptible pick-up, which really helps to make the ending as thrilling as it certainly should be.


As alluded to above, the recording of the Eighth Symphony was not made in the Collégiale du Château de Cardona in Catalonia, Spain—as were all eight others across both volumes of Savall’s cycle—but at the National Forum of Music in Wroc?aw, Poland. It has to be said, unfortunately, that the Polish recording is not quite as good. The space itself is just slightly inferior to Collégiale du Château de Cardona, and there is nothing that could really have been done about that. It is not that the sound is bad, by any means, and if this recording were being evaluated alone it would still be classed as excellent. By comparison with the Catalonian recordings, however, there is certainly not as much depth to the sound. Where the soundstage for the Spanish recordings places woodwind and brass back in a three-dimensional soundstage, the perspective for the Polish recording is much more two-dimensional. Channel balances are also slightly different, with the front right and rear left channels noticeably more present in the Polish recording compared to the Catalonian ones. The string sound is also a little more strident—close-sounding—in the Polish recording. One wonders why this symphony, and this symphony only, was not recorded in Catalonia. One might suspect that it could also have had something to do with COVID-19.


If the recording of No. 8 is perhaps not quite as fine as the others, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the performance itself. The opening Allegro vivace e con brio is quick and exciting—definitely “con brio”—and the brief second movement is equally convincing. The Minuet is terrific, especially regarding the fine detail in the Trio section. This sets up the fast and furious Finale superbly, and Savall and his ensemble do not disappoint. This is exhilarating playing, and the “closeness” of the string sound, mentioned above, may actually help here, as the playing is made to sound just that bit more visceral as a result. If the ending does not get you out of your seat, nothing will. Thrilling stuff!


Before coming to the Ninth, I would like to make just one general observation: in comparing the four performances on Volume 2 of Savall’s Beethoven Revolution to the five presented in Volume 1—while things are very similar—I would suggest that one can discern a slight element of perhaps “fatigue” in some of the playing to be found in the new set. There are just a few instances where the ensemble is not quite as outstanding as it was across Volume 1, and the tuning is not always quite as good. Of course tuning is also a matter of opinion, and even though I would probably be regarded as very “picky” when it comes to this, I was never really bothered by it here. Considering the circumstances under which these recordings were made: with mask-mandates, stringent restrictions on movement, and constant fear in the wider community, it is pretty miraculous that this “fatigue” did not affect these recordings much more. Perhaps these performances, therefore, are even more gloriously life-affirming than they might have been had COVID-19 not reared its ugly head. That Savall and his musicians were able to overcome these conditions and still so magnificently communicate Beethoven’s uniquely triumphant message for us all is cause for rejoicing.


Now we come to the Ninth, a symphony on which many a Beethoven cycle has floundered. By now we certainly know what to expect in terms of the orchestral playing, but what about the last movement? Will the soloists be good? What about the choir? These were the questions that were uppermost in my mind when I set out to play the Ninth, and I must admit I therefore listened to the Finale first, before later coming back to the symphony as a whole from start to finish.


For the first three movements, I was never worried, and each is great. Once again, tempo choices are outstanding. There is nothing outlandish here, and indeed Beethoven’s often-lambasted metronome markings (generally used here) are once again proven to be exactly right. The first movement is tremendously intense and exciting, especially in the development section, where the low strings shine new light on just how visionary was Beethoven’s incredible imagination with regard to scoring. The second movement, too, is outstanding. The tempo is quick, but no more so than most performances these days. It is the detail and the constant interplay of contrasting tone-colors that stands out in this performance, again illuminating the genius of Beethoven’s orchestration. Once again Savall takes the Trio at exactly the same tempo when it arrives, trusting—unlike some conductors—that the composer knew exactly what he was doing. The gorgeous “slow” movement—not that it is really a slow movement in the sense recognized in most 19th-century symphonies—is lovely, with melodic lines in the strings projected with passionate, glowing warmth. And all without vibrato! This is what Beethoven imagined!


In the instrumental opening of the Finale, it is particularly fascinating to hear the extended quasi-recitative for cellos and basses played as it is here. Most people know Savall himself is a virtuoso viol player, and I am sure this came to bear on the actual sound he envisaged for these passages. Having the instruments play with no vibrato at all, and to make the most of their astringent capabilities—with the addition of some wonderfully evocative phrasing— transforms this passage into something so much more convincing than I have ever heard previously.


For these recordings, Le Concert des Nations was augmented by hand-picked players under the age of 33 from all over Europe, with a view to pass on to these next-generation players some of the experience of more seasoned original instrument performers. A very similar method was employed in order to create La Capella Nacional de Catalunya as the choir for the Ninth, whereby the soloists of the already extant La Capella Reial de Catalunya were augmented by young singers from all over Europe, auditioned in Paris and Barcelona in 2021. For the soloists, it is hard to imagine Savall himself not being the prime-mover when it came to their selection. The results—with one rather bizarre qualification—are exceptional.


It has always just blown my mind that most professional singers can collaborate with period instrument performing ensemble, listen to the strings play without vibrato, listen to the woodwind and brass section leaders perform similarly, and then warble their way through their vocal contributions with a style of vocal vibrato that simply did not exist when this music was written. Thank God (or Beethoven, and Savall) this is not the case here, where the solo quartet is outstanding: young voices, very well trained, but eschewing excessive vibrato, and not afraid to sing with straight tone if that is what the music requires. And that is what this music requires, more often than not.


It is also a huge relief to be able to report that the solo quartet is not recorded as if they were all 20 feet tall. When the quartet is singing, the balance with the orchestra and the chorus is about as good as it could possibly be, and the soloists are not too far forward. That said, there is one artificial aspect of this recording that goes counter to what I have just said regarding balance. For the extended bass-baritone solo with which the texted part of the last movement of the Ninth begins, the baritone is placed hugely front-and-center, at many times life-like volume and presence. But, after this, he is recessed further back in the mix, the same as all the other soloists. This was a somewhat bizarre engineering choice in my view, but it is saved from being a disaster by the fact that Swiss baritone Manuel Walser sings this section superbly well, with the wonderful and authentic German required. It is a bit weird to then next hear him probably 10 paces further back, but in the end I didn’t mind it, as it does give his extended monologue a compelling sense of heroic gravitas.


The chorus is superb in this performance, and despite its modest size the balance with soloists and orchestra is excellent. The tenors are particularly glorious. Better still in this complex final movement, Savall’s many tempo choices are all totally convincing. There are none of the moments I am sure most listeners who know this piece well have all experienced, where a particular passage strikes one as being too fast or too slow, or where an accelerando or ritardando has been superimposed on the music by the conductor for dubious reasons. This, therefore, is a pretty uncontroversial last movement, but one that just totally convinces, and certainly had this listener in tears of joy by the end (both times).


Before wrapping up this review, I feel compelled to address a particular criticism I know some will draw in response to these performances. There are a couple of wonderful videos available online of concert performances of Nos. 6 and 7 recently given in Hamburg as part of this Beethoven Revolution project. In one review I read, the writer states that he found the playing a bit “rough.” This reaction is typical of some seasoned music-lovers who find the actual sound of a period instrument ensemble in this repertoire too different from their previous experience to be able to actually appreciate it for what it is. To clarify the point I am making here, I would suggest that if a period instrument ensemble such as Le Concert des Nations were to put out a set of the Shostakovich symphonies there would be outrage. Why then is the opposite so different? Why is it that some people cannot come to terms with the sound of a period ensemble for music that has, more often than not, been performed wrongly for the last century or more? The playing here is not “rough,” it is spectacular, and if people don’t like the sound of a period orchestra, then they can listen to something else, as there are plenty of terrible-sounding options available! In the case of the present recording, that something else, however, sure isn’t Beethoven. The only single down-side in any of these recordings—in terms of the sound of the instruments themselves—is the decidedly lame bass drum in the last movement, but if Beethoven could have heard these performances he would have been rapturous beyond belief. Only in the composer’s own head did this music ever approach what we now have before us in this wonderful set of recordings. I am just glad I lived long enough to hear them!


I concluded my review of Volume 1 last year with this: “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.” For Volume 2: ditto.


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