A complete set of Beethoven’s Symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is to be issued, released at intervals in time for the 2020 celebrations of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth-anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. They will be taken from Philippe Jordan’s concert performances during 2017. Symphonies 1 and 3 give a good indication of his approach – generally swift and refreshingly free from the imposition of whims, but it is clear that he takes each work on its merits and certainly the difference between these two Symphonies is recognised.
The C-major Symphony is very taken rapidly – especially in the Finale – but this is music that responds to vivacious tempos. In the 1950s Fricsay and Toscanini took this view convincingly and today Abbado, Chailly and Zinman do likewise. Where Jordan differs however is in his treatment of texture. The music sweeps forward but sforzandos are not strongly projected (Beethoven requires these contrasts), and despite the speed this is a calm reading – trumpets are not aggressive in their rising phrases at the end of the first movement, timpani do not strike through in their quiet yet threatening sequences in the Andante and are mild in their sudden forte entry near the close of the Finale (bar 180). There is plenty of expression however – one example being the softening at the end of sequences of repeated notes, and sometimes woodwind passages are caressed so carefully that it is not always possible to hear every detail during rapid passages. The chosen speeds are retained except at the Minuet da capo, which returns uncomfortably faster.
The ‘Eroica’ is given with well-judged pace even though the ‘Funeral March’ is swifter than usual. I returned to the earliest-ever Vienna Symphony Orchestra recording of this work, with Jascha Horenstein – big, uncompromising Beethoven given huge breadth with the timpani parts powerfully stressed and, despite the limitations of the early-1950s recording, tremendous fortissimos. Horenstein and Jordan take the same amount of time for the opening Allegro yet Jordan observes the repeat. The sudden holding back of four heavy chords at the end of the exposition and on their subsequent reappearances momentarily detracts from the eagerness of Jordan’s reading, but in the second-movement ‘March’ he holds precisely to the metronome mark, as does Zinman, but justification is to be found through the steadiness of the rhythm. The tutti outbursts typify the nature of the sound – colourful surge rather than rough-hewn attack. The lively Scherzo and Trio sweeps along brightly although the wild syncopations are understated, followed by an ideally short pause before the well-structured Finale is given with notably skilful playing from the woodwinds but there is a somewhat polite coda.
These renditions bode well for the remainder of the series – there is an element of understatement but these are satisfying interpretations carefully thought out.