The excellent WDR (Symphonie-Orchester des Westdeutschen Rundfunks), probably better known to collectors under its original name of Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, here provides full-bodied sound notable for the richness of lower instruments. Taken from live performances, the mastering is admirable with no audience noise and no applause. There is a resonant die-away at ends of movements that sounds entirely natural. The warm acoustic of the Köln Philharmonie suits Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s modern-orchestra approach to the Symphonies. He is not among the pro-metronome school of conductors whose obedience to the relevant markings tends to result in swiftness. Generally these are faster speeds than those chosen by distinguished conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Kurt Masur or Herbert Blomstedt in their admirably firm and straightforward readings but in Saraste’s hands most movements sound comfortably ‘right’ in pace. All repeats in the outer sonata-form movements are observed with the exception of the Finale to the Seventh, but in Minuets and Scherzos the observation of da capo markings is puzzlingly inconsistent, with disappointing omissions and unwonted additions.
The first two symphonies have an 18th-century feeling, while still representing Beethoven’s daring advance in terms of dramatic emphasis. From the very start of the First, the orchestra makes a bold sound. Timpani are struck authentically with hard sticks, and bassoons are given especial clarity. The calm, gentle Andante convinces but phrasing in the faster movements becomes literal, at times moving forward earnestly but unsubtly. The same feeling of solidity is evident in No.2, where a no-nonsense approach suits the strong outer movements where excellent balance assists the dramatic use of timpani. Unfortunately, however, Saraste chooses a tempo for the Larghetto which is near to Adagio. Although an ideal pace is adopted for the Scherzo the movement is misshapen – as also is the case in No.1 – both sections before the Trio are restated but on the final return only the first repeat is made – this sounds very awkward and the classical structure is undermined.
The approach to the Eroica is bold and emphatic. The reading of the opening Allegro con brio, though not quite so broad in tempo, is reminiscent of Klemperer. Solidity is a virtue here but detail is lacking in the coda. The Funeral March is appropriately grave and the great fugal passage all the more tragic for staying at a rock-steady, unhurried tempo. The fiery Scherzo with forceful horn-playing in the Trio is succeeded without pause by a dramatic finale in which the upper woodwind lacks prominence.
Recorded balance seems sharper in No.4, which sounds powerful, and the dynamic contrasts in the first movement hold the attention. Bassoon takes an important part, and is admirably defined; especially in the notoriously difficult solo for the instrument in the finale, played here superbly. The calmly-flowing Adagio is followed by a lively Menuetto in which, interestingly, Saraste launches into each of the two Trio sections ignoring the un poco meno allegro marking – but it works. The final Allegro ma non troppo is driven forcefully - greater detail here than in some of the companion recordings. Saraste takes little heed of ‘non troppo’ and I don’t suppose Beethoven would have minded since his metronome marking also seems to contradict his own instruction.
The decision to drive swiftly and angrily through the first movement of the Fifth is convincing. Those who adopt an almost identical speed to that of Saraste – notably the Kleibers (Erich and Carlos), Hermann Scherchen and Günter Wand – achieve much power and a give the essential sense of impatience. The same swiftness is there with Saraste yet the opening lacks vitality. Power and urgency appear only after the repeat has been made. Nevertheless there is drama here; the Andante is forcefully serious and the Scherzo is strong, yet there is an oddity. At the end of the first part of the Trio, two identical bars (Nos. 158 and 159) round off the section but in this performance only one of them is played first time through yet both are there on the repeat. The only reservation about the finale is that Beethoven’s adventurous addition of trombones and piccolo is not really noticeable.
Saraste takes a bright view of the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven’s reference to “pleasant cheerful feelings...” at the start is interpreted in a lively way, the beauty of the Brook and the jollity of the Peasants Merrymaking are well brought out and the Storm is ideally violent yet again the high woodwind do not make their presence felt – the flute flourishes in the Scherzo and the piccolo in the Storm go for nothing. This is an honest, generally stylish performance but the themes merit greater loving care.
In No.7 every tempo is suitable, even the rather slow view of the two Trios works in this context but unfortunately the asymmetrical shape of this movement is disturbing. To omit the second repeat of the opening Scherzo section yet repeat second halves of both Trios seems illogical. The choice not to observe the exposition da capo of the Finale is understandable but it does mean that it becomes the shortest movement and the proportions don’t seem quite right. The strings tend to lack impact (balances in the whole set seem to vary from work to work) but there is such force that the overpowering wind and drums make for exciting listening.
There is greater breadth in Saraste’s view of No.8, and the outer movements are weighty. Balance seems more convincing than in No.7, although the timpani make less than their usual impact in the minuet; outstanding horn-playing in the Trio though. Uncharacteristically, Saraste allows himself a little licence in terms of tempo for the final Allegro Vivace by slightly, (yet to good effect) tightening the dramatic climaxes.
Any conductor that makes the recapitulation in the first movement of the Choral Symphony as exciting as this clearly has good understanding of Beethoven’s intentions. There are also passages in which rarely-heard inner lines are finely in focus, but sometimes this is at the expense of themes allotted to the strings – even the repeated two-note downward phrase from violins at the very start gets lost, and it is inaudible when brought back at the start of the finale. Nevertheless, this is a considerable performance, spoilt only by the illogical treatment of repeats in the Scherzo where just the first, third and fourth are observed. In the Trio, the clarity of the bassoon gives a new aspect to this remarkable section. The swiftness of the slow movement does not quite match the overall conception; strictly based on the metronome, David Zinman managed to make sense of the implied rapidity but in Cologne, at this pace Beethoven’s inspired melodies tend towards the superficial. The Finale is interpreted with conviction. There is excellent solo singing, notably Tareq Nazmi’s confident introductory bass solo and the unforced eloquence of Maximilian Schmitt’s tenor episode. The chorus is admirably powerful, especially when responding to Saraste’s forceful view of the climaxes. The recording again shows interesting detail, but percussion is poorly represented. Despite excellent timpani, the bass drum, triangle and cymbals are barely audible. The conductor takes Beethoven’s Prestissimo indication for the final twenty-one bars literally, and the effect is thrilling.