Frans Brüggen first turned his attention to the music of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies in the 1980s, using period instruments. Now, his quest undimmed, he returns to the glories of Beethoven’s orchestral music for a new cycle being issued in a sumptuous hybrid SACD box set on Glossa. Likewise undimmed is the rapport he shares with his orchestra for one of classical music’s greatest challenges by way of concert performances: Brüggen has long distanced himself from studio recordings.
One of the best period instrument cycles.
The piano remained the main instrument of Beethoven throughout his life, and this specially priced 4-CD box set represents his entire and sizeable output for piano and orchestra, starting with the early Piano Concerto in E flat, WoO 4 – a work of tremendous energy and great technical demands, which Beethoven wrote when he was just twelve years old – and ending with Piano Concerto No. 5, the only one that Beethoven never performed himself in concert, due to his developing deafness.
The film received a pasting from UK critics but as the soundtrack chooses from a vast archive of great performances, it’s possible to retrieve something from the experience. The opening track, the Grosse Fuge, is a bold choice given the wider audience for whom this soundtrack is aiming. It receives a magnificent performance from the Takács Quartet which is as finely attuned to the music’s jagged outcrops as its sheltered byways. The uninterrupted flow of the sweet and soulful second movement of the third Razumovsky is pure poetry in their hands. Ashkenazy gives a brilliant but never rushed performance of the finale to the early Sonata in C minor and his straightforward manner in the Arietta from Beethoven’s last sonata is illuminated by the very clear Decca recording. Haitink’s performance of the finale of the Ninth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw and a quartet of soloists led by Lucia Popp does not storm the heavens and I don’t ever recall being so aware of this movement’s proceeding by paragraphs. However, it would seem to have found a comfortable place in a well planned and wide-ranging celebration of Beethoven’s genius.
One of the many delights coming from Frans Brüggen’s distinguished career has been the understanding which he brings to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – such as here with the St. John Passion – whether on the concert platform or on record. Brüggen’s cultured feeling for Bach’s musical structures as much as for its style and expressive content permits a textural clarity enjoyed by few of his directing colleagues. A special wealth of experience in the music of Bach has also been gained by the members of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century across the three decades of its existence and as part of its regular concert series (there have now been over a hundred of these tours!) and with a concentrated opportunity to focus on one work, Bach’s masterpiece was performed and recorded in Spring 2010.
"The virtuosity and unanimity of the VPO strings command the highest respect. The grave opening fugue, the brilliant scherzo and the impassioned finale sound terrific … a fabulous disc." - Gramophone