On Oct. 13 in Europe and Oct. 20 here, the Wiener Symphoniker released Beethoven Symphonies 1/ 3, the first disc in a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies recorded with Music Director Philippe Jordan. After eight months in which Philippe Jordan has conducted all the symphonies with the Vienna Symphony in Vienna and on tour in China, this will be the first of five bi-annual releases culminating in fall 2019 with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The performances in this cycle were recorded live in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna.
I must confess that Beethoven’s first symphony is my least favorite of his nine symphonies. Admittedly, it has some serious competition, for example, from the third, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth, which together may be the greatest five symphonies of all time. I even prefer the second, fourth and eighth to the first. But the third is my favorite symphony by anyone and, perhaps, my favorite piece of music, period.
So I was quite surprised when I listened to Philippe Jordan’s version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 with the Vienna Symphony — and loved it. Though perhaps less well-known outside of Vienna than the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony has premiered some of the great works of the symphonic repertoire (e.g., Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand) and has seen some of the world’s great conductors stand at its podium (e.g., Herbert von Karajan, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Gennadij Roshdestvensky).
Beethoven’s first symphony has many features that make it more Haydnesque than Mozartian, including the slow introduction to the first movement, the andante second movement, the short minuet in the third movement, and the Allegro molto y vivace finale, which are all Haydn, but with hints of the revolutionary symphony to come (No. 3).
Under Jordan’s direction, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s playing of the first symphony is superb. I usually don’t like it when conductors get their orchestras to play fast, but in this case the fast, but not too fast, tempos increased the excitement of the performance. Combined with an exceptional recording in which the listener can hear clearly all the instruments, this performance of the first symphony may be the best I’ve ever heard. It is bright, crisp and thrilling and had me wanting to get up and dance.
Then I listened to Jordan and the Vienna Symphony’s version of the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica.” What makes the third symphony so great is… everything: The melodies, the orchestration, especially with a relatively small classical orchestra, and the rhythmic and emotional intensity in almost every movement.
Now, given the greatness of the symphony, I’ve never heard a performance I didn’t like. But there are very few performances I’ve heard that I want in my library. Philippe Jordan’s is now one of them. Even a great symphony doesn’t play itself, and Jordan and the Vienna Symphony have taken a great symphony and made it greater.
That’s not to say that Jordan didn’t add some of his own ideas. For example, there were a few places where he changed the dynamic markings from forte to piano just to emphasize the build back up to forte. And, in a few places, for example, in the fourth movement right before the Presto at the end, Jordan put in a rest. He did these things in places I wasn’t used to, so it kind of threw me. But even if I didn’t like them, and I’m not saying I didn’t, his overall vision of the symphony was revelatory.
Like he did in the first symphony, Jordan took the movements at a pretty quick clip, but not so fast that they didn’t still pack a big punch. He fashioned each movement as a masterpiece unto itself. And the playing by the orchestra was as inspired as Jordan’s direction.
Finally, I have to mention the recording. The recording is bright and in-your-face when you need it to be. The separation of the instruments in the speakers, especially with the horns in the Trio section of the third movement, is spectacular.
If you love Beethoven’s third symphony as I do and would like to be very pleasantly surprised by a refreshing and great performance of his first symphony, then I recommend that you rush out (or stay in) and get this recording.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
Learn more, listen to tracks and purchase the CD at https://www.wienersymphoniker.at/en/media/beethoven-symphonies-nos-1-and-3.