John Nelson

Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 [Box Set]

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There are many interesting things about this cycle of the complete symphonies of Beethoven. For one thing, it is performed by the classically scaled orchestra Ensemble Orchestral de Paris under its Costa Rica-born music director John Nelson, a combination yielding a more flexible line and a more distinctive sound than the standard Austro-Germanic symphonic orchestra. For another, it was recorded in the Théâtre des Champs-Étysées, the fin de siècle hall in Paris famous for the riotous premiere of Le sacre du Printemps. For yet another, it utilizes the new urtext editions by Jonathan Del Mar, a decision that changes hundreds of details of articulation and balance.

This is all very interesting -- but it is not ultimately very convincing. Nelson's Beethoven is an irascible eccentric with a crude sense of humor and an eye toward the main chance. Clearly a first-rate conductor from a technical point of view, Nelson approaches Beethoven with less aesthetic veneration than personal intimacy, making his performances less artistic re-creations than private confessions. One is always aware of the theatrical element in Nelson's Beethoven, of the sense of posing for a portrait, thereby making his Beethoven less an enlightened idealist striving for infinity than a brilliant opportunist hoping to achieve immortality in his lifetime. Nelson's Ensemble Orchestral de Paris is a lean but vigorous ensemble with supple textures and pungent colors, and it responds to Nelson's approach with admirable energy and dedication; except for fans of the orchestra and conductor or those rare folks who have to hear every Beethoven cycle ever recorded, this set is probably unnecessary. Recorded in Paris at Ircam Espace de projection, Ambroisie's digital sound is strong, clear, and almost but not quite real.

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