Kent Nagano / Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - O Mensch, Gib Acht!

(CD - Analekta #AN 291505)

Review by

This box set is a compilation of the individual Beethoven symphonies releases by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and conductor Kent Nagano, recorded live between 2007 and 2014 at a pair of venues, the Maison Symphonique de Montréal and the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Montreal's Place des Arts. Those spaces differ in their acoustics, and in general the sound here is not a match for that achieved in concert by the top orchestra house labels in Britain and America. It's tempting to say that the box set brings out the worst in the individual versions while not emphasizing the good points. The set retains the thematic titles of the original recordings, for example "In the Breath of Time," which is somehow supposed to apply to the Symphony No. 6 in F major Op. 68 ("Pastoral"), the Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, and an orchestration of the Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133, all at once. The explanations by Nagano and a pair of other annotators do little to clarify these; individually they can be dismissed as quirky, but stacked up like this they are a morass. Further, some of Nagano's readings work decidedly better than others. He takes most of the music at tempos ranging from fast to blistering (the opening movement of the "Eroica" Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, is a notable exception), and the results vary. The Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36, and Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60, are the most successful, generating a good deal of tight energy; the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, comes off as stiff and punishing to the soloists. All this said, Nagano set out to come up with really original Beethoven interpretations, and he has succeeded. The brisk, rather undramatic energy with which he approaches these works does not sound much like anyone else's versions. And the inclusion of a few symphonic works beyond the nine symphonies in the set is a novel idea that works well for the listener even if the overarching themes are a bit murky. These include the genuinely obscure Opferlied, Op. 121b, which may be worth the price of admission, and they have been shorn of the excessive pastiche The General (by annotator Paul Griffiths), complete with dramatic reading, that appeared along with the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, on the original recording. The price is certainly right, and the bottom line is that this is fresh Beethoven affirming yet again that the last word has not been written on the big nine.

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