Charles Mackerras

The Beethoven Symphonies Live from the Edinburgh Festival

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A live set of Beethoven's symphonies is almost guaranteed to have some flaws, and as much as one may enjoy the exciting playing on this 2006 Edinburgh Festival cycle by Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra, audio defects detract a little from the package. In the four discs with the first ensemble, there is an intermittent hiss that resembles faulty breathing or the excessive rustling of pages; this is most noticeable in the softer passages of slow movements, though it is sometimes detectable in the Allegros. Furthermore, the microphone placement is close enough to the players that other incidental sounds were picked up, so sensitive listeners can find numerous spots where the reproduction is a little too faithful to reality. But these are minor problems for anyone who can get past surface distractions to appreciate the bravura style Mackerras brings to the SCO's performances of the symphonies Nos. 1 through 8, and the Philharmonia Orchestra's potent rendition of the Symphony No. 9. These are not exactly "period" performances that scrupulously follow practices of Beethoven's time, but it's clear that Mackerras has absorbed the best scholarship and interprets the music in that spirit. His tempos are not abnormally fast -- except perhaps in the Adagio of the Ninth -- and the playing is not fussy, but the music feels fleet and lively and the execution is direct without being brusque. One wishes that the timpani were a bit less thunderous in the recording of the Ninth, but this is the only egregious aspect of this thrilling performance, possibly due to the unusually close miking. Hyperion and BBC Radio 3 have made this set an attractive offering for fans of Mackerras, and others may appreciate it for its vitality and zest, even if its sound quality is not ideal.

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