Though I don’t usually care for chamber-sized Beethoven, Paavo Järvi’s exciting new cycle with the forty-some strong Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen gave me much pleasure. The playing is sensational: alert, responsive, virtuosic—a good thing too, since Järvi usually tries to observe Beethoven’s controversially fast metronome directions. Although the approach here derives from period- instrument practice, the Bremen’s are modern instruments, excepting only the valveless trumpets; yet Järvi indulges little vibrato, the sec sonorities lean, clean, mean. Using the new Bärenreiter edition (like David Zinman in his similarly conceived 1999 Arte Nova set), Järvi is fully in the modern mode: little “expression” as such, tempos held once set. The readings are energetic, often thrilling, usually thoughtful, yet also driving, objective, “classical,” rarely deep or probing, never “romantic.”
Although these digital recordings were originally released in SACD on RCA, this vinyl set is a separate mix taken from the DSD masters. (It appears some members of the orchestra, audiophiles who love the format, lobbied for it.) The sound of both the SACDs and the LPs is superb of its kind: clean, transparent, dynamic, brilliant and clear, with little or no warmth and richness, like the orchestra itself. Is the vinyl better? The presentation appears a little more open, integrated, and well ventilated, and is somewhat livelier, the SACD smoother, a bit darker, more “contained.” Since both processing and mix are different, who can say the SACDs wouldn’t exhibit traits similar to the vinyl if given the equivalent TLC treatment? Dally not, however, if it’s the LPs you want, as the ($350) edition—deluxe all the way, 180-gram pressings, mastered in Germany, classy red slipcase, full-sized booklet—is limited to 999 numbered copies worldwide (available in the US from elusivedisc.com).
First up was the Fourth, that little wonder between two giants, the first and last movements taken at an astonishing lick (the way the horns sound out in the former’s coda absolutely thrilling). The Eighth, another little wonder, gets similar but fiercer treatment. Despite the chamber-sized forces, Järvi’s exquisitely shaded dynamics and driving rhythms make the piece sound gigantic. He plays the Seventh with no pause between movements, an idiosyncrasy for which I can find no precedent. The Vivace chugs along vigorously with little abandon, while the relentlessly fast Allegretto almost becomes a forced march, which gives it a bizarre effectiveness. Järvi’s differentiation between the outer parts of the Presto (fleet and quicksilver) and the Trio (powerful and grand) is outstanding. His whirlwind Allegro— possibly the fastest I’ve heard—is a tour de force of speed, control, and articulation, withholding full power until he goes into overdrive for the recapitulation and coda, where I was lifted out of my seat.
The Eroica’s Allegro is thrustful con brio, care over dynamics meticulous without being fussy (listen to the chords near the beginning); the Marcia funebre, strong and assertive, is more triumphal than tragic (greater weight of tone would be nice); the Presto apportions delicacy and boisterousness in ideal measure. Perhaps because Järvi has been so attentive to scale and dynamics before the Finale, its variations don’t come as a letdown (glorious coda, spectacular horns). Like the Seventh’s, this is an involving, thoughtful interpretation that doesn’t reveal its full logic until the very end.
For me Järvi’s approach works least well in the first two movements of the Pastoral, textures insufficiently rich, phrasing insufficiently lambent. The brook scene is gentle, smooth, undulating, but it’s still seen in blacks, whites, and grays. Not until the peasants’ merrymaking does the performance spring to life; then does it ever! How Järvi relishes all those chirping, cavorting winds, the slashing strings and piercing brass in the thunderstorm. Surprise of surprises, the “Hymn of Thanksgiving” is beautifully, expansively plangent.
Those famous “unbuttoned” chords in the First are disappointingly po- faced; otherwise, it’s a well-articulated performance (listen to the melody of the second movement or the way the opening of the last movement is phrased, how the pauses are timed). The Second’s Allegro is breathtakingly energetic, only the slight ritard at the very end disappointing (I wish Järvi had driven straight through). He plays the Adagio’s lovely melody with considerable involvement, but here of all places a little extra juice from the strings wouldn’t have hurt. The Fifth gets us back on track with a powerfully dramatic performance: the famous motif implacable, the Andante’s shifting moods splendidly modulated, the Scherzo muscular, the last movement triumphant with no bogus rhetoric.
Which bring us to the Ninth. The first movement eschews mystery in favor of elemental objectivity (the central climax immense, tympani cutting through to scary effect); the Scherzo is so infectiously pointed it sounds almost dancelike, making those famous off- the-beat tympani thwacks all the more antic; the Trio is light, spirited, delicate. The Adagio is neither molto nor cantabile, but it does flow. The Finale begins with clangorous urgency, as called for, yet the overall feel of the rest, despite the fast tempos (the Turkish march breathlessly so), is surprisingly extrovert and joyous. The soloists all have light voices, as befits the chamber approach, the choir similarly sized and excellent, though recorded perhaps a bit distant. Like the Eroica and Seventh, this is a highly individual reading carried to the hilt, and it sweeps the cycle to a finish at once swift and rousing.