CD Review: Beethoven Symphonies - BPO/Cluytens

Returning as one does to old favourites and hearing new things is a delight. This week I've been listening to Andre Cluytens' set of Beethoven symphonies recorded in the late fifties with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I found a remarkable record of the orchestra and this marvellous conductor in full flight.

Cluytens, a Belgian, was most often associated with recordings of orchestral music and operas by French composers and indeed that's how many may remember him now.  He was though an impressive Wagnerian by all accounts too.  His Beethoven cycle - the first in stereo and the first ever for the Berlin Philharmonic arose out of a remarkable - but monaural - account of the Pastoral symphony (still a recording to be treasured).  The cycle was recorded over the last years of the 1950s.  this set also includes several overtures recorded at the same time but I won't cover those here.

First thing to say is that this is a quite spectacular recording - the stereo separation is perhaps wider than we would expect nowadays but it all goes to show his grip of the entire breadth of Beethoven's scores and the fantastic playing of the orchestra which was still in the early days of the rein of Herbert von Karajan as it's chief conductor.  I dare say some will disagree but I found the sound to be of higher quality and transparency than the DG recordings of around the same time.  This set has been released on SACD in Japan (too expensive to import for many I suspect) but Warner could do well to issue it as a High Resolution download for those of us in Europe to get more from the original tapes.  One gripe on the Royal Classics transfer I heard is that the tracks have remarkably sharp cut off at the end which can snap one out of a beautiful moment.

The set overall is remarkably consistent - Cluytens is never quick but he is never too slow either, many repeats are taken and the sound quality is remarkably even.  His qualities are best heard I think in the even symphonies though there are many moments in the odd symphonies which will bring a smile.  I'd draw new listeners to his treatment of development sections and slow movement climaxes where he handles Beethoven's complex scoring with élan and spirit.  I think I enjoyed No 2 and No 4 for their freshness, No 3 for it's vigour and optimism, the bucolic splendour of No 6 is a comfort.  Only No 9 was by the high standards of the set a tad under par - the choir perhaps lacking bite and the middle movements somewhat ordinary.  Nothing is forced and only one symphony - the Ninth - seemed to me a little dated now in it's interpretation - though the choral and solo singing is excellent.

Comparison most naturally comes with Karajan's highly regarded cycle recorded in the early Sixties with the same orchestra. Cluytens is not so exacting on his orchestra as the Austrian and his engineers forgive more imprecision.  Cluytens does not explore the sheer explosive anger within Beethoven's music - and that seems to me a very necessary quality in the odd numbered symphonies.  But Cluytens does beauty readily - though there is much less that is exquisitely refined (some would say over -refined) in his approach.  Technically I didn't find many occasions where I found Cluytens flinching at Beethoven's more testing writing - Karajan glories in it.  The development on the first movement of the Eighth symphony is something to behold with Karajan (who by his last recording had abstracted it into the very essence of the Beethovenian abstraction) - in Cluytens' hands it unfolds but he makes much less of the implications of Beethoven's time games.

All in all I was glad to return to these nine symphonies in such safe hands, even Karajan's set is not as characterful as his later readings in my view.  Cluytens (and Jochum on DG in mono) represent are reminder that "big band" Beethoven - unfettered by textual revisions, cleansed orchestration and hypersonic tempi - was once very popular in the concert hall and on the turntable.  These amiable readers of Beethoven's wishes maintained an older tradition that doesn't force the imperative emotional response in every bar.  Relaxed but beautifully realised.

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