Symphonies: No. 1; No. 5
Stefan Blunier, cond; Beethoven O Bonn
MDG 937 1756-6 (SACD: 57:26)
This is one of those very good “A-Minus” releases that poses a challenge to reviewers. The evolution of Beethoven performance over several decades in the direction of Bärenreiter phrasing and smaller forces has had the odd effect of practically deifying the way Beethoven used to be performed by three or four conductors in the past. Almost nobody outside of Barenboim records the symphonies these days using the massive instrumental complement favored by Toscanini, Furtwangler, Walter, Klemperer, Kleiber, and Karajan. With the passage of time, we forget that those iconic performances were not unusual in their general approach. Everybody—Jochum, Böhm, Dorati, Monteux, Haitink, Ormandy, even Stokowski conducted Beethoven that way. Not every rendition was a permanent reflection of iconic genius! But the dearth of big-orchestra Beethoven in recent years has nearly led us to believe nobody
do it that way effectively any more.
So what does one say to the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, with its 106 musicians, most of whom appear to be on stage for these recordings: “Yes you can!” or “How dare you?” In actual fact, these are very fine big Beethoven renditions, but please do not assassinate the critic for saying so! I am not trying to step on the shadows of statues. The approach here resembles Karajan’s second DGG cycle from 1977, without perhaps conveying the overlay of silkiness only Berlin managed in those days—or the ultimate Promethean level of fire. Blunier is energetic and captures well the key moments of drama and syncopated punch in the Fifth. And the Bonn Orchestra is every bit as accomplished as many of Germany’s well known orchestras. If you liked Michael Gielen’s SWR Beethoven cycle from the 1990s, you might enjoy these slightly more relaxed performances. And Blunier’s Fifth has more to say than you will find from Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent recording with the San Francisco Symphony. The orchestra here definitely sounds German, as befits its title, although there is no listing of the hall in which the CD was recorded. The SACD sound is fine and full, without calling any attention to itself whatsoever. Give this a listen. If you’d heard it on the radio in 1980, you’d have liked it. The rest is up to your own prejudices.