Beethoven Symphonies 1-9

The rise of original instrument playing in the last 10 years has altogether changed the profile of classical music-making. The Hanover Band was the first period instrument orchestra to start recording the Beethoven Symphonies and this is the first complete set of symphonies to be issued on original instruments. Not only first to complete the cycle, The Hanover Band’s pioneering achievement has recreated the symphonies as closely as possible to Beethoven’s intentions through detailed research into autograph scores, creating authentic and definitive performing editions. More than a musicological exercise, their performances convey the essential spirit and driving force so vital to these symphonies. As much as research and authenticity, it is this intensity in their performances which makes this set a landmark in the history of recorded music.



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"Of course the performances of the symphonies are variable, but all are keenly enjoyable and the vitality of the playing is never in doubt. Characteristically the Nimbus recording team chose a resonant acoustic, which means there is no lack of weight or breadth, and certainly no feeling of emaciated string tone."

Ivan March, The Gramophone

The most exciting, daring “original” Beethoven performances to emerge on disc thus far come from the Hanover Band on Nimbus. What makes these performances so exciting is, above all, the passion of their articulation. Another reason for these recordings’ success is their sheer sound. No “authentic” performances of this composer have given greater pleasure.

John Rockwell, New York Times

The 1980s was a boom period for period performance recordings, and the symphonies of Beethoven were and still are something of a pinnacle for any orchestra. The Hanover Band was the earliest to record a complete cycle on authentic instruments and the experience with Roy Goodman’s Hanover Band is by no means the hair-shirt one you might expect. We’ve come a long way since 1983, but this pioneering bunch of musicians can still speak to us even from all those years back in the 20th century.
What you do notice almost immediately is the relative softness of the winds against the strings. True, period winds are softer than modern instruments where string instruments are still almost exactly the same, metal as opposed to gut strings aside. The beginning of the Symphony No. 1 does immediately show up this contrast though, the needle sharp daring of Beethoven’s pizzicato opening in the strings accompanied by a mellow band of woodwinds and horns who are somewhere ‘way over there’.
Everything snaps into crisper focus with the Symphony No. 3. The drums are played with harder sticks and are much better in proportion, the winds and brass cut through the strings more effectively and have a better definition. This is the kind of recording which brought the value of period instruments to the fore, with lither textures, a more chamber-music footprint on the score when compared to the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, and a set of timbres which revealed the music in unexpected and refreshing ways. There are delights everywhere, from the weight of the Marcia funebre to the squirty natural horns in the Scherzo and massive tumult mixed with big holes of Haydnesque strangeness of the Finale, you can imagine something of what the crowds must made of it all the first time it was played. An attack of newness had indeed broken out, and the Symphony No. 3 is magnificent and extraordinary in this recording. The Symphony No. 4 is more neo-classical and optimistic in its outlook, but this performances scholarly examination of dynamics, tempo and articulation makes it another bracing listen. The Adagio in particular is something of a trot with a long-legged steed than a real slow movement, but I like it, and the musical narrative of all of these movements is a path to savour. This is a performance which would hopefully still grab wild applause even today.
The last three symphonies are all from 1988, the last phase of recording, and less prone to the troublesome sense of danger which inhabits some of the earliest. The lyrical against dramatic qualities in this symphony work very well in this case, with the wind sonorities having sufficient impact to steer the harmonic pace. That funeral-march Allegretto moves forward with a satisfying momentum, and builds towards some tremendous sonorities. The swiftly urgent Presto crackles with energy, and has to be topped by the Allegro con brio and is, though the greater extremes of volume result in some less usual acoustic effects, some of the wind notes being heard more through their reflection than from the original attack. The Symphony No. 8 is also very good, with plenty of theatricality through its lighter textures. Roy Goodman manages some nice moments of ritardando as well, heightening certain expressive corners to great effect. This is sunny but also seriously weighty music making, creating an eighth which is imposing as well as generously warm hearted and boisterous.
The monster Symphony No. 9 does however demand greater attention. Ambitious music demands scale and stature, and the recording here does rise to the challenge, providing decent enough balance and filling the acoustic better than in some cases. Well, there are wonderful things about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, but this is one of those recordings which challenges preconceptions and forces a re-evaluation. The final Presto-Allegro assai throws down the gauntlet one last time, making the low strings ‘sing’ that recitatief before the vocal entry, and this is done with great declamatory style here. With a relatively hectic pace established, the first quiet entry of that famous tune takes us more by surprise. It pops out like a sketchy doodle. We all know what it’s going to grow into, but in this case it has a good deal of work needed before achieving adulthood – an effect I admire.

This is indeed a ‘historical’ recording, in the sense of its being a milestone when the period instrument movement came of age and proved itself capable of challenging the old order of symphonic orchestras. There is much to be enjoyed in this cycle. I don’t think by any standard it can make a claim to be anyone’s first choice for a set of Beethoven’s symphonies, but that’s no longer the point with this recording and probably never was. This is a version which can live next to your box sets by Karajan or anyone else, and be brought out when you feel the need for a change of sonority and a different angle on familiar music. To be frank, I hadn’t expected it to have stood the test of time as well as it has. We have indeed moved on, and performance techniques, instruments and aspects of interpretation have all been refined and adjusted as the years have progressed. Just as with modern instrument recordings, there is no one option with period instrument versions of these symphonies. Roy Goodman/Monica Huggett and The Hanover Band can however still make a splash.
Dominy Clements

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