Germany's Oldest Orchestra Shakes Up Beethoven Symphonies

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In this age when there are literally dozens of Beethoven symphony recordings from which to choose, it grows ever harder for any conductor, of whatever renown, to offer any new revelations in these colossal works. And the ultra-conservative Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra -- Germany's oldest orchestra, dating to 1743 – is an unlikely bastion of radical thinking. Yet perhaps it is that very weight of history that has spurred conductor Riccardo Chailly to record a cycle that stands out from the pack.

The recordings on this five-CD set were made in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig's concert hall, between 2007 and 2009. They're the latest in a Beethoven tradition that goes back to the composer’s own lifetime, when in 1825 it gave the first-ever performance of the entire symphony cycle. To this day, the Ninth Symphony continues to mark the end of every season at the Gewandhaus. In short, these players have seen it all.

Enter Chailly, a Milan-born maestro who became Leipzig’s chief conductor in 2005. He's known for modernizing familiar repertoire and here he's intent on bringing a new sense of urgency and detail to Beethoven. He sticks faithfully to the composer's implausibly fast metronome markings and the musicians respond with taut, incisive playing. At times the orchestra evokes a period-instrument ensemble, with transparent textures and spare use of vibrato – but with the richer, more polished sound which many listeners still prefer.

The set also includes seven of Beethoven's overtures, and it’s a kick to hear such relative rarities such as The Ruins of Athens and King Stephen played with the same vibrancy as the symphonies. Scholarly yet approachable liner notes and fine acoustics round out the benefits of this set.

Watch Chailly and the Gewandhaus perform the opening to the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:

Beethoven: The Symphonies
Riccardo Chailly
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras
Decca
Available at Arkivmusic.com