|Review by georgeflanagin January 19, 2011 (7 of 9 found this review helpful)
|ADHD summary: A brisk and light performance of the Emperor that may be lost in the surfeit of the competition, coupled with an outstanding performance of a piece that deserves to be even less well known than it is.
Let's just jump in and talk over the Choral Fantasy. For reference to something said below, I have the first page of the Choral Fantasy at http://www.georgeflanagin.com/choralfantasypage1.pdf
Schindler missed many facts and invented a few of his own, but it is documented in Thayer's 1866 German edition of /Life of Beethoven/ that, as the Kwisatz Haderach (in German, literally "Überkwißatzhaderachmensch") of Western Classical Music, Beethoven foresaw the rise of Harry Pearson in the late 20th century and the need for content free music to fill the grooves and pits of demonstration discs. Thayer goes on to say that Beethoven also foresaw that the need to provide samples of his work for the /100 Classical Hits/ discs. Beethoven satisfied both future needs with Op. 80, and devoted the rest of his life to composing music.
The Choral Fantasy is a conglomerate of both themes and variations, and it is virtually impossible to make it sound like anything else. Unity is not to be found herein unless you throw out any two thirds of the pages of the score. But Brautigam does well with the material, and his effort is better than any of the (re)interpretations I have heard. For example, Brautigam plays as written what you see on page 1, including bars 10-12 where Beethoven either sneezed or temporarily lost his mind. To contrast, Hélène Grimaud plays something else on her SACD account with Salonen/Swedish RSO on DG 474 869-2, apparently seeing the ff as applying to every note in the first three and half bars. She also plays the first three chords as if they were written with the same duration: Bang, Bang, Bang.
The opening is pure melodrama anyway, and we are in luck that Brautigam avoids any move toward pushing it over the top into total farce. The orchestra plays with restraint and delicacy that allow the short solos to draw your interest instead of competing with the strings. The choir is good, but it is hard to get around the image of a tavern of talented people singing /loudly/ just before the bell for the last round.
A note: the tempo is quite brisk, especially when you factor in that the last 33 seconds of the 17:58 timing are silence. I don't know quite what happened here, but it makes little difference. It is the last piece on the disc.
In all, this is the Choral Fantasy to have, particularly if you are a Beethoven completist who spends his time making sure he has all the Hess-numbered shreds to fill out his complete list of string quartets.
On to the Emperor.
This is the most restrained and "reluctant" Emperor I have heard, and it works well for me as a contrast to the stack of other recordings I own. The liner notes mention Brautigam's belief that it should be a conversation rather than a conflict, and he achieves his goal.
The middle movement is played very close to Andante, rather than the marked "adagio, un poco mosso". Perhaps roughness implies speed? To compare timings:
Fleisher, 1960 => 8:25
Gilels, 1970 => 9:15 (OK, this is /really/ slow, but it was Gilels)
Grimaud, 2005 => 8:04
Gould, 1970 => 7:34
Brautigam => 6:19
The orchestral playing is tight, and the recording is just as good as the other pieces in this set. I doubt anything but paper moved on stage during the month when the Emperor and the Choral Fantasy were recorded. A diagram in the booklet shows the arrangement of the orchestra, and it comes across exactly as printed.
Let me add that this is exactly the type of recording of orchestral music that I like. It is not hifi-ish; it is not a showcase for what technology can do, but a showcase for what it /should/ do. I can hear everything clearly from a seat that doesn't exactly correspond to any seat in any hall, but it sounds wonderful downstairs in the listening room.
The pared orchestra makes the tympani much more prominent, and fortunately these tympani sound quite much more like drums than thuds. I wish whatever was done for this recording would be done more often by other labels; Mr. Robert von Bahr apparently hires people who know what they are doing. Correctly tuned percussion makes a wonderful contribution to the enjoyment of the piece.
I have not listened to the surround, but I have listened to the CD layer which is as good as any I have heard.
Overall, it's a definite buy, although if you already have six or seven copies of the Emperor I suppose you may decide to pass. But if you need a Choral Fantasy … this is it.
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