Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies / Maag, Padua and Veneto Orch
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|Audio CD, Box set, November 19, 1996||
These are the first recordings of Beethoven's symphonies by a distinguished Swiss conductor, working with an obscure and relatively small Italian orchestra. It's surprising on several counts. The smallness of the orchestra is sometimes a minor handicap, not in its impact, but in the way the winds often overbalance the strings. More commonly these days, we lose details in the wind parts, so the change in perspective can be refreshing. Also, the interpretations are all distinguished, among the better conceptions of the music currently available. And the playing of the orchestra is quite splendid, very well executed and coordinated throughout. These may not be perfect recordings, but then, neither is any of the others. And every performance has a point of view, an interpretive stance that makes sense. The discs are also available individually (and you will find more detailed reviews of the individual discs), but the price for the complete set is considerably lower. --Leslie Gerber
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Maag apprenticed to Furtwangler, who taught him the importance of an intuitive approach to music and supported Maag's natural romantic tendencies, and he also apprenticed to Ernest Ansermet, who had a more rationalist approach. As a result, Maag valued a spontaneous approach to music, and he absorbed and polished Furtwangler's capacity to mould phrases and long-term musical lines with adjustments to dynamics (in particular) and tempo (with Maag, less so). But Maag coupled this with a rationalist's clarity of texture and line as well as more French orchestral balances (forward brass and winds in particular).
Maag waited until late in life to record the Beethoven cycle. In a mid-1990's interview in Italy, Maag said of these recordings, "I was always a little bit afraid because probably I had to live in the shadow of Furtwängler and I had the feeling that I would never be able to do and to record Beethoven in a such great way. However slowly I gained the courage and I faced the symphonies . . . If Furtwängler could listen to these recordings I hope he could find well exposed his teaching but I am sure he would tell me that these interpretations are more rational than he could expect, even if the intuition enjoys for me a special regard. This is probably the heritage of my collaboration with Ernest Ansermet, who always supported a rational background in music making . . . Ansermet gave to my romantic soul the French drops of reason and maybe the decision to record the symphonies of Beethoven with a chamber orchestra is linked with this experience. A chamber orchestra doesn't allow you to hide yourself but gives the opportunity to bring into the foreground the infinite details of the score." While this set features clear and open textures, with generally forward brass and woodwinds, Maag is careful to adjust the dynamics to bring out important details and maintain the melodic lines. Amazon's reviewer Leslie Gerber said that the winds overwhelm the strings; I disagree. I think these are the conductor's deliberate choices.
Three of the symphonies were recorded live: the 5th, 6th and 9th. And, not surprisingly, those three are the highlights of the set. The Pastoral has strong similarities to Furtwangler's leisurely approach but is very much on its own terms and very convincing. The Fifth is heroic and inspiring, and the 9th is beautiful. Other highlights include the Eroica, especially the Funeral March, which is forceful and dramatic with a wider range of emotion than usual; an energetic Seventh which truly does sound like a force of nature more than a symphony; and sweet Second with a meltingly beautiful slow movement. The Fourth is probably my favorite version of this symphony by anyone. Maag creates a joyous, light-footed, high-spirited performance which brings this lovely piece to light, and the last movement in particular puts every other interpretation I've heard in the shade.
Now, to the orchestra and the sound: this is truly a small chamber orchestra, with a regular complement of about 35 players (Chamber Orchestra of Europe has 50) and only 8 each in the first and second violins. Extra strings gives a polish and depth of sound, and that the Orchestra of Padua and Veneto definitely lacks. The wind and brass playing is almost uniformly excellent, although the first flute frequently gets lost in the tuttis. The string playing is fine and very Italian, with a bit wider vibrato than I'm used to. Considering that all of these performances were apparently done in one take, whether live or not, the orchestra acquits itself marvelously, with very few errors and no obvious flubs, and follows Maag's direction to a "t". That said, Maag's combination of small-scale orchestra with more romantic interpretations can be disconcerting. When I expected to hear that massive drama which comes from 100 musicians, I get the sharper, more punchy sound of the smaller ensemble. You have to be willing to forego the bigger, more sonorous string sound of the large orchestra to really love these recordings.
The recordings were made in four different locations: the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th in the Modigliani Auditorium, the 2nd and 4th in the Longio in Venice, the 5th and 6th in the Pollini Auditorium, and the 9th at the St. Antony Basilica. The recordings in the Pollini and the Basilica have the best acoustics for this orchestra, with a nice balance of clarity and tasteful reverb. The worst is the Modigliani, which has more reverberation and makes the orchestra sound both larger and rougher-sounding than it is. Arts' recording is clean and decent, but I just get this feeling that they wanted to make the orchestra sound like it had 70 players instead of 35.
I've yet to find a complete Beethoven set that didn't have its drawbacks. For this set, the compromises are in the orchestral quality (the lack of polish and depth of string sound noted above) and auditorium acoustics (in the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th). Interpretively, this set, for me, stands head and shoulders above many of those lauded by amazon customers, including those of Maag's contemporaries von Karajan and Bohm. Maag was a deeply spiritual person, a student of theology and philosophy who deep-sixed his career at its zenith by taking a two-year retreat in a Buddhist monastery because he felt he was becoming too much of a businessman and too little a musician. He says he learned concentration and meditation which influenced his musicianship at a very deep level. His care and love shine through, and the combination of Germanic and French influences, together with Maag's unique insights and skills in phrasing and dynamics and his sure sense of tempi and balance, make this a set worth anyone's time.
(Quotations from Maag's interview are taken from the Orchestra di Padova e Veneto's website.)
Maag, a one-time piano student of Alfred Cortot, and disciple of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, was one of the most impressively sensitive conductors of his era, noted for his beautiful and searching interpretations of, especially, Mozart and Mendelssohn, whose spirits, he clearly felt, were closely related to one another. His complete recording (with the London Symphony) of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" has been rightly revered for forty years, and his more recent achievements with the Orchestra of Venice and Padua are no less impressive. In addition, the recordings are remarkably well engineered (fine ambience, excellent attention given to matters of balance).
The orchestra should also be singled out for praise - wonderfully warm string tone, and some of the finest wind-playing to come out of Europe in recent times. It is damning with faint praise to characterise this set as the work of a major conductor directing a minor league orchestra. There is nothing second rate about these musicians and Maag's presence lends an authority and assurance that places the results well beyond the goals and achievements of many so-called "star" conductors. Simply put, Maag was one of the great musicians of the century and these recordings are a worthy testament to his extraordinary gifts. Those interested in discovering details in the Beethoven symphonies that they didn't imagine existed should invest in this set forthwith. Contributing strongly to the overall effect is Maag's decision to reduce the size of the string section. Far from representing any handicap, this results in a satisfyingly "classical" Beethoven, with winds and brass suitably prominent, and with plenty of fire and drama where and when it's called for.
Has any other conductor better realised Beethoven's cautionary designation "non troppo", attached to the opening Allegro of the Pastoral? Or summoned more energy in the great seventh symphony? Or shaped the opening of the slow movement of the same work so tellingly?
The delights which await the listener are far too numerous to enumerate in any detail here. Suffice it to say that those wise enough to invest in this set (knowing Maag's reputation) will be rewarded by performances of almost transcendental beauty, conducted by an undisputed master, in state-of-the-art recorded sound. At one time, Peter Maag removed himself from the professional conducting circuit to devote his life to Buddhist study, in part to reclaim his "humility" as an interpreter. What is presented here (as well as in Maag's equally fine set of Mozart's later symphonies, also recorded with the Italian orchestra, of which he was chief conductor) is music-making of the greatest power, insight and humility by one of the most fascinating and satisfying conductors of the twentieth century. Strongest recommendation. Five stars.