Beethoven: Symphonies No. 6 & No. 8 (CD review)

Douglas Boyd, Manchester Camerata. Avie AV2242.

Douglas Boyd and the Manchester Camerata conclude their Beethoven cycle on Avie with these live recordings of the Sixth "Pastoral" and Eighth Symphonies. Having only heard one other disc in the Boyd series, I can't say the results entirely disappointed me, although I'm not too keen on his quick-paced yet fairly cautious readings, either.

Of all Beethoven symphonies, I'm guessing there are probably more folks who love the "Pastoral" best of all than any of the others, although certainly the Third, Fifth, and Ninth are right up there. I'm not talking about sheer popularity, understand, where the Fifth and Ninth would no doubt win the day. I'm talking actual love for a piece of music. The Sixth is simply the most loveable of all the symphonies Beethoven wrote. I mean, who can doubt the appeal of the work's continuously happy, bucolic, tranquil, frolicsome qualities? Not even a storm cloud can interrupt this music's playful, joyous charisma. Maybe it's why Disney chose it as one of the highlights of his 1940 animated movie Fantasia.

Also making the piece easily accessible is the fact that it's Beethoven only program symphony, the composer assigning each movement a description. So the music is ready-made to interpret by any listener. However, this programmatic agenda may also make it harder on conductors because they know that listeners are expecting a certain thing, and if they don't give it to them, woe be it to them. Then, too, over the years, practically every conductor on Earth has performed and/or recorded the symphony, which makes it harder still for any new recording to find a place in the hearts of fans. My own choices? Bruno Walter (Sony) almost owns the piece, his final, exuberant stereo recording now probably the most authoritative reading of all. But there are also the genial Karl Bohm (DG) version to consider, the glowing Fritz Reiner (RCA) version, the idyllic Otto Klemperer (EMI) rendition, and the surprisingly joyful Eugen Jochum (EMI); plus a score of others from David Zinman (Arte Nova), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Andre Previn (RCA), Colin Davis (Philips), Tilson Thomas (Sony), Georg Solti (Decca), Andre Cluytens (EMI), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Pierre Monteux (Decca), George Szell (Sony), Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Gunter Wand (RCA), and others too numerous to mention. So where does Douglas Boyd's new realization sneak in, or does it?

The Sixth Symphony begins with an Allegro non troppo (fast, but not too much) that Beethoven describes as "The awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country." Admittedly, Boyd's opening does sound cheerful. It has a light step, a nice bounce, and a zippy gait without sounding frenetic. Although it perhaps loses a little something in overall grace by not slowing down at least occasionally but continuing to forge ahead at all times, it makes up for it in sheer exhilaration.

The second movement Andante molto moto (walking speed, with much motion) the composer calls "The scene at the brook." Here, Boyd could really have relaxed a bit more; there may be too much "motion" and not enough "walking" involved. He moves things along at such a fast clip, it robs the music of some of its easygoing charm.

In the central Allegro, the "Merry gathering of country folk," Boyd shines, his quick tempos raising one's spirits, even if the music hasn't quite the flowing lines of several of the conductors cited above.

Then the "Thunderstorm" goes by in appropriately menacing fashion and fades just as quickly into the final Allegretto (moderately fast), which Beethoven calls the "Shepherd's song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm." Again, Boyd goes after it full throttle, perhaps following Beethoven's own metronome markings too literally because it's the only time the conductor's impetuosity seems misplaced. Nevertheless, his tempos are flexible enough that the music never becomes too static, and the symphony ends in a most-energetic manner. Still, I would not count Boyd's interpretation in the same league with the elite conductors I so favor.

Because the little Eighth Symphony has a cheerful character, it makes an apt coupling on the disc. As with the Sixth, Boyd adopts a decidedly quick tempo throughout, which doesn't exactly do anything for the more lyrical parts of the score. But at least it keeps the adrenaline flowing. The second-movement Allegretto scherzando comes off best with this approach, leaving the rest of the score to fend for itself.

Avie recorded the music live in January and October of 2009 at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England. It's among the best live recordings I've heard, miked neither too closely nor too distantly, with excellent transparency and air. It's also very clean, with little noticeable distortion, and well balanced from the upper bass to the lower treble. Dynamics seem a tad constricted at times, though, especially compared to my remastered Blu-Spec CD of the Walter recording from Japanese Sony. However, that may be a trifle unfair to the Avie disc, which does hold its own.

To make the situation all the more agreeable, we hear little or no noise from the audience during the performances, and the Avie engineers cut out any distracting applause.


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