Classical Beethoven Cycle / Sir Simon Rattle Barbican Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
So it's over. Sir Simon Rattle has completed his first Beethoven cycle. Beethoven interpretations today come in all shapes and sizes and are as available as different boxes of chocolates. But it takes a musician of Rattle's intelligence to absorb, contemplate and produce an interpretation that gets so convincingly to the heart of the music and without the overlay of a super-ego seeking recognition. Rattle's own comments on Beethoven say much: "The composer's fierce integrity, his disciplined stripping- away of all decoration and vanity, his pursuit of truth - all these attributes give us nowhere to hide and demand total dedication."

Pairing the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies acknowledges an important musical principle: juxtaposing weak and strong - not that the Eighth has weakness, but in character it relates to the Ninth like a divertimento. If the opening of the Eighth Symphony revealed a certain tentativeness and fuzziness of articulation from the CBSO, by the exposition repeat things had settled down, Rattle bringing out all the quirkiness of cross-rhythm and sforzandi. A sense of opera pervaded the second movement as "conversations" passed between the strings - Rattle had opted for the violin sections facing each other. The gossamer final movement (with Mendelssohn in the wings) flashed by: if the Eighth presents none of the drama of the Ninth, its delicacy is treacherous.

Rattle's Ninth stresses not so much the heroic but the humane. The opening horn-fifths seemed to emerge from nowhere. There was an extraordinary sense of expectation and wonder, the pace deliberate, Rattle appearing to listen as though hearing the music for the first time. Over this long movement, Rattle's sense of architecture was faultless. Attention to detail was awesome: accompaniment string figures so carefully matched; wind phrasing so beautifully moulded, tension and relaxation so finely judged. The Scherzo "rocked and rolled", undermining, surely, its distinction of being the first "repetitive" music in a "minimalist" sense. The winds were solid rather than brilliant, but the trio brought beautiful playing from the solo horn and oboe.

The slow movement is one of the most sublime of Beethoven's entire work. The contrast to the turbulent Scherzo is extreme, and the concert seemed to experience a palpable gear-change as the playing acquired a quite different intensity. Here was peace at last: fuller and warmer strings, tender phrasing and a sense of hushed wonder. The last movement can only come as an anticlimax. Words crudely take the place of abstract thoughts. Rattle's reading is stately rather than histrionic, albeit the terrifying opening chord and the recitative-like cello and basses were seriously under-powered. The CBSO Chorus, without scores, sang magnificently with lightness and clarity, defying their considerable size. Their match of sound was more convincing than that of the soloists - Amanda Halgrimson, Cynthia Clarey, Patrick Power (buried in a score) and Robert Holl. But here was music- making, lovingly executed, at its best like chamber music. It will be interesting to see how a second cycle develops.

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