Classical: CBSO / RATTLE BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY CYCLE Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
CBSO's first Beethoven symphony cycle, I learn from Crescendo, Beresford King-Smith's fascinating new history of the orchestra, was in 1924. Doubtless it was vastly different in sound and sensibility from the present series. Each generation must build an image of "Beethoven the symphonist" for itself, whatever the continuity of tradition. Rattle's Nineties view is as stimulating as you would expect. The slimmed-down orchestra certainly owes something to period instrument performances of recent years, but apart from the greater clarity afforded, this is where the resemblance ends. Rattle and the CBSO are not into the sterile business of non-intervention, as the expressive, ravishingly played oboe solo in the slow movement of the Eroica showed.

The interpretative agenda is still clearer in the first movement, where the sheer sense of line is astonishing. The impetus that builds this vast structure seems almost to start before the opening chords, which are played as anything but an introductory gesture. What results is an intoxicating study in motion, unhindered by unnecessary expressive tucks. Rattle presents the work not as a romantic gloss on heroism, but as a big-boned classical symphony; rhetoric is subsumed into a pulsing sense of energy that is nearly irresistible. This is not to say that the performance was one in which intellect completely squeezed out emotion; in the coda of the Marcia funebre, Rattle quite rightly allowed its psychological gloss on the rest of the movement to emerge, and the finale was a richly enjoyable medley of humour and pomposity as well as excitement.

In forging this alternative view to the great romantic adventure the Eroica usually becomes, Rattle was aided and abetted by some superbly single-minded playing. There were times when the second violins, placed to the right of the rostrum, appeared to be feeling their exposure a little too acutely, and no one seemed to project much sense of bounce in the Scherzo of the Eroica, but in general they communicated a high degree of purpose and pleasure. This sense of communal endeavour also paid dividends in the First Symphony.

Despite being described as a "grand symphony" at its first performance - a common enough designation at the time - the C major is a modest piece. Haydn wrote grander slow introductions and Mozart longer symphonies. The temptation for modern conductors embarking upon a cycle of all nine Beethoven symphonies is to search out signs of mature greatness. Rattle's way with the work was informed rather than inflated by a knowledge of the later works; the message communicated by his creditably unexaggerated reading was the neatness of the score's conception as a whole; less a step on the great white way to immortality than a glimpse of a composer who was prepared to charm the listeners of his age - even if he alarmed the odd critic by his use of the wind band.

The pay-off of Rattle's clear-headed insight in both these works will surely be an enhancement of the stature of Beethoven's Second Symphony. With seven symphonies to come, a sense of adventure is already in place; this splendid conspiracy between conductor and orchestra could well result in one of the more human explorations of music that has come to mean almost too much in the concert repertoire.

n Concert repeated Friday 7.15pm Barbican (0171-638 8891). Birmingham cycle continues, with Symphony No 2 and the Leonora overtures, on 28 Sept (0121-212 3333)