Music/CBSO / Simon Rattle

Jan Smaczny on a varied performance of Beethoven's first five symphonies
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The Independent Culture
The stylistic freshness that distinguished Rattle and the CBSO's performances of Beethoven's First and Third Symphonies at Birmingham's Symphony Hall last month has also infected the programming of the whole series. The Second Symphony was accompanied by the three Leonora overtures and the much shorter Fidelio overture. Potty but provocative, it seems that this combination, with Fidelio between Leonoras Nos 2 and 3, was first attempted by no less an authority than Mahler. The experiment proved fascinating.

The revelation was what these new perspectives did for Leonora No 2. Played on its own this piece can sound sprawling, almost incompetent; heard between the superb finish and assurance of the other Leonoras it came over as a much more experimental piece - almost like Berlioz in its use of modulation, and genuinely romantic in its less consciously Viennese image of development.

Rattle's reading of the Second was disappointing after the magnificence of his First and Third. The finale was too fast for comfortable orchestral articulation and, while the hectic speed illuminated aspects of the harmonic structure, it constricted the visionary qualities of this remarkable movement. Worse still was the performance of the Scherzo, a difficult movement to get the measure of at the best of times, with its jerky, disparate gesture and apparent changes of tempo. Rather than responding to the sheer oddity of the piece, it was played straight at a measured pace that killed any chance of fun.

No such problems with Nos 4 and 5 on Wednesday; both works emerged as a near-perfect blend of calculation and instinct with every detail fully formed; never mind that some aspects of string ensemble still need attention. The Fourth Symphony has a tendency to bring out the best in all those who perform it. Even so, the elegance and attentiveness brought to this score showed the work in its true light as the progenitor of the integrity of the Fifth as well as foreshadowing the generous breadth of the Pastoral. Nor were there any of the problems with the Scherzo that had marred Rattle's performances of the Second and Third Symphonies. The rapid pace of the finale was daring and, occasionally, dicey, but the grace and energy given to the themes that float above the vigorous opening proved the experiment more than worthwhile.

If Beethoven's Fourth Symphony has a tendency to welcome performers in, the Fifth can be the rock on which they founder. I remember a performance of the Fifth by Rattle and the CBSO that almost failed to register any real effect. In their present reading, it all adds up. Rattle's underplaying of the recapitulation in the first movement made for a thrilling coda, and the frankly militaristic brass in the slow movement added immeasurably to the effect of the violin lines. Even more remarkable was a finale in which the orchestra's clear delight never stood in the way of the thrill and logic of the close.