I too read Michael Cookson's review of Rattle's BPO recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphonies with keen anticipation - they have been sitting on my shelves for months and it was his persuasive advocacy that persuaded me to finally audition them.
I think, as you quite rightly concede, that it is always dangerous to judge something before you've actually heard it yourself, a mistake I've made on many occasion in the past. For sure, I would have expected Rattle to be more suited to unravelling the knottiest of modern scores rather than serving up Beethoven for the ages, so permit me to add my own few words in addition to Michael's as to what I thought of his Berlin set of the Beethoven symphonies.
Certainly it is pointless to compare Rattle's Beethoven with those venerable sets from yore - those by Cluytens, Schuricht, Kletzki, Jochum, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Kempe, Ansermet, let alone the more high profile cycles, sprinkled with the glitter of podium wizards from the past - hardly anyone conducts Beethoven that way anymore. And those who do - Thielemann (eccentric), Barenboim (bland) and Dudamel (still maturing) - leave a lot to be desired. Only Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony seems to really convince - and even he isn't adverse to occasional moment of wilfullness.
Rather, Rattle's Beethoven should be considered against more recent cycles, where period instrument practices are grafted onto a modern orchestra. In other words, continuing a trend started by Harnoncourt in the early 1990's with his own recorded cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; thankfully though, his "idea" of effecting a diminuendo on the final note of every movement is now largely ignored - a more musically counter-intuitive notion I have yet to encounter. So it is his cycle, plus those of Vanska, Haitink/LSO, Paavo Jarvi, Chailly, Abbado's second in Berlin and Rattle's first with the Vienna PO that we should really be comparing this latest Berlin set to here.
And indeed, Rattle's Beethoven is very modern, very "historically informed". Tempi are driven, if not as manic as with Chailly, who seems intent on breaking the land speed record in each and every one of the symphonies. The orchestra is smaller than perhaps the Beethoven we were weaned on - pre Choral, it is merely double winds and brass and what sounds like hard sticks on the timpani. Transparency is the key and this, surprisingly, makes him closest to Abbado in the latter's second, live, set with the same orchestra. Rattle has certainly evolved since his first cycle in Vienna - there I felt he was very much in thrall of - and too keen to highlight - the amendments made in the (then) latest Bärenreiter editions of the scores by Jonathan del Mar, although he was still able to deliver a reading of the Fourth Symphony of bright-eyed exuberance and wonder that would be very hard to be matched by anyone of any era. And here I must register a small grumble with Mr Cookson, who seemed to spend an awful lot of column inches in his review explaining when each symphony was written, who they were dedicated to and often, as in the Fourth Symphony, describing the music itself, rather than the performances in hand - surely this is information every MusicWeb reader would already be familiar with ? It is Beethoven, after all ! More's the pity when the later recording of the Fourth is the only performance in the later set which I felt isn't an improvement from the earlier Vienna one - it has seemingly become much more steelier and hard-eyed in the intervening years, not to its advantage. Elsewhere the performances show a marked improvement from before - more naturally paced, with none of the mannerisms that occasionally makes Rattle sound eccentric in this repertoire, particularly on records. Of course, if "historically informed" for you is more "half-baked" rather than the best of both the period instrument and modern orchestral worlds, then none of these recent cycles are for you. And whilst I think that there's maybe a couple more extra volts of electricity in the aforementioned Abbado/Berlin and Haitink/LSO cycles (even though the sound in the latter is compromised by the miserable Barbican acoustics), I would still prefer to listen to Rattle before the frenetic Chailly, the largely forgotten (and rather dull, IMO) Vanska, as well as Jarvi, who presents Beethoven as a brawny streetfighter, tough and uncompromising, but lacking at times a certain sense of nobility. Harnoncourt rules himself out for me for the reason already mentioned. The fact that Rattle can hold his own in such company certainly confounded my initial expectations - and I hope one day he may get the opportunity to confound yours, Dieter !
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