Music Reviews

Noseda & National Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven Complete Symphonies

Gianandrea Noseda, Music Director of a superbly crafted American orchestra, combines exuberant Italian passion with stylistic Viennese élan. Anyone looking for a new set of Beethoven symphonies, do count these blessings.

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One more to choose from. What’s on offer?

After all those years, Beethoven is still going as strong as ever. The number of recorded symphonies is staggering. In high resolution alone, there are already hundreds of singles and no less than 27 complete sets. Of these, not all are original Hi-Res recordings. But even if one takes out remastered versions, some 11 contenders remain, to which this new set now has to be added. Gianandrea Noseda’s survey of the complete Beethoven symphonies at the helm of the Washington D.C.-based National Symphony Orchestra is the latest to reach the market. What’s on offer?

My ambition is not to press readers to choose one way or the other, nor to make a ranking. From experience, I know that personal considerations can play a decisive role, and mine are as subjective as anyone else’s. Tastes differ and your choice must be yours and not mine. 

Do count these blessings.

As Noseda maintains a remarkable degree of consistency in each of the symphonies, albeit commensurate with their typical characteristics, I won’t go into detail about every single one of them. Noseda’s vision is musically solid and never outrageous. He is not trying to ‘re-define’ or ‘re-invent’ Beethoven. His survey is one with a sense of honesty, conveying pure sang Beethoven with intensely passionate precision and hugely inspired power. 

Moreover, in these exciting readings, he creates an orchestral fabric that has on the one hand the airy textures and flexibility of a chamber orchestra – though not the lightweight approach of the Historically Informed Practitioners – avoiding on the other the heavy-handedness of the large symphony orchestras of the past. This doesn’t mean ‘middle of the road’, and certainly not if taken with the connotation ‘one size fits all’. It’s rather the opposite: The best of both worlds. 

What the listener gets is Gianandrea Noseda, leading a superbly crafted American orchestra, combining exuberant Italian passion with stylistic Viennese élan. Anyone looking for a new set of Beethoven symphonies, do count these blessings. 

Noseda makes your adrenaline flow freely.

In the first instalment: Beethoven’s Symphony 1 and 3, it is the latter (the Third) that has impressed me most. An energetic first movement, eclipsing most chamber-light recordings, whilst also challenging, straight from the high-spirited start, most of the rest of the pack. It must be Noseda’s Italian blood that makes the listener’s adrenaline flow freely. Spine-chilling heroics, leaving no one indifferent. Everything in the Third is ‘spot on’, including a dramatic Funeral March and a finale which turns into a thrilling and compelling dance party.

Another highlight that triggered my attention was the Eighth. This often underestimated and therefore neglected symphony regains under Noseda’s baton its rightful place. His agile yet robust reading makes it an edifying and brilliantly blossoming affair, dancing from beginning to end like a buoyant string of pearls in the wind. 

As for the Second, paired with the more popular Seventh, Noseda puts a firm dose of passionate fire into the first movement, lifting it out of the many routinely performed versions having adequate ‘allegro’ but lacking much of the ‘con brio’. Under Noseda’s baton, this one becomes another of the nine that gets a new lease of life with an elegantly played Larghetto and a vibrant final movement. 

The orchestra might as well be called: Noseda’s Symphony Orchestra.

There are more, often surprising moments, vying for attention. For instance, from the moment he caught my ear (4th Symphony, reviewed previously together with the 5th), I’ve been following Timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam, throughout the cycle. Once you are focused on it, you’ll find that his impetus, like, for example, unlashing ‘das Gewitter’ in the Sixth, and his so vividly underpinning the last two movements of the Seventh, reinforces the conductor’s forward thrust. One senses an arc of understanding between the two. Isn’t that incredible? The more one listens to Noseda and his crew, the more one gets involved. The orchestra might as well be called: Noseda’s Symphony Orchestra.

For choosing a complete set, Beethoven’s Ninth is seen by many as the final exam to earn the seal of public approval.  It also is an epic monument drawing comments from pros and cons. Many pertain to speed and the choral part at the end of the final movement. 

Regarding speed, Beethoven was among the first to promote the metronome, using it to indicate in the score the speed he wanted. However, scholars have questioned the wisdom and the hypothesis of metronome failure resulting in unreasonable speed markings. Many conductors have decided to disregard Beethoven’s markings and to apply their own interpretative pace. Nonetheless, the markings offered an open invitation to criticise a conductor’s reading as being too fast or too slow.

However, whether or not a conductor’s pace is too fast or too slow is not the real issue. In concert it is all about interpretation and its perception by an audience. In other words: The spontaneous intensity and the invisible two-way current passing between performers and an audience is the ultimate yardstick of a successful performance. Live recordings, like this one, bear witness to such an elusive effect.

Noseda has pulled all the stops.

By giving the Ninth its all-embracing impact, Noseda has pulled all the stops: A full complement of musicians and a choir of around 160 singers. In the First movement, Noseda succeeds in building up a kind of almost haunting tension, and in the Second returns the magical maestro-drummer connection. Too fast? No, just right; preparing for the following deliciously shaded Adagio molto e cantabile. The finale is one of the longest ever written by Beethoven, including -a novelty in the history of symphonic music- a choral part with soloists dedicated To the Joy, the joy of life, an uplifting close to a unique Choral Symphony. Unique, too, in that it poses an enormous burden on the singers, as they are in Beethoven’s conception an integral part of the orchestral instruments, with hardly a tonal upper limit for the sopranos and tenors!

A perfect command of the German language is imperative for Schiller’s poetic opening lines. The highly respected American Bass-Baritone, Ryan McKinny, has successfully taken on this challenge. The other soloists are of a similar stature. In Noseda’s reading they are part of the orchestral fabric, perhaps a well-considered choice in the face of the formidable singing power of the excelling Washington Chorus, but as a result, the soloistic competence of notably the female voices did not altogether stand out clearly.

Sound quality does matter.

Assuming that those who are part of the exclusive Hi-Res niche market will have playback systems that can fully profit from the highest possible resolution technical advance can manage, will appreciate that NSO has opted for Sound Mirror’s Sobotka/Donahoe team, being one of the best, if not the best recording engineers in the world. With its well-balanced soundstage, amazing depth, strong bass line and, no doubt through the art of successful multi-miking, creating a perfect nuancing of instruments or groups of instruments, it is exactly what one gets here. 

In conclusion

This new Beethoven cycle with excellent liner notes by Peter Laki and graphic art by Mo Willems, is in my view an indisputable candidate for a well-considered choice, even if there is a minor glitch. It has nothing to do with Noseda’s reading, nor Sound Mirror’s recording, it is the small interrupt in the flow before and after The Storm in the Sixth Symphony; a technical flaw in an otherwise towering cycle, which might not show up in a different playback system than mine.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2024 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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