For Frans Bruggen (b. 1934) the Dutch-born musician and conductor, whose recent set was released last year on the Glossa label, he had the desire to re-create the sound of Beethoven’s music. When he formed the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century in 1981, he sought to reproduce something close to the original instrumentation. As listed in the All Music Guide, “All its members play instruments either built during the Baroque or Classical eras, or on modern-built instruments that are replicas of authentic period instruments.” The orchestra was originally set up to perform a few times a year due to the international make-up of its members.
In the early 80s, the period instrument concept was the new wave of classical music. Suddenly it wasn’t just a modern orchestra playing Baroque and 18th Century music; it was an orchestra looking to re-create sounds that once filled the concert halls of Vienna, London and Berlin, 200 years ago. Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century made a safe start with their early recordings on the Philips label, featuring compositions by Mozart, Haydn and selected works by J.S. Bach. Meanwhile, similar period-instrument ensembles released several Beethoven symphonic cycles: Monica Hugget and the Hanover Band (1982), Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (1986) and John Eliot Gardner and the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra (1993).
Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century first released the complete symphonies of Beethoven in 1994. In spite of the competition, it made the musical world wake up and listen anew. Bruggen’s careful research into the instrument tuning; tempo markings and the composer’s intentions were critically acclaimed. Suddenly the battle between the modern orchestras and period orchestras was on. It wasn’t so much about the differences in orchestration, as it was the shapes, colours and emotional content of Beethoven’s music that was revealed to listeners. I’m happy to report that this new complete collection of Beethoven’s Symphonies has quite possibly surpassed Bruggen’s recording 18 years earlier, and timing has a lot to do with it.
In 2011, in a dedicated effort to present the Beethoven Symphonies as a whole, the orchestra was booked in Rotterdam to perform a Beethoven cycle like no other: all nine symphonies in ten days from October 6 to 16th. Individually the symphonies aren’t that long, except for SY 9, which is usually over an hour. So it is possible to play 2 per night depending on the length of the program, which is exactly what they did. This new collection, released last October, captured those performances and for the most part, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century delivers the goods. But with every Beethoven "cycle" some hit and some miss.
I tried to recreate that Rotterdam experience by listening to the entire symphonies within 2 weeks. These are my impressions in numerical order: