Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6

Kammerorchester Basel / Giovanni Antonini (Sony 88697648162)

23 April 2010 4 stars

AntoniniThis coupling marks the mid-point of an ongoing Beethoven cycle, and is the first of the series to come my way. The usual doubts about yet another set of the Great Nine being necessary in the present artistic (not to say economic) climate, however, are allayed within minutes of putting this disc on. Giovanni Antonini – best known as the director of Il Giardino Armonico – produces performances from the outstanding Kammerorchester Basel that manage to be both bracing and ultra-refined.

He uses modest forces and his strings employ minimum vibrato, creating a feeling of period practice lightness, despite the use of modern instrument. Strangely, the sound itself sometimes gives the impression of a harpsichord tucked away somewhere in the orchestra – a mixture, it seems, of the strings' bowing and the horns' braying. This was particularly noticeable in the opening Allegro con brio of the fifth, the movement which reacts least well to Antonini's approach. Taken at so swift a tempo and so light on its feet, it loses some of its power. The gains in clarity, not to mention the verve with which the Basel players carry out Antonini's aims, cannot be overlooked, but the interpretation really gets going in an exquisite account of the Andante con moto. There's an emphasis once again on the moto, but the refinement and delicacy – particularly from the outstanding wind instruments – is a constant source of pleasure. These small forces might not be able to conjure an earth-shattering fortissimo, but the gains at the other end of the dynamic scale more than make up for it. There's an impressive fleet-footedness in the scherzo – particular from the running basses and cellos at the start of the trio – and the finale is thrillingly and refreshingly done, remarkable, once again, for the care and attention to details that often count for little.

Moving on to the 'Pastorale' I was less sure what to expect, but found the results, if anything, more successful. The airy clarity Antonini achieves from his orchestra means that, even at rather swift tempos, there's little sense of this music being driven. Only in the opening Allegro non troppo might one feel a little short-changed, but there's recompense once more in the pointed rhythms, particularly noticeable with the buoyant pulse the basses and cellos provide to lead into the development section. The wind players are once again outstanding in the 'Scene at the Brook', particularly the clarinets, and Antonini coaxes yet more magical pianissimos, gently moderating the pulse to great effect. Rarely, too, have I heard the bird calls at the movement's close performed so vividly.

It's indicative of Antonini's approach that the subsequent peasant's dance is actually a relatively subdued affair, with a gentle touch from the wood-wind and the strings not as boisterous as one often expects. The storm, on the other hand, is shockingly vivid and dispatched with furious power. All the more welcome is the relaxation of the finale, the, judged to provide the necessary contrast whilst still keeping a joyous spring in its step.

There is no sign of recordings of such core repertoire as this slowing down, and new Beethoven cycles continue to crop up in different shapes and forms across the musical landscape. On this evidence, Antonini's joins a recent selection – including Vanska's on BIS, Paavo Järvi's on RCA, and Douglas Boyd's on Avie – that show there's always room for more, especially ones that bring together the best of so many different worlds.

By Hugo Shirley