If I’m not mistaken, a particular musicologist once said, “French orchestras are incapable of playing German music.” Whoever it was who made this claim would surely have second thoughts upon hearing this fine five-disc Analekta recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies featuring l’Orchestre de la Francophonie under the direction of Jean-Philippe Tremblay. Founded in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, this ensemble has earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest youth orchestras, having given more than 200 concerts across Canada, and undertaking a successful tour of China in 2007.
There is certainly no dearth of Beethoven complete symphonies sets, so do we really need one more? Having said that, I can assure you that this one, recorded live at Québec City’s Palais Montcalm in July of 2009, can easily hold its own against the older more established recordings. From the opening hesitant measures of the Symphony No. 1, the listener is immediately struck by the youthful freshness of OF’s approach. The playing is noble and elegant, and when dramatic intensity is called for, it is achieved without the heavy-handed bombast that has sometimes characterized Beethoven recordings from the past.
Admittedly, one of my favourite symphonies of all time is Beethoven’s No.7. I’m pleased to report that the interpretation here is splendid, particularly in the first and final movements, where the strings seemingly shimmer in joyful exuberance. The second movement, mysterious and somewhat cryptic, is treated in a deservingly subtle manner, while the boisterous finale, at one time compared to the merry-making of peasants, brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion. Wagner, who also happened to love this work, (once referring to it as “the very apotheosis of the dance”), would be pleased indeed!
The climax of the set comes with the powerful Symphony No. 9, a true world unto itself. Soloists Marie-Josée Lord, Geneviève Couillard Després, Guy Bélanger, and Ētienne Dupuis together with the Choeur de la Francophonie maintain a wonderful vocal cohesion, admirably blending with the orchestra to form a unified whole.
Despite this being a live recording, extraneous noises are minimal, and the burst of enthusiastic applause at the end of each symphony seems particularly fitting in light of the superb performances. My only quibble concerns the flimsy packaging – it may have been a cost-cutting measure, but a fine recording such as this deserves better. Kudos to l’Orchestre de la Francophonie, to the soloists, the chorus, and to Jean-Philippe Tremblay for breathing some overdue fresh air into this well-trodden repertoire.