BEETHOVEN Symphonies No. 1 / 3 / 5 / 7

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3 Eduardo Chibás, - Carabobo SO - MOUSIKE [no disc #] (51:51) Live: Valencia 4/5/2001

BEETHOVEN Symphonies No. 1 & 3 Eduardo Chibás, - Venezuela SO - MOUSIKE 1025 (77:21) Live: Caracas 7/12/2007

BEETHOVEN Symphonies No. 5 & 7 Eduardo Chibás, - Venezuela SO - MOUSIKE 1024 (70:49) Live: Caracas 3/16/2005, 2/3/2005

In 30:3 and 31:5, Robert McColley and Jeffrey J. Lipscomb respectively (and respectfully) reviewed recordings of the last three symphonies of Anton Bruckner performed by the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra under conductor Eduardo Chibás, who is the subject of an interview elsewhere in this issue. As a conductor Chibás is an autodidact, and also an amateur in the technical sense of that term. After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in applied mathematics and operations research at Columbia University in New York, he went on to become the head of a Venezuelan advertising agency, AW Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, which is still his primary occupation. Aside from his conducting career, which began with the Venezuela Symphony in 1992 and was taken up in earnest in 1996, he is the president of the Wagner Society of Venezuela (at his 1992 debut concert he conducted the prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger). Between 1999 and 2001 he recorded live with the Carabobo Symphony the first cycle of Beethoven symphonies to be commercially produced in Venezuela, and in 2004 and 2005 conducted first performances by the Venezuela Symphony of the aforementioned three Bruckner symphonies. Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner are the three composers with whose music he continues to be primarily associated; he has also led performances of music by Mozart and the Schubert Ninth Symphony.

Of the three Beethoven symphony discs under review here, the Third with the Carabobo Symphony is not the 1999 performance from the aforementioned complete cycle, but a subsequent performance from 2001 Unlike the other two CDs (more on which below), that disc as issued comes with no booklet or issue number, and I was unable to discover any more information about the ensemble, except that it is different from the Carabobo Youth Symphony Orchestra. I did ascertain that Alfredo Celis Perez Hall, the venue of that performance, is part of the University of Carabobo in Valencia, the third largest city in Venezuela after Caracas and Maracaibo. All the recordings can be downloaded from; information is also available from the conductor's personal website

Whereas recordings of European and North American orchestras are plentiful, and ones from Asia have made inroads in recent years, ones of ensembles from Central and South America remain extremely scarce in the international market. Upon receiving these discs for review, a question that immediately came to mind: might there be a distinctive Latin American orchestral sound or interpretive approach, analogous to that which (rightly or wrongly) comes to mind when thinking of French, German, or Russian orchestras and conductors? While it would be foolhardy to make a definitive assertion based upon a small sample from a single conductor, I nonetheless would not be surprised at an affirmative answer. In all the performances under consideration here, two distinctive elements repeatedly caught my attention: a characteristic rhythmic stress with an emphatic stress upon the clarity of every beat, and a subtle shaping of the phrasing of melodic lines as a consequence of that, both reflective of various genres of dance music in Spanish and Latin cultures.

In lesser hands these elements could lead to monotony or distortion, but Chibás for the most part successfully integrates them into coherent and engaging interpretations. Though the occasional phrase here and there turns a bit foursquare and labored, he keeps a fine balance between rhythmic punch and melodic flow. He downplays the more discordant harmonies but gives extra prominence to the trumpets and timpani to underscore tension and heighten climactic moments. Interestingly, despite his professed admiration for Wilhelm Furtwängler, his interpretations do not obviously seek to imitate that conductor's art but pursue their own paths. The two performances of the Eroica, while not lacking in power and heft, have a decidedly dance-like feel to them, gazing upon the minuets of Mozart and Haydn on one side while casting a glance at Weber's Invitation to the Dance on the other. Although the Venezuela ensemble is the superior orchestra, I prefer the earlier reading from Carabobo. The recorded sound in the latter recording is significantly warmer and more resonant, the tempi overall slightly faster, and there is a greater sense of continuity; in particular, in the finale of the Venezuela performance Chibás makes a serious miscalculation in beginning the main theme much too slowly and taking the first couple of variations to get up to full speed, whereas the Carabobo performance immediately employs the appropriate tempo. The First Symphony is a study in contrasts, with the opening two movements given broad tempi while the concluding two are quite brisk, but it forms a pleasing whole. Exposition repeats are taken in the first and fourth movements. In this performance, as well as those of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, the recorded acoustic is more akin to that of the Carabobo Eroica than to the Venezuela one.

The performances of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies are a bit more idiosyncratic, though not eccentric. I initially disliked the rendition of the Fifth, finding it dramatically undercharged, somewhat stilted, and lacking in individual character in the first movement, and objecting to the seemingly gratuitous accelerandi in the closing bars of the first and fourth movements. However, after hearing the entire performance through a few times, and also listening to the other two CDs, I perceived how Chibás employed his distinctive sense of rhythmic accent and melodic phrasing to gradually build up a coherent musical narrative culminating in an optimistically assertive finale. Unfortunately, in my review copy the dramatic tension was rudely broken by an editing error that inserted two seconds of silence between the third and fourth movements. The account of the Seventh Symphony is fleet in the three faster movements but spacious in the Allegretto; the degree of emphasis Chibás places on the trumpets and timpani in the finale may not be to all tastes, though I found it invigorating. One regrettable blemish in all the performances is inadequate playing by the solo oboists in both orchestras, who suffer from a somewhat sour tone and faulty intonation, particularly noticeable in the opening of the Seventh. In sum, while these performances do not join the first tier of recordings, they do offer worthwhile and intriguingly different perspectives on thrice-familiar masterworks that rejuvenate one's conceptions of them, and are recommended accordingly, with the Carabobo Eroica taking pride of place.

The booklet notes in the two Venezuela Orchestra CDs require more comment than usual. Both include biographical notes on Chibás, and an essay by the president of the Venezuelan newspaper and media company El Universal, Andrés Mata Osorio, "Deeds, Difficulties, and Terrors," followed by essays by the conductor "The Hero as Creator" for disc 1025 and "Heroic Individualism" for disc 1024. Both authors make it abundantly clear that they are devotees of Friedrich Nietzsche, with a that philosopher superimposed over a photo of a bust of the composer from the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona. Mata Osorio's contribution is a Nietzschean attack upon the concept of the "absolute" in music, proclaiming music concerts to be "secularized rituals of introspective narratives" that, "in an age without historical inevitability or metaphysical consolations," serve (in the words of critic Edward Rothstein) "to create collective identities" while providing "the individual room to dream within that community and to participate in its heroic life and struggles." From this it is adduced that the studio recording is ultimately a "conceptual chimera" to be pursued henceforth only by "obsessive compulsives." For his part, Chibás in his essays promotes an explicitly Nietzschean interpretation of the Beethoven symphonies as a heroic, Promethean pursuit of human individuality and liberation from the tyranny of the divinity, beginning with an understanding that the Greek sense of tragedy had to be overcome and "the gods would have to be killed in order to make liberty possible," a goal delayed for almost two millennia by "Christianity's concentration of many gods into one." This fatuous assertion then morphs into bizarrely counterfactual claims that Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel must be subjected to a deconstructionist reading that replaces a narrative of God's creation of man with one of "man who projects himself into a divine dimension" and that in the concluding bars of the Fifth Symphony "Beethoven achieves, perhaps for the first time in history, a victory over Greek tragedy" because "in the Fifth Symphony, there is no god to be found that can suppress him. Man is now in control of his own destiny."

Fortunately, if one acquires this CD, one is paying for the music-making rather than the tedious pseudo-philosophizing. There is perhaps an ironic amusement to be derived from persons who pretentiously claim that "metaphysical consolations" no longer exist even as they ostentatiously proffer such themselves, or who condemn studio recordings for being technologically divorced from public concerts as community rituals while selling recordings of live performances that entail equally divorced acts of individual listening. And, with his usual incisiveness, C. S. Lewis put paid decades ago to self-congratulatory rhetoric about a supposed Promethean self-liberation of man to determine his own fate: "Let us not be deceived by phrases about 'Man taking charge of his destiny.' All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel, and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?" James A. Altena

We encourage you to also browse through the rest of our collection, including recordings from the creator of this website and remasters Eduardo Chibás, the renowned pianist Artur Schnabel and other historical directors