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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60 (1806)
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 67 (1812)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Directed by Bob Cole
recorded in February 2001 live at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome DVD.
TDK10 5117-9 DV BPAB 47 [107 mins]

This is the last issue in the complete Beethoven Symphonies recorded in Rome in 2001 by Abbado and his orchestra. They use the same editions of the Symphonies (Jonathan Del Mar) as they did in the CD versions. These gave Abbado a chance to review his approach to these masterpieces. The new edition goes back to the original manuscripts and subsequent corrections by the composer as well as other published editions. In truth, without comparing the new edition with the old, the changes are of a relatively minor nature. The average listener will be unable to tell which edition is being used.

The disc is supplemented by Abbado’s extremely illuminating talk on the Symphonies and on his approach to them. There is no doubt that he considers all of them supreme masterpieces of the symphonic literature. The talk is enhanced with snippets from the various symphonies taken from this and the earlier issues in this series. He has been influenced by the ‘period brigade’, shown by his reduction in the size of orchestra for the lighter works. A very interesting point which he makes about his performances is that the Berlin Philharmonic has only about 20% of the players that were there before he took over as chief conductor. Most of the new members have been very strongly influenced by extensive experience of playing in small orchestras or indeed chamber works. This, he states, is one of the reasons that the ensemble playing is of such a high calibre, encouraged as they are by him to concentrate on what other players are doing around them, and to integrate their playing by listening to each other.

He talks tellingly about his surgery, and how music helped pull him through, particularly playing Beethoven. At the end of some of the performances in this series one can feel the exhaustion. This is particularly noticeable at the end of the finale of the Seventh. He talks at some length about his approach to repeats in Beethoven, and how much he has learnt both in Berlin, and also from going back to the original scores. All the repeats are here, and he is quite particular in explaining how, by the use of the repeat, Beethoven produces both growth and gradual increase in tension and exultation in the last movement of seventh. This quality is exceptionally present here.

As the performances progress, one can very clearly sense the commitment of orchestra and conductor to these works. In comparison with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic, I sense absolutely no contest – Berlin 9, Vienna 0.

Abbado, now has a wonderful rapport with his orchestra, is clearly thoroughly enjoying himself, in spite of looking distinctly unwell as a result of his recent serious illness. The orchestra is also clearly enjoying itself with "edge of the seat" playing and complete commitment to their conductor.

With the new editions, Abbado has also elected for a much reduced size of orchestra for the second symphony, using only three double basses and four cellos. This sparer sound produces a lightness in the phrasing almost, dare I say it, like a period performance. It clearly is not a period performance but nowadays, many conductors are absorbing what has been learnt without going the whole hog. So here we have modern instruments, steel strings and modern brass and woodwind instruments, driven superbly by their conductor.

The recording quality is extremely fine, capturing the tonal splendour of this very great orchestra to perfection. The closing in on individual instruments in good BBC fashion enhances the listening experience considerably.

Anyone choosing this release is in for a very rewarding experience. It gives one the chance to see a world class (if not the world class) orchestra thoroughly at ease with their Music Director, playing favourite Beethoven symphonies with maximum style and enjoyment. Its audience is both quiet and attentive during the performance and voracious in their reaction to them at the close, and this is well deserved.

John Phillips

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