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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op.60 [33:17] (1. Adagio – Allegro vivace [11:26]; 2. Adagio [9:22]; 3. Allegro vivace [5:44]; 4. Allegro ma non troppo [6:45])
Symphony No. 7 in A major, op.92 [42:09] (5. Poco sostenuto – vivace [14:11]; 6. Allegretto [8:48]; 7. Presto [9:38]; 8. Allegro con brio [9:32])
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. De Roma, Antwerp, no date given
TALENT SACD DOM 2929100 [75:42]


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This is the first CD in a Beethoven cycle which Philippe Herreweghe plans for the Talent label.  He is of course entering just about the most competitive area in the whole of the recording market, both in terms of full cycles of the symphonies and individual recordings.  But this first issue, pairing two of the liveliest and most joyful of the nine, is an auspicious and encouraging start.

This conductor is well-known for his period performances of Baroque and Classical composers, and has gained, justifiably, a reputation for readings which are informed by considerable scholarship but are far from dry or ‘academic’.  Working here with the fine Royal Flemish Philharmonic, he is bringing the fruits of his ‘authentic’ endeavours to his work with a modern symphony orchestra.  This blending of ‘authentic’ and ‘mainstream’ orthodoxies is a trend well established in the recordings of Rattle, Mackerras and, notably, Nicholas Harnoncourt.  It is with this last’s superb series with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe that Herreweghe’s cycle will be in most direct comparison.

I described the Royal Flemish Philharmonic above as a ‘modern’ orchestra, which of course they are.  Yet they take the period performance of music very seriously, and have appointed their conductors with this dimension in mind, Daniele Calegari to specialise in 19th and 20th century music, and Herreweghe to concentrate on Baroque and Classical.  I wish the booklet, which has quirky but genuinely interesting background material on the symphonies, had given more specific details of the instrumental forces Herreweghe has used here.  It seems pretty certain that his brass players are using valveless period instruments, trumpets in particular braying out to great effect.  And I did wonder if the flautist is using a wooden flute, for at times the balance is slightly problematic, the flute losing out to oboes in, for example, the trio of the 4th symphony (track 3 around 2:35).

Generally, though, the recording balance is extremely good, and all the layers of the orchestration come over with exceptional clarity.  To give one fine example; towards the end of the first movement of the 7th, the violas ‘cellos and double basses have a phrase which is repeated obsessively as the music grows towards its final climax (track 5, from 13:04 to the end).  Often, the repeated figure is lost as the tumult rises; Herreweghe ensures that it is audible throughout.

There is plenty of excitement, too; the recapitulation of the 4th symphony’s 1st movement (track 1, 8:40 to around 9:05), brings a thrilling crescendo and outburst of orchestral tone, and generally Herreweghe is successful in capturing the explosive energy of the music.  If he is pipped by Harnoncourt (on Elatus 2564 60012), in this symphony it is only because the latter secures even greater contrast from his players, creating so wonderfully well, for instance, a sense of emerging from the shadows into brilliant light at the transition from the slow introduction into the main Allegro of the first movement.  Much the same applies to the slow movement, Harnoncourt realising the dramatic contrasts brilliantly, though it has to be said that Herreweghe’s wind players phrase with considerable style and expression.

Symphony No.7 begins here with real grandeur in its slow introduction, and in this passage, the disciplined avoidance of anything other than the slightest vibrato in the Flemish strings is admirable.  Herreweghe sets an ideal tempo for the Vivace that follows, with the horns ringing out splendidly in the tuttis.  There is one surprising and unfortunate mannerism, though.  At the build up to the recapitulation, (track 1, around 10:20), the strings drop down suddenly to piano, an effect that Beethoven does not ask for.  Understandable, and something many conductors have done before – but quite gratuitous.

In the second movement, the tempo is a shade slower than the one indicated in the score (crotchet = 76), though in fairness, Roger Norrington (EMI CDC7 49816) is probably the only conductor on disc who adopts that tempo and manages to stick to it.  However, the speed here is quite quick enough to avoid any sense of dragging, yet allows for expressive phrasing and a sense of space.  The concluding bars, where the violins - bowed once more after their extended pizzicato passage – cut across the final wind chord, is strikingly effective.

The scherzo is great fun – light and really quick on its feet, while the trio’s ‘squeeze-box’ effect in the wind is pulled off as well as in any performance I’ve heard.  The finale has tremendous sweep and energy.  Herreweghe doesn’t board the Karajan Express, but confines himself to obeying Beethoven’s metronome speed (minim = 72), which is quite fast enough anyway – as it indeed was for the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler: as on his 1953 recording on DG 431 031, though it does take a little time to get fully underway!

I would still opt for Harnoncourt’s outstanding 4th Symphony with the COE.  But Herrweghe and his Flemish players do a grand job, and the 7th is thrilling and hard to fault.  So for anyone looking for this particular pairing of symphonies, I would have to recommend this issue very positively.  It will be fascinating to see this cycle unfold.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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