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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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