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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.36 (1802) [33:19]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op.92 (1812) [41:36]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, January 2008
BIS BISSACD1816 [75:49]
Experience Classicsonline

This pairing of Beethoven symphonies brings to a conclusion the cycle Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra have been working on since 2005. The previous releases can all be found reviewed on these pages, and in general the response has been positive. There always has to be an element of swings and roundabouts in evaluating re-recordings of repertoire which has been manifest in myriad guises for as long as music has been preserved for posterity, and while I’ve been listening to and greatly enjoying this disc over the last few weeks I was glad to have a second opinion.

Long car drives for performances in obscure corners on Europe are invariably helped along with small wobbly heaps of discs one has yet to hear from beginning to end. I have to admit to the system in my car being less than ideal, but having a passenger who also happened to be the compiler of Dutch radio’s ‘Composer of the Week’ programme was too good an opportunity to let slip. With this CD already tucked into the player, I let the music take effect. It took a while – the compiler of Dutch radio’s ‘Composer of the Week’ programme is an energetic character, and so it was a good 20 minutes or so when she suddenly sat forward and said, “hey this is really good!” Surprised and pleased to see it was an American orchestra and enjoying the individual nature of the cover design, we discussed the Nordic origins of the conductor and one or two other points, but the mission was accomplished: my own positive opinion had been vindicated in a blind listening test through a dodgy car stereo in a noisy Nissan, and can now truly report that this release is really good.

Potential purchasers can of course relish the sumptuous SACD sound, and this may indeed be a good enough reason to prefer this set over some others. Glorious sonics are no substitute for excellent performance however, and Osmo Vänskä has made of his Minnesota Orchestra a genuinely crack team of musicians. There is indeed a breadth and depth to the sound which is the equal of and better than most, but the ensemble and sonority in the strings is also a real plus. The sense of chamber-music making is strong in the lighter movements, such as the shorter scherzo Allegro third movement of the Symphony No.2. Vänskä works the contrasts of the music to their reasonable limits, and the dynamics go a long way to making these performances a revival of why we find these pieces so inspiring in the first place. There is a freshness of spirit at work here which makes these symphonies sound new – not ‘modern’ in the sense of any kind of avant-garde wilfulness, just an openness that combination of lyricism, energy and drama which keeps bringing us back for more.

As far as timings go, Vänskä tends to be more measured than 1960s vintage Karajan, coming in a good 8 minutes longer overall in the Symphony No.7. He is closer to Abbado’s Berlin timings, being almost identical in the Symphony No.2. A peek at Pletnev shows a few real extremes of divergence in the opening movements of both symphonies, and Pletnev is generally faster throughout. Yes, there are differences, but timings are of academic interest without a sense of where a conductor is leading us. What Vänskä does is allow the music to breathe where he feels it needs that extra bit of space. His orchestra is well up to the multiple climaxes in the complicated first movement of the Symphony No.7, and the gorgeous Orchestra Hall acoustic also helps carry this kind of performance: showing the drama inherent in the score, rather than treating the music as an opportunity to promote orchestral virtuosity. There is however a forward momentum in the music which is unstoppable, and an accuracy in the articulation and observance of dynamics which is almost forensic. This keenness to follow Beethoven’s instructions results in warmth and care in peformance, but also allows the musicians to let rip where the score allows – the horns peals forth with tremendous penetration in their calls during the final Allegro con brio of this symphony. The essential second movement Allegretto is as it should be: one of the great emotional centres of the piece, but light in texture – unencumbered by externally imposed funereal associations.

Colour, weight and balance are all given an equality of importance in these performances, but I do have one small criticism. Especially in the Symphony No.7 there is a good deal of repetition of one kind or another, and while the music has its own onward flow and sense of urgency I do have the feeling of ‘sticking’ rather in these repetitions. I was always taught that these cyclic passages have to have meaning both implied and imposed in some way. Their function is of course one of Beethoven’s elemental building blocks for the development of material, but, however subtle, there should at least be the ‘feeling’ of some sense of change or variety in repetitions both micro and macro, and despite all the well measured dynamic rises and falls there are some moments where I couldn’t help feeling myself being in a kind of rut, watching a procession of musical-fragment clones. Taking an opposite extreme and listening to Pletnev’s recording with the Russian national Orchestra on DG, and the effect is that of driving faster over a certain kind of bumpy road: the sense of any kind of static hanging around is smoothed over by the sheer tumult of the journey. This is probably quite subjective and I don’t want to labour the point, but the side-effects of Vänskä’s kind of perfectionist performing can in some ways distil the music into an over-abundance of clarity – if you can understand what I mean... at least, that’s the way it seems to me.

If the other releases in this cycle are as good as this one then I can recommend the whole set with virtually no reservations. Both the recording quality and performance are second to none, and I find the restrained use of vibrato in the woodwinds entirely to my taste: there is more than one classic performance which is spoiled by wobbly flutes and oboes, or flat clarinets, and this is most certainly not one of these. Intonation is also luxuriantly stable – and what a bonus this is in reality. The character of the whole production can be viewed in a broad sense, as being one which holds no dangers and few surprises, but being one which will grow on you, allowing your appreciation of Beethoven to deepen with each session, rather than that of any one ‘special’ conductor or orchestra. It can also take close examination and aural scrutiny at every moment throughout, and this means all your favourite moments will be every bit up to scratch. This combination of qualities is special enough, but best of all it allows the great composer’s musical utterance the freedom it demands without any kind of artificiality of interpretation – if perhaps missing that last nth of excitement and risk which can be found elsewhere.

Dominy Clements       


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