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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) 
Symphony No. 7 in A Op. 92 [39:16] 
Symphony No. 8 in F Op. 93 [24:42]
Tafelmusik Orchestra/Bruno Weil
rec. 2-4 April 2008, George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto, Canada
ANALEKTA AN29947 [63:58 + bonus DVD: 46:26]
Experience Classicsonline

There is nothing new today about Beethoven symphonies played on “period” instruments.  Such orchestras have the potentially great advantage of approaching these works from their past and therefore being more alive to what was new about them. It has also become very obvious that this does not prevent great differences between performances.  Conductors such as Sir Roger Norrington, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Frans Brüggen all bring very individual approaches, as did their great predecessors working with “modern” instruments.  All can add to our understanding and enjoyment of the music. There is always room in the catalogue for new versions that extend this still further whatever their origin or choice of instruments.
The present  recording combines the talents of Tafelmusik, a Canadian group originally known in Britain for its very lively and sharply characterized recordings of baroque music, and Bruno Weil, whose recordings at first centred on the music of Haydn.  Both have excellent credentials for moving forward to the music of Beethoven, and so indeed it proves, with wonderfully stylish and uncluttered performances.  Everything sounds natural and uninhibited.  The actual sound of the orchestra is wholly beguiling. The opening of the slow movement of the 7th symphony is particularly lovely with wonderfully hushed and virtually vibrato-less playing.  The attraction of the sound is partly a result of the very careful attention that is given to balance and articulation.  The brass and woodwind players have thoroughly grasped the vital need for fp when they have the long held or repeated notes which can so easily obscure melodic lines in the strings or in a single wind instrument.  As a result there is no need to force those lines.  In turn this means that where a more forceful approach is needed – for instance in the first and last movements of the 7th symphony – this becomes all the more telling to the listener.  Weil avoids such “traditional” tricks as the luftpause near the start of the vivace section of the first movement of that symphony, and generally adopts a straightforward approach avoiding drawing attention to interpretative points.  This works well, and even if I could not go as far as the conductor bids by imagining hearing the symphonies for the first time, I did enjoy the freshness with which the performers seemed to approach their task.
Not everything is perfect.  At times the dynamic contrasts required by the composer do not seem to be present – the ff in the 8th symphony and even more the fff at the end of the 7th are perhaps not given their full value.  I tried increasing the volume but this simply robbed the softer passages of their effect.   A less important matter is that the gap between the 3rd and 4th movements of the 7th symphony is surprisingly long.  Usually I regard the gaps between movements as being better the longer they are, but a short gap here does much to emphasize the wildness of the last movement and thereby adds greatly to the impact of the music.  This may however not be a universal view, and it is clear from the DVD that a long gap is something the conductor makes in concert performance and that it is not merely an error by the CD producer. 
The DVD is a fascinating but frustrating missed opportunity.  It includes a documentary some 12 minutes long with brief comments by Jeanne Lamon (music director), Bruno Weil and members of the orchestra together with brief extracts from rehearsals.  Unfortunately the comments consist mainly of the kind of mutual admiration which is tiresome and unrevealing. The rehearsal extracts do not answer the kind of questions the listener may well want answered, such as how does the relationship between music director and conductor work (the former sits on a low podium alongside the conductor and gestures frequently to the string players), and how the special insights the latter is said to have gained from the study of manuscripts are imparted to the orchestra.  In addition here and in the four movements from concert performances of the symphonies the director seems unable to keep the camera still for more than a moment.  Watching the performances made me feel physically sick at times as we are whirled around the orchestra to no particular purpose.  If only we had been given time to take in what we are seeing we would enjoy and learn much more.  In addition, all too often we seem to turn to players who have just finished solos and are putting their instruments down rather than those who are playing.  The conductor’s manner is generally impassive but some of the players seem to be trying to make up for this with movements of their own, which distract the viewer.
The four movements chosen for the DVD are the first and last of the 8th symphony and the second and last of the 7th.  I can see no good reason why the whole of one symphony was not included, which would have been much more satisfying for the viewer.  However, given the somewhat low quality of the film direction of the DVD, this is perhaps of no great consequence.  It is better to concentrate on the CD and ignore the DVD.  On that basis I can strongly recommend this issue and look forward to the continuation of their recordings of the Beethoven symphonies in future issues. They have already recorded the 5th and 6th for Sony.
John Sheppard


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