Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1811-12) [40:35]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) [25:22]
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 29-30 June 2010 (Symphony no.7) and 25-26 June 2008 (Symphony No.8), Muziekcentrum Enschede

This is volume 3 of Jan Willem de Vriendís complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, of which volume 1 is reviewed here. I greatly enjoyed what this team did with the Beethoven Violin Concerto (see review), so needed no second bidding to investigate some of this new symphonic work.

The booklet notes are nicely written though somewhat subjective, and there is nothing about De Vriendís approach to interpreting Beethoven other than the rather coy final sentence, ďAs always, they delve into the depths of the symphonies and from these depths, they elevate themselves to a higher level... in their understanding of Ludwig van BeethovenĒ Come on people: thatís not content, thatís worthless column filler fluff. Left to the evidence of what we hear, I agree with John Sheppardís summary of these being ďessentially clean, well recorded performances, combining many aspects of the modern trend towards historically informed performance.Ē With their SACD recording as a potentially important selling point, they immediately run into an already complete cycle and one of my favourites, that with Osmo Vänskä on the BIS label (see review).

I donít dislike Jan Willem de Vriendís Beethoven at all. His Symphony No.7 has a spring and a drive which tops Vänskä for urgency in most of the faster movements, while not sounding over impetuous or rushed. The final Allegro con brio reaches fever pitch for example, and is remarkably exciting. The recorded balance is brighter on the whole, but this might have something to do with the string balance, which is a tad fuller and a good deal warmer from the BIS label, or is it the orchestra? My impression is that there is sometimes not quite enough weight in the string sound during tuttis with the NSO, or at least when the brass is in full flow. This is by no means always the case, but there are moments where the string counterweight to the brass interjections seems to struggle a little. See if you agree at 10:10 in the first movement of the Symphony No.7 where the melodic shape from the strings is actually quite hard to track. Intonation isnít always perfect either, and the little flute solo at 10:50 in the same movement sounds plain sharp. There is plenty of detail in the recording though, and no really substantial complaints on a technical level.

The character of the brass in the Symphony No.7 is rather special in this recording, with some nicely growling horns creating a sense of drama at numerous points. The period nature of the performance of course means little or no vibrato in the strings, so there will no doubt be comments about their thinness of sound. Iím rather used to this now, but itís worth bearing in mind if you have an allergy to this practice. The famous funereal Allegretto starts fairly urbanely but builds convincingly, and the timpani thwacks here and elsewhere are allowed free rein.

The pairing of the 7th and 8th symphonies is a good one, with the brooding and theatrical drama of the one contrasting with the frequently good natured sunlight of the other. Once again, this Symphony No.8 is very good, though while the lyrical touches in the winds are nicely phrased the legato from the strings is a little less clean. De Vriend moves everything along with a light touch and everyone at ease with his driving tempo and wide dynamics in the opening Allegro e vivace con brio. Timpani played with harder sticks tell in favour for De Vriend and against Vänskä here, whose fatter sounding drums rumble more like a storm in the background rather than being a real part of the ensemble, though that quiet ending is so tight from the Minnesota band it ends up having the last and best word. De Vriendís Allegretto scherzando is a bit Ďtwixt and between Ė neither really light and refined nor filled with the surprise and variety we have from Vänskä. His touch is also a mite heavy with the Tempo di Menuetto, coming from a baseline soft dynamic which isnít really that soft. Vänskä gets his players almost down to nothing where he wants; allowing plenty of space for dynamics without having to raise the roof each time thereís a forte. There are plenty of good things here though, and certainly enough testosterone-filled meatiness to go around if you like your Beethoven assertive and masculine. Funnily enough, after so many hard-driven fast movements it is in the finale of the Symphony No.8 that De Vriend eases his foot off the pedal just a little. This allows all those late Beethoven inner voices to speak with that much more clarity, which I rather enjoy. The little off-beat timpani strokes at 2:22 are a delight, and there is plenty of colour and texture to relish, as well as a fine feel of quasi-descriptive narrative in De Vriendís almost operatic response to this movement.

This is a fine recording and a brace of performances which has much to recommend it. There are one or two mild and mostly minor qualitative issues with the playing, and if you are looking for the most refined of Beethoven then Vänskä is still your man. Jan Willem de Vriend does have a way of making these symphonies sound fresh and exciting however, even a little dangerous Ė in a different and good way. These donít quite knock the best recommendations off the top, but as a SACD choice I would certainly choose De Vriend over the heavier Philippe Herreweghe (see review).

Dominy Clements

Not quite top, but holds plenty of interest.