Astonishing as it may seem, this Beethoven symphony cycle from
Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra
has a niche in the market almost to itself. With the notable
exception of Jos van Immerseel's, this is the only one available
on SACD and played on period instruments. If you're dead-set
on that combination of attributes, it may be worth considering,
but otherwise this is very much middle of the road Beethoven
with few artistic merits to elevate it above the hundreds of
A lively approach is taken by de Vriend, and there is a palpable
sense of energy in every phrase. This is just as well, as his
speeds, at least for period instrument performance, tend to
be on the steady side, with the Scherzo of the Second Symphony
in particular weighed down by surprisingly slow tempo choices.
A more serious failing, at least to my ears, is the conductor's
unwillingness to bring a distinctive character to each of the
individual sections. So the move from the Adagio introduction
to the Allegro exposition in the opening movement of the Second,
for example, has no real contrast and no sense of surprise.
Similarly with the Eroica, a piece that comes with many interpretive
expectations, none of which are seriously challenged here.
Beethoven's dynamics, hairpins and accents are faithfully reproduced,
in fact they are often exaggerated, but this is the only way
in which the phrase structure is articulated. So those punch
chords from the brass in the opening movements of both symphonies
are driven home, but there is little nuance or shaping in the
quieter phrases that follow.
All of which is a shame, because the orchestral playing is generally
very good. The Netherlands Symphony apparently use modern instruments
for more recent repertoire and period instruments for Classical-era
works. That sounds to me like an improbable scenario, and I
suspect there is a little of both going on here. Certainly,
the calf-skin timpani give a 'period' feel, as do the narrow-bore
brass instruments. The overall impression is of a big, brash
symphony orchestra with a few period touches added. Given the
isolationist politics that have characterised period instrument
performance for decades, the conciliatory approach of this ensemble
may offer a potential route out of the seemingly intractable
division between ancient and modern. In fact the orchestra does
not find a middle way so much as mix elements of the two performing
traditions without really offering the best of either.
All these impressions come through comparison with the many
other versions of these works on the market, and the recording
could be considered to have merits on its own terms. The Challenge
Classics team go for an atmospheric but clean sound for their
SACD reproduction. The strings and woodwind could do with a
little more definition, but the engineers don't give them the
help they need in this respect.
There is nothing actually wrong with anything about this recording,
and as I say, the energy and life that de Vriend injects, especially
in the outer movements, makes for engaging listening. However,
if you listen to these and then put on the Chailly or Gardiner
you'll realise just how much you're missing.