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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 [32.39]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [39.22]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 21/23 April 2017, Große Musikvereinssaal (Goldener Saal), Vienna

With its project titled ‘Road to Beethoven’, the Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan moves on to the third of its ongoing five-volume cycle of complete Beethoven symphonies with this album of the Second and Seventh. Collectors of Beethoven symphonies have an extensive and often bewildering choice which is being regularly widened, so in this review I have mentioned some of my favourite recordings of these two works.

Unlike many of the established, older recordings for example Furtwängler, Szell, Klemperer, Böhm and Karajan these live accounts from Wiener Symphoniker were recorded using a different approach to ‘big band’ Beethoven. Here music director Philippe Jordan conducts modern instruments but makes use of insights from period informed performance practice, for example employing a pared-back orchestra with spare use of vibrato and employing original tempi. In some ways I do rather miss the richness of Furtwängler’s accounts, especially the deep resonance of the low strings that typically underpin his performances; however these readings with from Wiener Symphoniker have real gravitas containing clean, crisp textures, yet the sound is never thin and contains intensity, impressive tonal power and is still steeped in its characteristic Viennese sound tradition.

In Spring 2019 the Wiener Symphoniker is due to release the Sixth (‘Pastoral’) and Eighth symphonies. The cycle will culminate with the Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) which is planned for release in Autumn 2019. As can be seen from the projected release dates, the Beethoven cycle will be complete in time for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Beethoven which occurs in 2020. It is surprising, given its long history and roster of renowned music directors, this will be the first time that Wiener Symphoniker has recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies.

Mainly composed in 1802 during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt, the Second Symphony is dedicated to the composer’s benefactor Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky. Beethoven premièred the work the following year at Theater an der Wien, Vienna. The score is a product of the time of Beethoven’s harrowing emotional turmoil, as demonstrated in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament. The outstanding playing of the Second Symphony under Jordan is striking, maintaining a model pulse. In the determined opening movement, which seems jubilant on the surface, Jordan reveals shades of a dark and serious undertow. Revealed through shadows, the enchanting Larghetto contains an upright, highly agreeable quality and for Jordan is the core of the work. It is in the uplifting and radiant Scherzo that Jordan adopts dynamic contrasts that are broad and pointedly dissonant, with the orchestra playing with clean precision. Joyous and uplifting, repeatedly swirling round and round, the Finale concludes on an arrestingly festive note. An admirable recording I have become familiar with in the last couple of years is Sir Charles Mackerras’ highly satisfying live 2006, Usher Hall, Edinburgh performance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO). The performance is contained on Mackerras’ set of the complete Beethoven symphonies on Hyperion. Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker have made a beautifully played live recording, polished yet expressive, part of its set of complete Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label. Worthy of attention. and not just for historic interest, is the only known recording Wilhelm Furtwängler made of the Second Symphony, a penetrating 1948 account discovered as late as 1979. Furtwängler, with the touring Wiener Philharmoniker, was recorded live at Royal Albert Hall, London. Now seventy years old the original discs were in poor condition and despite the challenging sonics my ears have become reasonably attuned to the sound, but of course considerable allowances must be made for the age of the recording remastered on Pristine Audio. I am bowled over by this exceptional account of this new Second from Philippe Jordan and for overall satisfaction it joins the roster of the finest recordings I know.

Both Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were completed in 1812 yet they differ widely in character. Dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, the Seventh Symphony enjoyed great success at its 1813 première at Vienna University. It was Wagner who famously described the symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance.” In Jordan’s confident hands the passionate music of the extended opening movement, marked Poco sostenuto - Vivace, is irresistibly played and feels like an overture to an unwritten opera. The austere beauty of the much admired Allegretto is noble and striking, possibly a homage to those soldiers who had died fighting the French invaders. Uplifting is the sense of verve and joy that the players achieve in the Scherzo and the inspiring Finale has an infectious exuberance.

In addition to this Vienna account from Jordan, of the more recent recordings of the Seventh I rate highly the striking live 2014 account from Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Honeck recorded the symphony at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings. Otto Klemperer made a thrilling recording with Philharmonia Orchestra in 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London on EMI. I have, though, yet to hear a performance of the Finale to equal the intensity Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berliner Philharmoniker give to their penetrating live recording of the Seventh from 1943 at the (Alte) Philharmonie, Berlin. I can just about enjoy Furtwängler’s outstanding performance without the reasonably challenging sound quality detracting too much. The remastered pressing that I favour is on Pristine Audio, however, I also have the performance as part of the box set Wilhelm Furtwängler - Recordings 1942-1944, Vol. 1 on Deutsche Grammophon. Also worthy of attention is another continuing Beethoven cycle from Dresdner Philharmonie under Michael Sanderling. In each of Sanderling’s volumes a Beethoven symphony is coupled with a Shostakovich symphony forming part of two complete parallel cycles on Sony. Four volumes have now been issued by Sanderling; however recordings of Beethoven’s Second and Seventh Symphonies are yet to be released.

Clearly relishing the challenges, these are potent live performances from Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan of real impact that contain a sense of nobility and sincerity. Recorded live in April 2017 at Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, the overall sound quality is outstanding, having a clarity that reveals considerable orchestral detail together with a satisfying balance. My only caveat is a minor one which for my taste concerns some over-bright winds in forte passages in the Seventh, most noticeable in the Scherzo and Finale. Walter Weidringer has provided the first-class booklet essay titled ‘A Celebration of Extremes’ which is an engaging read and most helpful. These live recordings of Second and Seventh Symphonies are the finest yet in this compelling Wiener Symphoniker series of complete Beethoven symphonies.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Robert Cummings



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