Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-02) [32:39]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) [39:22]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 21 & 23 April 2017, Goldener Saal, Musikverein Vienna
WIENER SYMPHONIKER WS015 [72:01]
This is the third issue in this cycle of the nine Beethoven symphonies by the Vienna Symphony under the direction of Philippe Jordan on the ensemble’s in-house label, Wiener Symphoniker. I reviewed the second CD in this series, which contained the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, and found the performances just fine. I noted there that this was the second go at a complete set of the symphonies by Jordan in two years. His first is on Arthaus Musik video and features the Paris Opera Orchestra delivering quite convincing performances. I also observed that tempos are a bit brisker this time around and the same holds true again, with the exception of the first movement of the Seventh, which features marginally less lively pacing than in the Paris set.
All in all, one notices here that this Vienna ensemble plays with great spirit and confidence, with precision and potent attacks, finesse and subtlety, in the end with a sense the music is in their blood. And Jordan, with the experience of the Paris cycle, delves into the endeavor with a mastery and total understanding of the music. Not surprisingly, his interpretive approach is tinged by a more modern view of the composer’s symphonies: tempos are on the brisk side and the music is allowed to speak for itself, with relatively little rubato and few other liberties taken. Such conductors as Thielemann, Jansons and Barenboim are known to take a more traditional view of Beethoven’s symphonies. Ivan Fischer might also be in this group.
Maestro Jordan, by the way, has served as the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony from 2014 and will hold the post until 2021 when Andres Orosco-Estrada succeeds him. Here, Jordan and company deliver a most convincing account of the Second. The first movement is vigorous and brimming with energy and sunshine, the strings especially infusing vitality and drive into the sense of triumph and joy. The ensuing Larghetto initially has a nice airy feeling in its subtle phrasing and restrained manner. It then appropriately gains momentum while retaining a delicate and elegant manner. Jordan delivers the playful Scherzo with well judged, multi-graded dynamics and crisp attacks, his orchestra giving him a precise and spirited performance. The finale, with its humorous opening hiccup, is a delightful romp, again with seemingly perfect dynamics and great precision by the players.
Detail is rich in all four movements and, wisely, Jordan avoids the trap to plumb this work for greater depth: this is still early, pre-Eroica Beethoven, mostly light in mood and not quite aiming to revolutionize and expand the form of the symphony. This was the evolutionary bridge between the solid but rather traditional First Symphony and the groundbreaking Third, the two symphonies Jordan began this Vienna series with.
The Seventh is appropriately given an epic, more weighty treatment, while pointing up the vibrant rhythms and spirit of the dance, so vital to any performance of this symphony. Following current fashion, Jordan takes the introduction to the first movement at a fairly brisk pace, which is arguably more in line with the composer’s wishes. The main section, Vivace, has plenty of bounce, plenty of lift, but also a good measure of muscle, the tempo lively but unhurried. The ensuing panel is played at a true Allegretto tempo, unlike the slower pacing favored by most conductors in the past. The music thrives here, coming across as both more vital and more impactful. The third movement’s main theme is lively, but barely reaches Beethoven’s Presto marking. Nevertheless, Jordan makes his tempo work nicely. The Trio, which can sound rather bland or even bombastic when played too slowly, is animated here, and the whole movement comes across marvelously. Ditto for the Finale: Jordan’s phrasing is subtle and most effective the way dynamics are brilliantly applied, and the manner in which the music gradually gains momentum as it builds toward ecstatic triumph. The strings deftly swirl and slither and turn ebullient, while woodwinds can be playful or graceful and brass add muscle. An excellent performance of the symphony!
There have obviously been many fine past accounts of these symphonies, both as part of a complete set or from individual performances. My preferences have been, not necessarily in this order, Harnoncourt (Teldec), Jochum (EMI), Jansons (Arthaus Musik Blu-ray), Thielemann (C Major Blu-ray) and on both CD and video there is Abbado (DG & Euroarts Blu-ray). Toscanini and Szell from a half century or more ago are both excellent but feature dated sound reproduction. One could go on and on citing alternatives and making comparisons, but suffice it to say that Jordan and the Vienna Symphony players deliver the goods here in fine style and can thus stand proudly with the best of the competition.