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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 (1808) [33:42]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op.92 (1812) [41:32]
Westdeutsche Sinfonia/Dirk Joeres
rec. October 2017-September 2019, Forum Leverkusen
Includes bonus DVD of analysis the symphonies by Dirk Joeres
MUSICAL CONCEPTS MC3106 [75:25 + DVD: 65 mins]

Dirk Joeres is one of those conductors who makes highly satisfying recordings, whilst not being counted as one of the greats. His most famous recording was of the Brahms Serenades; I remember hearing it about twenty years ago. It was released several times and as an Alto disc was favourably reviewed. The Serenades are not amongst my favourite Brahms works although, as I recall, Joeres didn’t suffer in comparison, in these works, with Boult and Haitink. Several years ago, he and the Westdeutsche Sinfonia embarked on a Beethoven cycle. To date each of those CDs includes a bonus DVD in which Joeres illustrates Beethoven’s compositional qualities and also plays excerpts on the piano. He has also issued solo recordings. John Whitmore reviewed symphonies 1 and 2 (review) and 3 (review) which were issued on the Heritage label. For the present disc Joeres presents two of the most famous of the nine on Musical Concepts and this leaves only Numbers 4, 6 and 9. Meanwhile the Beethoven Anniversary year has seen a deluge of releases and not a few symphonic cycles, in the vast majority of cases with something to say. As John made clear, in such a crowded market, it is difficult to make firm recommendations but it augurs well that the Westdeutsche Sinfonia draws players from eight major German symphony orchestras. They play with great commitment and give the impression that this music is in their blood and, as has been mentioned previously, have great passion.

With their fine rendition of the trail-blazing Fifth Symphony, Joeres and his orchestra give a perfectly executed performance. It’s of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school. I wanted to avoid the cliché that one would be delighted to hear such a performance in concert but you really would. Like Toscanini before him, Joeres is intent on giving what Beethoven intended as an exciting and revolutionary experience. The beginning is thrilling and the final two movements are edge-of-the-seat experiences with the orchestra playing their hearts out. The sound is perfectly captured and makes one realise again the extraordinary inventiveness and life-affirming nature of Beethoven. Compared with the recording by MusicAeterna under Teodor Currentzis (Sony) (reviewed by me in April 2020), I enjoyed Joeres much more. I felt Currentzis was just too “scientific”. My go-to modern recording for musical and partly sentimental reasons is a live recording from the 1990 Proms (Klaus Tennstedt/LPO) which I reviewed five years ago. When I want a no-holds-barred Beethoven Fifth I will happily consider Joeres.

The qualities that abound in Joeres’ Fifth are present again in the Seventh. Famously described by Wagner as “The Apotheosis of the Dance” the orchestra certainly bound along in the first movement. Here one should notice that they are aware of modern practice and although full-blooded they are never heavy-footed as the much-vaunted Klemperer 1955 recording (EMI/Warner) sometimes is, much as I love its idiosyncrasies. As well as the burnished strings the wind are superb and make one appreciate that these were, to Beethoven and his audience, the instruments of battle. The slow movement, forever associated with the film “The King’s Speech” has depth and had me very involved. The orchestra combines lightness and force in the third movement Presto-assai meno presto which I regard as the key to the whole work. In these challenging times, I found their affirmation very moving and they achieved an intensity that, frankly, I wasn’t expecting. No one learning this great work from this performance could possibly feel short-changed and those perhaps satiated with quirky performances will find this highly refreshing. We also get all the repeats and at no stage does this make it too long. I happen to be an admirer of Thomas Beecham’s Seventh, available in an indispensable box “The Later Tradition” (EMI/ Warner review) although he’s not for every day. He described the last movement as “yaks dancing”; well, they’re certainly joyful here and there is a sense of purpose without going too fast. Joeres has demonstrates an understanding of the dynamics of this work and it radiates throughout the orchestra. It brings the Symphony and the CD to a splendid conclusion.

Referring to Currentzis, I recently reviewed his Seventh and generally found it far more than acceptable despite one or two reservations. What, however prevented a firm recommendation was that it was only one symphony; less than forty minutes of music and some downloads were £16. Therefore, both the Fifth and Seventh, easily fitted on here, were being sold separately making the purchase of both symphonies, three times as expensive. As well as reviewing for over 15 years, I’ve been collecting classical recordings for nearly half a century and cost is certainly a consideration. I learnt the Beethoven symphonies from BPO and André Cluytens on the budget CFP label. They’re still recommendable and I consider Joeres a worthy successor.

The DVD, as with previous issues, is a satisfactory bonus. It starts right away without the expected menu. In it, Joeres, sitting at a piano in front of a bookshelf full of scores, speaks to the camera in English with German subtitles hard-wired into the picture. He starts with an analysis of the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. Joeres notes the ambiguity where it is not clear at first what key the work is in, until the chords confirm it as C minor. Joeres’ speaking style is formal but with an inviting warmth. Alfred Brendel’s series of Schubert’s piano sonatas, which he made for German television in the 1970s, (each beginning with a ten minute introduction with musical examples at the piano) easily comes to mind. Joeres speaks for 65 minutes on both symphonies. There is no track division, so the DVD has to be viewed either whole, or navigated by fast forwarding.

If you enjoy watching grey-haired musicians speak for over an hour on two familiar staples of Austro-German repertoire, this should be engaging. Otherwise, the very well recorded audio on the CD should suit long-time Beethoven lovers as well as fresh newcomers.

I enjoyed hearing these two performances of masterpieces from the Austro-German repertory and very much look forward to further instalments.
David R Dunsmore

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