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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 4 in B-flat major, Op 60 (1806)
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93 (1812)
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
Overture to Lodoïska (1791)
Etienne Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817)
Symphony No 1 in G minor (1808)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
rec. 2022, Teldex Studio Berlin
Reviewed in 44.1/16 bit wav file format (downloaded)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902448.49 [91]

An adage, quoted in the accompanying booklet, states that Beethoven wrote only five symphonies, namely Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 - i.e. the better-known ones. The contrariness in me has a soft spot for the ‘other’ symphonies, two of which are on this download, and my faith is amply rewarded by these enjoyable readings. 

Given that I grew to love the Beethoven symphonies by listening to Otto Klemperer’s famously slower, more massive, recordings, it is somewhat of a surprise to realize that nowadays I more appreciate the benefits of “historically informed” performances. Those benefits, apart from the often more modern recording quality, include smaller orchestra forces (the booklet identifies 35 players), generally swifter tempos, and a different overall sound, including less vibrato from the strings. In this case, the tempos are not outrageously fast but on the brisk side, which suits these pieces. The audible detail in the recording is excellent; we are able at times to hear individual string instruments, for example, with the woodwinds coming through very clearly, whether as solos or in combination with others.

This download is part of a Beethoven symphony series by this orchestra and conductor, and what marks this performance out from the literally hundreds of Beethoven 4th and 8th symphony recordings are the couplings. In each release in the series, the symphony is partnered with a roughly contemporary work by other composers which has some sort of link to it. Thus, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ was released in combination with a contemporary work, Justin Heinrich Knecht’s Symphonie 'Portrait musical de la nature', written in 1784, some 24 years before Beethoven complete his masterpiece and surprisingly similar in approach to the ‘Pastoral’.

In the case of the current release, the couplings are an overture to Cherubini’s opera Lodoïska and a first symphony by French contemporary Etienne Nicolas Méhul, from 1808. They are arranged in the download in the order one might expect in a concert: Cherubini, Beethoven 4th, Mehul, finishing with Beethoven’s 8th symphony.

The Italian composer Cherubini lived most of his life in France, adopted a French version of his name and was greatly admired by the younger Beethoven. His ten-minute overture is a good example of the elements that might have appealed to the young composer. Those include some tunes very much in an Italian classical style, some thrilling climaxes and acute orchestration. It rewards listening time with creative details and provides a very concert-like introduction to the works contained. Lodoïska was Cherubini’s first major operatic success, and the slow opening of the overture is a good example of the excellent playing but also the excellent balance in the recordings.  The hard stick timpani are nicely evident, but not too prominent as the first Allegro vivace of the overture starts. It's short of course, but it is an overture, and cleans the palate for the following Beethoven.

Both Beethoven symphonies are played with gusto and the detail in the recording continues to show through, reminding me how much I love these symphonies. For example, Beethoven’s 4th symphony opens with a searching slow introduction, very few instruments playing but each clearly audible.  As the Allegro vivace moves along, the infectious melodies proceed and the movement takes shape. The solo woodwind playing is accomplished; I love the perky bassoon, for example, and the nice, HIP-type, gentle edge to the strings. It’s enjoyable just to hear each instrument, even in the tuttis.

Mehul’s 1st symphony was totally new to me, and I much enjoyed listening to it. The symphony as a whole has been often described as a response to Beethoven’s 5th. It may be a disservice to Mehul to immediately place his work against one of the greatest symphonies ever written, as it does not scale the Olympian heights of the Beethoven but was greatly admired by several composers in the Romantic era, such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. The opening movement certainly has great impetus, but the Andante drags a little; the succeeding two Allegro movements are of a compositional standard similar to the first.

The playing and recording in the series of which this download is a part are of a high standard and have provided much enjoyment, putting Beethoven into context with his near contemporaries.  I will make a point of listening to the other releases, some of which are already available, and some awaiting release.

The readable booklet notes, written by Peter Gülke and translated by Charles Johnston, provide good background on the Cherubini and Mehul works and a more detailed discussion of the two Beethoven symphonies, including relevant details that were often new to me.

Ian Orbell

Previous review: Lee Passarella (August 2022)

Previous MusicWeb International reviews of releases in this series
May 2020 of the release containing the ‘Pastoral’ and Knecht’s earlier and surprisingly similar ’Portrait of Nature’: (review)
January 2022 review of same forces, recorded live in 5.1 DTS sound, of very similar programs to this series (review)

Published: October 13, 2022

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