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Music Review: Two Beethoven Firsts

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The modern classical music listener may never know it, but Beethoven did compose after Haydn and Mozart, and not Wagner and Brahms. Acknowledged as the reformer of the sonata form as used in the symphony, Beethoven did compose two symphonies that, while ground breaking, remained in the established compositional mould of Haydn and Mozart's Classical symphonies.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, Opus 21, was composed between 1799 and 1800 when Beethoven was 29 years old. His deafness had already begun manifesting, as tinnitus, as early as 1796. The composer’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament was not written until October 1802, a document detailing Beethoven’s anguish over his progressive hearing loss.

Oddly, Beethoven’s sunniest symphony, No. 2 in D major, Opus 36, was written during this period. The master’s first two symphonies show a composer paying homage to his predecessors while boldly expanding their musical language. The First and Second Symphonies are light by Beethoven standards, his writing growing darker and more serious from this time on.

The fortune of Beethoven's Symphonies is that they are always in fashion. In the modern vernacular, Beethoven’s Symphonies have never been out of rotation. There are always individual symphonies and full cycles being recorded. We are currently experiencing an embarrassment of riches from the ongoing recording of cycles by two orchestras and conductors, collectively fine Beethoven interpreters. In the recent articles Two Beethoven Fifths and Two Beethoven Thirds we discussed two titans of the Beethoven book. Here, we find where Beethoven came from and divine where he is going.

Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra (in the first American cycle in decades) on BIS and Philippe Herreweghe, and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic on Pentatone are approximately two-thirds the way through their respective cycles. These two parties approach Beethoven from qualitatively different, but well-established directions. Hybrid SACD further adds value to these recordings. When starting with music of the quality of the Beethoven Symphony cycle listener is guaranteed nine sublime pieces of music.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven Symphonies 1 & 6 [Hybrid SACD]
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska

Vanska draws broadly from Bernstein and Solti, both of whom characterized their Beethoven with warmth and lushness, a breathing, expanding wall of sound. These characteristics are brought to life in the Super Audio nature of the recording. Vanska’s Beethoven First has mercuric fluidity, shiny, dense, and uniform.

Vanska’s pacing of this early Beethoven symphony is nothing less than perfect. He starts the ball rolling and through that inertia that is Beethoven, the composition comes to life, propelling forward with a relaxed urgency. His closings, particularly of the first movement allegro con brio are Swiss watch precise, thundering staccato codas. Vanska’s is a spiritual Beethoven, deep and thoughtful.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 [Hybrid SACD]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe

Like with Herreweghe’s Fifth his performance of the C major symphony is organic and transparent. Herreweghe’s interpretation permits the listener entrance into the music, beckoning us to come in and stay a while. The festivities are sure to be lively.

It is impossible not to compare Herreweghe's cycle with that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the 1990s: modern instrumentation with period sensibilities. The sonics are comparable between Herreweghe and Harnoncourt, both being superior to the period instrument performances.

And lively they are. Herreweghe’s use of natural horns is well manifested in his First, bright and tart. Insistent is his pace and determined is his approach. Herreweghe’s and Vanska’s tempi are comparable, but their respective grip on the reins is not. Vanska is a master of control and flow while Herreweghe likes a bit of the high wire, choosing to conduct with the governor removed.

Beethoven sings like an aria in the hands of Herreweghe and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. This is high dramatic stuff. Herreweghe successfully shows Beethoven as the Roman god Janus, looking forward to Wagner and backward to Haydn at the same time.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...