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