One of the best-loved of his nine symphonies, Beethoven’s uplifting Seventh is, unsurprisingly, also one of his most recorded.
Beethoven never retraces his steps, each one of his symphonies exploring a new path of musical expression. Undoubtedly the driving force of the Seventh is its obsessive utilisation of rhythm, a feature which thrilled Berlioz to the core and inspired the famous comment from Wagner that the work represented the ‘apotheosis of the dance’.
Composed between 1811 and 1812, the Symphony was given its first performance under Beethoven’s direction in December 1813 at a charity concert in Vienna for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau, and the orchestra included many of the finest musicians of the day including Spohr, Hummel and Meyerbeer.
The audience gave the work a favourable reception and demanded that the second movement be encored. But not everyone was so favourably disposed. One critic suggested that the composer had exploited disagreeable eccentricities for their own sake and a daring sequence of chromatic harmonies in the first movement allegedly led Weber to declare that Beethoven was ‘now only fit for the madhouse’.
The best recording
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Berlin Philharmonic (1999)
DG E471 4902
Well over 100 conductors have recorded Beethoven’s Seventh with many setting down several versions. Arturo Toscanini set the bar high thanks to his barnstorming account with the New York Philharmonic from 1936.
After this, vastly different approaches to the score were offered by such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer and Hermann Scherchen, while the mid 1970s recording by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic deserves a special place in any collection.
Each of the recordings that stand out manages to remind us of the original compositional skills at work. Claudio Abbado’s Berlin recording achieves this in abundance, investing significancenin each phrase, employing a vast range of dynamics, from a magical pianissimo to the most powerful fortissimo, while paying attention to the musical narrative.
Incidental details are noteworthy, such as the subtly elegant phrasing of the oboe melody in the introduction to the first movement, or the way Abbado negotiates the Transition from the introduction to the main allegro.
There’s an overwhelming sense of melancholy and emotional intensity to the first climax of the second movement Allegretto. The Berlin Phil responds to his every nuance, only faltering briefly at the outset of the finale, while the recorded sound has great presence.
Three more great recordings
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (2012)
Decca 478 3496
Riccardo Chailly takes on the mantle of Arturo Toscanini, offering a vibrant, rhythmically taut and classical view of the score with brisk speeds. Despite using a full-sized orchestra, conductor and orchestra achieve a miraculous transparency through a leaner string tone which allows woodwind, brass and timpani to cut through the texture with amazing impact.
The climactic passage of the first movement, with the horns at full throttle, is a thrilling moment. Yet Chailly can also inspire moments of delicacy, with the third movement scherzo achieving an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of articulation while the string fugato in the middle of the Allegretto combines energy and dynamism with mystery.
Outstanding playing from the Leipzigers and Decca’s immediate sound make this a desirable recording.
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1995)
DG Archiv 477 8643
Period performance has exercised a profound impact on our present day approach to Beethoven. And many recent recordings of the Seventh acknowledge this (for example Thomas Dausgaard and Paavo Järvi) by trying to replicate the sonorities with which Beethoven was familiar in terms of modern instruments.
Yet there’s still something even more dynamic in John Eliot Gardiner’s performance. Both orchestra and conductor seem to be engaged on an exciting voyage of rediscovery, as if they are intent on restoring the vibrant colours of an age-old masterpiece.
The result is compelling, as fervent rhythms, accented sforzandos and stark contrasts in dynamics and articulation bring a volcanic energy to the orchestration and a rawness that makes evident the revolutionary daring of Beethoven’s musical expression.
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
Minnesota Orchestra (2008)
From the rhythmically articulated, forward-thrusting opening bars and the miraculously quietascending string semiquavers that ensue, it’s evident that Vänskä has something individual to say about the score, and his interpretation holds your attention spellbound during each movement.
There’s an amazing attention to detail with a faithful and meticulous observation of Beethoven’s markings. Inner strings offer pulsating rhythmic energy at the return of the main idea in the first allegro and accented cellos and basses bring extra urgency to the finale’s close.
The third movement scherzo combines dynamism with touches of unbuttoned humour while the Allegretto is warm and expressive. BIS supplies a vivid SACD recording, and the disciplined playing makes this release a formidable contender.
And one to avoid
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (2006)
DG 477 6228
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra tear into Beethoven’s Seventh with tremendous gusto offering playing of intermittently impressive virtuosity. The surface impact
can be exciting in places, but the articulation in the big tuttis is heavy, and in the quieter passages the wind don’t always provide an ideally blended texture. This interpretation lacks subtlety, and the finale, taken at a fast and furious tempo, is too hard-driven, lessening its cumulative rhythmic power.