Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4&7Symphonies Nos 5&8

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4&7Symphonies Nos 5&8
PERFORMER: Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: 2929100 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Philippe Herreweghe’s Beethoven is characteristically muscular and gritty, bringing out all the music’s visceral excitement. Particularly successful is the opening movement in the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, where Herreweghe’s driving energy of the playing creates an impressive sense of cumulative excitement. But what on earth possessed him to allow the oboist to substitute a new mini-cadenza for Beethoven’s in the recapitulation of No. 5? This is one of the symphony’s famous moments: the music’s seemingly unstoppable momentum is momentarily held in check while the oboe plays a slow, deeply expressive phrase that adds a whole new dimension to the piece. The descending shape of that phrase – fully written-out by Beethoven – arises out of the agitated bars that precede it; and while it can be played as freely as you like, its musical content is non-negotiable. Fortunately, there’s nothing quite so wilfully controversial in the rest of these performances. But for all their undoubted intelligence and conviction, what I miss in them is a feeling for orchestral colour and shading – and above all a sense of mystery. The pizzicato da capo in the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, and the hushed reprise of the same material during the course of the finale, are a case in point; and the slow introduction to No. 4 needs to sound much more like music that’s groping its way towards the light. Such moments don’t make their full effect here largely because there’s no genuine pianissimo playing; and the same is true of the delicate fugato passage in the second movement of Symphony No. 7. When all’s said and done, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic can’t stand comparison with the orchestras on some rival versions of this repertoire – listen to the intonation of the unison violas and cellos at the start of the slow movement of No. 5, for instance, or the solo cellos and basses in the Scherzo. Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic offer superb playing throughout, though their reinstatement of a wholesale repeat of the Scherzo and trio in the Fifth Symphony, unambiguously deleted by Beethoven, is contentious. A safer recommendation here is Osmo Vänskä, who also gives a fine account of No. 4,.