Beethoven: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
CATALOGUE NO: 434 029-2 DDD
Brüggen’s recordings of Beethoven’s First and Second have previously appeared separately, each paired with a late Mozart symphony. Now that his Beethoven cycle is nearing completion (only the Ninth is still to come), it was clearly sensible to present the first two symphonies on a single disc, even though they were recorded in a very different acoustic.

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The performances have much to recommend them: they are lively and illuminating, and in the slow movements Brüggen again reveals himself as the most Romantic among period-instrument practitioners. Only in the opening movement of the First does his concern to maintain a strict tempo correlation between the introduction and the Allegro lead him to adopt a speed for the latter that is too slow to convey the music’s dynamic energy. The recording of this work is over-reverberant: those highly original timpani rhythms running through the slow movement, for instance, need to sound more focused.

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Brüggen’s urgent tempo in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony successfully avoids any hint of a portentous, fatalistic approach. It is a genuinely exciting performance, and one that forces home the astonishing concentration of this most famous of all symphonic movements: the entire exposition here lasts less than a minute and a half. Perhaps the oboist could have been encouraged to be more expansive in the recapitulation’s two highly expressive Adagio bars, but it is a small point. Anyone wanting a version of the Fifth on period instruments should seriously consider this one. Beethoven’s two most tragic overtures complete a rewarding disc of his orchestral writing at its most rugged. Misha Donat