Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 7; plus discussion and listening guide

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 7; plus discussion and listening guide
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80471
New kids on the conductorial block often square up to Beethoven’s symphonies with insufficient experience of music, and of life. Daniel Barenboim, now in his late fifties, has had enough of both to ensure that these mid-life statements are mature and relevant enough to command serious attention. His survey offers safe, characterful performances, happily free of idiosyncrasies, and exceptionally well played by the Berlin Staatskapelle, an orchestra that spent so many years on the wrong side of the wall that it was often considered the poor relation of the Philharmonic. But as these fine-honed, vital accounts affirm, it’s not a wit less technically polished nor distinctive in sound than its more glamorous counterpart, while Teldec’s new recordings (the bloom and clarity suggests they might originate from Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Kirche, though my review copies arrived without documentation) sound magnificent.

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Barenboim’s approach is modernist, but generally avoids the stylistic pitfalls dug by the Toscanini/Klemperer traditions. Great care is taken to draw the ear to inner textual details, like the cellos’ accompaniment in the Trio of No. 8’s Scherzo, the second violins’ variation counterpoint in the Eroica’s finale and the timpani parts throughout. Barenboim’s readings of Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 delight with their Classical elegance and refinement, though Nos 5 and 7 occasionally slip back into the muddy furrows of traditional rhetoric. The Choral, too, is achieved through conventional means, strengthening the impression that, fine as it is, Barenboim’s cycle isn’t poised to supplant Harnoncourt’s, still the benchmark in modern-instrument Beethoven, with David Zinman’s Zürich Tonhalle set (Arte Nova) an unmissable budget alternative.

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Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies have always been at the cusp of controversy whenever questions of performing style, tempi and historical integrity have arisen. Benjamin Zander offers iconoclastic perspectives on each, in readings that stand defiantly beside some of the most provocative of recent times. His unwavering faithfulness to Beethoven’s oft-contested metronome indications seals his alliance with the ‘periodist-modernist’ movement pioneered by Harnoncourt’s COE cycle. Zander is among the most charismatic advocates I’ve heard, but the Beethoven tempo debate has run so long now that his are hardly earth-shattering insights.