Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [33:17]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [41:29]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. November 2004, De Roma, Antwerp

This recording is the same as that originally released on the Talent label on DOM 2020 100, a release reviewed very thoroughly both by Michael Greenhalgh and Gwyn Parry-Jones, and I find myself in agreement with most of both these critics’ comments.
This is one of those releases which has many fine features, but ultimately retains some elements of frustration. I’ve enjoyed hearing it greatly, and while I have been playing it often over the last few days in an attempt to clarify some ideas and opinions it hasn’t palled, which says much in its favour. In the first place, the recording is a very fine one, and will provide sonic satisfaction on the best of SACD systems as well as being vibrant in standard stereo. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic is a superb orchestra and plays its socks off for Herreweghe. His style is of the historically informed variety, which basically means taking the vibrato-free strings for what they are - cooler and more glassy sounding rather than the warmth of any amount of older recordings. Taken in isolation, the tempi are in general well judged, and in fact the timings are quite similar to my main comparison, another SACD recording with Osmo Vänskä on the BIS label (see review) which this recording actually pre-dates by a good ten years or so.
Where Vänskä is most often more interesting than Herreweghe is in his feel for Beethoven’s contrasts of mood. This is summed up with the opening of the Symphony No.4, where the slow introduction is full of tension and expectation, the following section having some of the drama and easy lyricism which returns in Beethoven’s later ‘pastoral’ symphony. With Herreweghe the opening has less feeling of direction, and, while moody and searching, doesn’t really engage the imagination as it could. The subsequent contrasts are dramatic, but rather more busy and energetic than really moulded into the micro-climates of mood captured by Vänskä.
These are all subtle, almost alchemic changes, and I don’t really want to suggest that Herreweghe is particularly weak. What I like about his way with Beethoven is how it somehow brings out operatic aspects in the music I hadn’t heard in other versions. Philippe Herreweghe is a choral conductor in origin, but this doesn’t mean he can’t conduct a decent orchestral performance, and his vocal leanings perhaps manifest themselves in other ways to those I have in mind, but which have been implied by other critics. What I’m on about is something we’ve become used to with interpretations of the later symphonies of Mozart - connecting them to operas contemporary with their composition. With Herreweghe’s Beethoven there’s often a feeling of retrospection rather than revolution, looking to classical forebears rather than seeking to eke out a prescient romanticism: a combination which can create an aura of dramatised and therefore ‘stage-like’ classicism. My feeling is that there’s always the potential for an aria to commence just around the corner. The opening of the Symphony No. 7 is a case in point, with a sense of curtain-raising drama which is weightier than Vänskä, but somehow less symphonic. Vänskä’s view is the long one, which spans the entire movement and already has a compass pointer showing a complex route to a satisfying conclusion. Herreweghe revels in moments, bringing us lunges of dramatic light and showing a stage set for narrative and action. The only problem with this is that these are not operas, and Beethoven’s stabs are born of developing repetitions which build a stunning architecture over extended time. Where Herreweghe loses me is in the similarity of his repetitions - each individually superb, but not really moving us onwards and allowing glimpses of that view from the top of the mountain which recalls the journey to the peak, and somehow showing us the glorious view towards the final point of arrival in the safe haven beyond.
Both of these symphonies have their juicy slow movements, but I feel Herreweghe’s Adagio in the fourth symphony is too matter-of-fact where Vänskä’s is full of lyrical atmosphere. While the all-important Allegretto in the seventh symphonyis good, itmisses some of the potential for gravitas in the music again through lacking the sense of architectural construction - not building to the real money moments in the way Vänskä does by achieving real beyond-the-grave hush in the earlier sections. The strings sound at their thinnest in those counter-melodies above the wind and brass chorale as well which is a shame, and that fugal section from 5:43 I can take or leave - it’s all just a bit soggy, not really ‘special’.
Going back to the Symphony No. 4 and the third movement Allegro vivace and we hear Herreweghe in rumbustious mood, bringing out plenty of larger-scale dynamic gestures which promise to break out into either a storm or a peasant’s dance of gratitude - we’re not quite sure which. Vänskä is quieter in general, allowing the transitional progressions room to develop, and the significant points to leap out with their true weight. This also gives space for greater wit in the development further on, where the wind ensemble talks to the strings in a conversation about where to put the flowers on the table - in the middle, or ‘just there’. The strings always have the last word, but with Vänskä you have the feeling that the winds take it all in good humour, where with Herreweghe it takes the drum section and some tasty brass to resolve the argument each time.
Enough fanciful commentary: my feeling is that this pair of Beethoven symphonies has many fine qualities and is in no way as bad as some critics would paint them, but neither do they beat their close competitor in Osmo Vänskä. Herreweghe is a fine conductor and he has a good orchestra with which to work, but the very finest subtleties evade this particular recording. If you are looking to collect this series and like Herreweghe’s approach then you hopefully won’t be disappointed by this release, but if you are coming to this repertoire afresh and looking for a fine SACD version then the BIS box is very hard to beat.
Dominy Clements
Not bad, but better can be had.