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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.1 in C, op. 21 (1799-1800) [26:50]
Symphony No.7 in A, op. 92 (1811-12) [41:48]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, Salzburg Festival, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 29 August 2003. DDD 
ORFEO C924161B [69:46]

These live recordings from the 2003 Salzburg Festival show Nikolaus Harnoncourt revisiting Beethoven. In 1990-91 he recorded a live cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the Stefiensaal in Graz (Warner Classics 2564 63779-2).

I shall compare Harnoncourt’s COE recordings with these WP ones. In Symphony 1 Harnoncourt's WP has an expansive yet somewhat amorphous introduction with sonorous but not especially biting, dynamic contrasts. The first theme of the main body of the movement is light and deft from the first violins and the following tutti has fitting power but lacks eagerness to drive forward. There’s a slight slowing to introduce the second theme shared by oboe and flute (tr. 1, 2:10) which for me underlines the intended relaxation in an intrusive way. In the development the interplay between strings and in turn bassoon oboe and flute is beautifully done yet, while the horn and trumpet calls are clear, they lack a sense of foreboding. The recapitulation, with all the strings and woodwind in unison, is satisfyingly firm but lacks grit. In Harnoncourt/COE (1990) there's expectancy in the introduction and the chords exchanged between strings and wind glow. We also hear greater lightness and eager progression in the main body of the movement, no arresting the tempo for the second theme which thereby seems more carefree while the development and recapitulation are more gutsy.

Harnoncourt's WP slow movement achieves more spring in both first and (at tr. 2, 0:44) second themes. He also gets a truly hushed pp beginning and the WP playing is more delicate, fastidious, courteous and elegant than that of the COE. The most deft passage of this movement is the recapitulation (4:38) when alongside the opening theme comes a variation of it as counter-theme, genially presented here in neat interplay. There are some occasions, however, where Harnoncourt/WP has insufficient dynamic contrast: the forte entry of oboes and bassoons and then strings towards the end of the exposition (1:17) and, still more, the ff entry in the development (3:48). Here Harnoncourt/COE is more effective.

Harnoncourt's WP Minuet's pace is a virtuoso display with a real swing to the sforzandi towards its close. He brings a delightfully feathery quality to the violins' scales in the Trio against the barely moving theme in the wind, albeit it begins with a slight slowing not required by Beethoven. Harnoncourt/COE makes it relaxed without such a jarring halt and provides greater dynamic contrast with more bursts of sound in the Minuet.

To the finale introduction's gradual soft creation of the main theme Harnoncourt WP brings twinkling humour and charm. The theme in the main body of the movement is all lightness and dexterity from the strings. The contrasting volleys of brass and timpani are crisp rather than weighty and the same can be said of the ff entry of the strings and woodwind in the development. The second theme (tr. 4, 1:02) is deftly paraded without a care in the world. Harnoncourt/COE doesn't have such poise in the introduction or blitheness in the second theme but brings more verve to the louder passages and urgent thrust to the second theme.

In Symphony 7 Harnoncourt WP's introduction has weight in the tutti chords but also glow in the woodwind solos. The strings' rising scales, after a quiet beginning, grow sinewy and later become heroic in their striving. Yet amidst this another dimension is revealed in the gentle oboe theme and violins' sympathetic comments: that the work is to be a contrast of melodic reflection and compulsive rhythmic progression. So Harnoncourt brings to the movement's main body a carefree first theme on the flute succeeded by a blazing tutti crowned by prominent horn parts. In the coda the lower strings' ground-swell is gradual yet compelling in its inevitable progress to a mighty, sonorous conclusion. In Harnoncourt's COE (1990) account there's less might but more dance and that makes you more eager to follow its more festive, celebratory progression. Harnoncourt/WP, despite lovelier woodwind solos, make the reiterated pounding chords too galumphing.

The second movement is a fascinating parade of paradoxes. In tone it's a funeral march but in its Allegretto tempo another dance, if at first a softly elegiac one. There seems barely a melody, so on its second appearance (tr. 6, 0:48) comes a counter-melody in the violas and cellos to add nobility to the gentle flow. By the fourth appearance that counter-melody has become an impassioned affirmation in the first violins against a very loud full orchestra which does swamp them a little in an account of otherwise exemplary transparency by Harnoncourt/WP. The second theme (3:05), headed by the clarinet, is more of a eulogy. The music grows increasingly rhapsodic with clarinet joined by horn and all meltingly mellifluous here before everything collapses in a sudden surge of discipline and return to the opening theme. This is now changed by eerie fugato treatment before, finally, being broken up into brief sequences for small groups of instruments. This makes you realize how what seemed a static theme is transformed by varied harmonies. Harnoncourt/COE has a more mournful cast and is less dance-like, though the first violins are more suitably prominent in the fourth appearance of the theme. The second theme is less beauteous but the fugato more desolate.

There are two surprises in the Scherzo and Trio. More obviously, the Trio which begins in a contented glow ends in a triumphant declamation. Less obviously, the Scherzo, ever nifty, is constantly shifting dynamic from loud to soft. This requires great dexterity from conductor and orchestra and Harnoncourt and the WP supply this in full measure. The opening of the Trio is rather too concentrated to be a full contrast in its serenity from what follows but the Trio's climax has true majesty, with trumpets that shine resplendently. Harnoncourt's COE account has more charm in the opening of the Trio but a more tense climax.

To the determined, swirling dance of the finale Harnoncourt WP brings a firm drive, prominent horns and high flutes at the first theme's climax. Add to this stylish first and second violins and the violas' exchange of semiquavers in the following episode. The second theme (tr. 8, 1:13) is a lighter, more skipping, then bouncing dance which turns to frenzy - here a startling touch. Harnoncourt/COE is harder-driven, without the suppleness and contrast of his WP account.
 
Michael Greenhalgh

 

 




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