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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92 (1811/12) [40:46]
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), Op.43 (1801) [62:19]
Freiburger Barockorchester/Gottfried von der Goltz (concert master)
rec. February and June 2020, Teldex Studio, Berlin. DDD.
Reviewed as downloaded in 24/96 sound from
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM 902446.47 [40:46 + 62:19] 

There we were thinking that ‘Beethoven Year’ ended in December 2020, when Harmonia Mundi had been making it clear all along that theirs was a project to run from 2020 to the bi-centenary of the composer’s death, in 2027; it’s there to remind us in the logo on the cover of this and the other recordings in this period-instrument series. The earlier releases in the series have been directed by more starry names, but here the orchestra’s leader, Gottfried von der Goltz, as first among equals, sits very well in the hot seat.  I liked the recording of Mozart early symphonies and late dances which they made together - review - but they make an even finer job of this more substantial repertoire.

How appropriate that Beethoven’s ‘apotheosis of the dance’ should be coupled with his only ballet, the work which first brought us the theme which he developed in the ‘Eroica’ symphony and the ‘Eroica Variations’. It’s appropriate, too, that this recording should follow hard on the heels of my review of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Bruno Walter, which I singled out as one of the plums of the Sony Complete Bruno Walter Columbia set – review.

I wouldn’t want to use that classic Walter Seventh as any sort of a template. The new Harmonia Mundi clearly gains by its availability on CD and as a download, up to 24-bits, whereas the Sony is a very good transfer of a 1951 mono LP. The Sony is no great ordeal to listen to, especially for someone who owned the Philips LP back in the day, but there’s a wealth of greater detail in the new recording.

That extra inner detail is also down to the use of a smaller ensemble, playing period instruments. Walter’s NYPO certainly didn’t swamp the music – they were too sensitively attuned to his conducting for that – but the Freiburg players bring us something more intimate, yet just as imposing.

Right from the start, this performance makes it clear why Wagner described this symphony as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’, and set out to prove it to Liszt. The notes in the booklet remind us that the music has not always been associated with the dance, but the performance throughout amply justifies the description. Von der Goltz doesn’t need to rush his partners to achieve an athletic account of the first movement; no speed merchant, his basic tempo is actually slightly slower than Walter’s, but you wouldn’t realise it in practice.

The almost balletic account of the second movement is not rushed, either. There’s no actual slow movement, and, though this is one of the faster accounts on record, there’s real feeling for the music without undue sentimentality. Nor is the scherzo rushed, though there’s plenty of sense of the music skipping along – and moving us forward with it. There’s contrast, too, between the presto and assai meno presto sections, whatever Beethoven understood assai to mean. (It’s been suggested that he mistakenly believed it to mean the same as the French assez.) It’s plain, if it wasn’t before, how much the Freiburg Baroque players are enjoying this music.

The real test of any performance of the Seventh comes in the finale. It has to spin along almost like a whirling dervish, but it must not fall over in the process, or come off the tracks like a train wreck. It mustn’t even sound as if it might come off the tracks, as Walter’s stereo remake with the Columbia Orchestra does. With the NYPO, he whistles through in just over six minutes; watch out on that unmanned crossing!

Von der Goltz gives the road traffic a little more time to clear the crossing, though the difference is less than the three minutes indicated by the stopwatch, with the Freiburg players more generous with repeats. What matters is that there is plenty of energy in this account of the finale and, with every strand audible, it’s clear that nobody is letting the side down. I’m pretty sure that I’ve just found my modern Beethoven Seventh of choice, perhaps even in preference to Carlos Kleiber's Five and Seven with the VPO (DG Originals 4474002, mid-price CD or budget download), and repeated hearing is not likely to change that. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in 2011, with the ORR, is faster in the finale, described by John Quinn as ‘exciting’ – review – but not necessarily livelier (SDG717, with No.5).

The symphony, contained on the first CD, is not the whole story. The Eighth makes a good pairing for the Seventh – they arose almost simultaneously – but so does the much earlier Prometheus. If you really don’t want the ballet on CD2, you can download CD1 separately for around £5 in lossless sound, but the coupling of Prometheus, Beethoven’s sole work in that form, is apt. For a story that ends so tragically, with Prometheus punished by the gods for bringing fire to humanity, the music is amazingly entertaining.

The Overture is familiar, but we don’t often get the full ballet. Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic gave us a decent account of the complete work in Beethoven year (Naxos 8.573853). If you already have a Seventh that you like, you could do much worse than lay out £7.50 or so on that (around £5.50 as a lossless download). Robert Cummings thought the Naxos ‘a fine performance … with excellent sound’ – review – and I found it enjoyable – Spring 2020/1B – but my money is now on the new Harmonia Mundi – inevitably, the smaller-scale ensemble brings us lither performances and sharper tempi. The new recording is closer to George Petrou's with Armonia Atenea (Decca 4787655).  Without the choreography, the original version of which has not survived, not all the music will hold your attention, but you won’t find yourself wandering off-message too much with any of these performances.

The beautifully lilting account of the finale, the theme of which would obsess Beethoven, amply demonstrates why it bugged him, and rounds off an hour and three-quarters of delightful listening.

I’ve already indicated how good the recording is, especially in 24-bit guise. The CDs cost around £19, with lossless downloads around £16 and 24-bit around £22, but the good news is that the download from which I reviewed this recording is initially available in 24-bit for the same price as 16-bit ($18.98).

A first-rate Seventh and a persuasive account of Prometheus.

Brian Wilson

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