Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony n° 7, opus 92
Daria Ziatdinova (concertmaster), musicAeterna Orchestra, Teodor Currentzis (conductor)
Recording: Wiener Konzerthaus, Grosser Saal, Vienna, Austria (July 31 – August 8, 2018) – 40’01
Sony Classical G0100042577288 – Booklet in English, German and French
This has to be one of the most entertaining and enjoyable renditions of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that I’ve heard in a long time. Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna, the Russian orchestra he founded in 2004, have given us a fresh new look at an old standard with some attention-grabbing good points and some touches that are weird or just plain puzzling.
The work commences at a relatively leisurely pace, which is what its tempo, poco sostenuto, actually means, but with energy to spare raging out of some invisible, internal fire, befitting a work that Wagner called “the Apotheosis of the Dance”. Actually, I recently heard part of the first movement in a commercial for dog food, which goes to prove that Beethoven is indeed eternal, but maybe not the way we thought.
One of the chief delights of the first movement is a clear delineation of the individual voices in the orchestra so that it becomes less a matter of sections obediently accompanying melodies but more of a conversation among equal partners with phrases sometimes breaking out like fireworks. There is nothing irreverent about taking this liberty: it’s right there in Beethoven’s score as though he were saying, “Here are the notes. Play them!”
This starts almost immediately in the fifth and sixth measures when the horns echo the clarinet theme from two measures before, and it just keeps going. The downside of this approach is that sometimes the main idea of a long passage, or the movement, or the work as a whole, gets lost in the shuffle. Still, it was good to have my attention drawn to individual phrases which I simply hadn’t noticed or thought about before.
The famous second movement starts out so softly it is almost not there and continues in this vein through the second statement of the lovely theme. I have to say, I hated this effect. But by the third statement, my ears were saturated in the swelling pure beauty of this melody and the undercurrent of a four-note motif familiar to fans of the Fifth. There were also some funny percussive effects that sounded like a dog’s tail wagging quickly against a stationary object. I don’t know what that was, but please don’t bring your pets to the recording studio.
The movement develops logically and emotively from here, through a lyrical interlude, some heart-stopping pizzicatos and the embrace of the theme by the whole orchestra. After a bit of a fugue, all the elements collide and intermingle like a great musical stew whipped up by Gordon Ramsay.
The main melody of this movement is so gorgeous and well-loved, I’ve always wondered why it did not have its own name, like Mahler’s “Adagietto”. I suggest “The Gloriette”, named for part of a romantic garden where Beethoven was known to walk on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Not so glorious is Currentzis’ closure of this movement which sounded off-center, uncertain, shaky and a little bizarre.
In contrast, the entrance of the third movement in this recording is fresh, frisky and frolicsome. At full steam ahead, the orchestra is having a lot of fun, and times like these, I wish I were watching as well as listening. Less exciting is the trio which drags along with its “daah-de-da” repeats in the full orchestra, but that is just Beethoven taking a break from being great. The movement sweeps up to an exciting conclusion, though I found the final three chords oddly disassociated with everything that led up to them. This rendition of the movement was fast and frenetic, but nowhere was there a whiff of the profound majesty which can be coaxed out of Beethoven’s text.
There are a few additional peculiarities in the final movement, but they resolve themselves in a well-paced conclusion, ending crisply and with unchallengeable finality.
If I were in the market for a Beethoven’s Seventh to add to a collection, I would pick this up in a heartbeat. Even its flaws are appealing and would send me scrambling for a copy of the score to check something out. When is the last time you got that excited about Beethoven? Good work, musicians!