Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-06.

To begin, let me admit a bias: I’ve been attending performances of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra almost since the day they first started offering concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area over thirty years ago. They are, in my opinion, one of the best period-instruments ensembles in the country; nay, in the world. Needless to say, their present recording of Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies did not disappoint me. If you think my highly positive predisposition toward the orchestra colors my judgment, so be it.

First up, we get the Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806), the piece that often gets lost between the bigger and more popular Third and Fifth Symphonies. Compared to them, the Fourth Symphony may appear lightweight and something of a letdown for a lot of listeners. Fortunately, Maestro Nicholas McGegan and the PBO provide the Fourth such a vigorous and spirited presentation that it sounds better than ever. Their performance reminded me of Hector Berlioz’s description of the Fourth as “lively, nimble, joyous, or of a heavenly sweetness.” Like a recent recording by Joshua Bell and the ASMF, McGegan and the PBO take Berlioz’s depiction of the work to heart.

After an appropriately slow, sedate introduction (Adagio), the main Allegro vivace takes over, the tempo as vivacious and “vivace” as one could want, with hints of the Pastoral Symphony to come. You can almost see McGegan gleefully dancing through the movement (as is his wont; he’s a very animated conductor).

The second-movement Largo (one of Beethoven’s most relaxed) flows gracefully and sweetly along.  The Scherzo takes us through genuine Presto territory and leads to a finale that inevitably reminds us of the first movement, if at a slightly less-heightened step. McGegan forces the listener to reevaluate the symphony’s worth.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 in 1812, about half a dozen years after he wrote the Fourth. Critics sometimes identify it with characteristics of the dance (“The apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner remarked), and it should certainly radiate a sprightly charm. Like the Fourth Symphony, the Seventh begins with a lengthy preface, this time bigger and grander, before the entrance of the main theme, again in a Vivace tempo. And again McGegan and his players reward us with well-judged speeds and rhythms, all of them springing to life with the utmost lyricism. McGegan does it up most heartily.

The conductor next takes the Allegretto at a healthy but not extravagant walking pace, this “processional in the catacombs” never turning into the full-fledged funeral march we often hear. Beethoven marked the body of the third movement “Assai meno presto” (very much less fast), which has led conductors to puzzle over it ever since. McGegan takes a middle course, and the whole thing winds up less hectic than some period conductors have played.

Then we come to the finale, which should sound wild and swirling without going all crazy and breathless. You can hear a snippet of it below, where McGegan shapes it perfectly: fast, energetic, and exciting, yet refined and cultured, too. The PBO’s account of the Seventh Symphony stands with the best, most-thrilling versions on record, on period or modern instruments.

The orchestra made the recording live during performances in 2012 (No. 4) and 2009 (No. 7) at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California. I’ve listened to many a concert over the years at First Congregational, and I can attest to the recording sounding pretty much as I’ve always found the hall sounding. Which is to say, pretty good. However, by “pretty good” I don’t mean to imply that the recording is better than the PBO’s best non-live productions, like their Handel Water Music, Mozart Horn Concertos, or, especially, their Vivaldi Four Seasons, which are clearer, tauter, airier, more dynamic, and better focused. Nevertheless, as I say, both Beethoven recordings sound lifelike enough, with almost no audience noise. What’s more, the engineers edited out the applause after the first work, leaving only a burst of applause after the final piece, the Seventh Symphony. Perhaps in their next live production, they’ll eliminate the applause altogether. Or, who knows, since the applause is admittedly a minor detail, maybe I’m the only one in the world who disapproves of it interrupting my appreciation of recorded music. Of course, we expect applause at live events, and I have no objection; but a recording played in my living room is a different experience. Yeah, I know, picky, picky, picky.

Anyway, the present recording sounds warm and resonant, clearly a condition of the venue. There is a wide stereo spread, a quality of the microphone placement, no doubt, which needs to be relatively close in order to minimize audience noise. Inner detailing suffers a little from the natural reverberation of the church setting, and the high end seems a tad limited, perhaps because of the absorptive properties of the listeners themselves. Otherwise, the sound opens up nicely, with plenty of ambient bloom and at least a modicum of orchestral depth.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


1 comment:

  1. For the record (no pun intended), you're NOT the only person who objects to applause at the end of live recordings. I can't stand it either (to the point that, after purchasing Keilberth's early-stereo Ring cycle, the first thing I did was rip all fourteen CDs to my computer, take the end-of-act tracks into an audio editor, and cut the applause out). To my mind, I have no problem with inviting an orchestra into my listening room; but I definitely object to a large and boisterous audience crashing the party with them!


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa