Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (SACD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. PentaTone Classics 5186 118.

I was talking to a friend recently who reminded me that as time goes on things may evolve and grow different, but they don't necessarily get better. Conductors fit into this category, too. Not all of the great conductors of the past necessarily got any better with age than they had been; indeed, some of them simply grow old and stodgy. But thank goodness we have recordings to preserve the great ones in their prime, such being the case with Sir Neville Marriner and his wonderful 1970 recording of the Beethoven First and Second Symphonies.

We take for granted today a small chamber orchestra playing early Beethoven, often on the same period instruments Beethoven had in mind. But do we recognize that Sir Neville was among the first persons actually to effect something like this with his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? By paring down what had become traditionally big-scale orchestral music, with often inflated interpretations for full orchestras, Marriner was able to show us the grace and inner beauty of the composer's first two symphonic efforts, if on modern instruments.

I had not heard Marriner's recordings of these works in years before listening to them again on this 2003 PentaTone remastering, and I was amazed at how well they held up, comparing to any recordings of these pieces by any conductor at any price. Not only do the two symphonies come off as elegant and refined, as we would expect of Sir Neville, but they are wholly charming, flexible, supple, enchanting, exciting, and exhilarating as well. These early symphonies may not match what the great composer had in store for us next with his monumental Third Symphony, but Marriner renders these first two of Beethoven's symphonic works as both felicitous extensions of the Classical age and clear precursors of the Romantic era.

The sound holds up equally well, too. Recorded initially by Philips in quadraphonic, the company only released them on LP in two-channel stereo. Yet here they are available, as usual with PentaTone, on a hybrid SACD stereo/multichannel disc in both two and four-channel sound. What's more, the PentaTone engineers remastered them from the original tapes, and they sound at once smooth, spacious, transparent, warm, and natural. I liked almost everything about this disc and its performances, and even after more than four decades they can stand alongside the best available in this repertoire.


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


  1. "The late Sir Neville Marriner"? I'm sure that he is still with us.

  2. Thanks, Anon. I noticed that error this morning. Apparently, I was writing up this review at the same I was writing about the late Sir Colin Davis. Proves I can't think and breath at the same time. :)

  3. Sadly, the passing of Sir Neville Marriner was reported this morning.


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.

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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