Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and over half of them have become among the world's most-popular classical pieces: Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9. So it's always a welcome treat when we get two of these well-loved classics on the same disc, Nos. 5 and 7 from the NDR Radiophilharmonie and its Chief Conductor Andrew Manze. It's also a treat to have the recording done up in Super Audio CD processing from Pentatone. Of course, in so crowded a field, there is a lot of worthy competition, so Manze isn't alone, nor is his performance so different from the rest as to automatically warrant a purchase. But the buyer could do worse.
Andrew Manze, incidentally, specialized for many years in repertoire from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries as the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003 and as the Artistic Director of the English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the Principal Conductor of Sweden's Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and now Germany's NDR Radiophilharmonie, who play on modern instruments. As I've said before, it makes no difference; Manze brings with him the adventurous sensibility of a period-instrument conductor, and, again, we could do worse.
The program begins with the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which Beethoven premiered in 1808, having worked on it over the course of some four years. He premiered it in the famous concert that also included the premieres of the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy, among other things, a concert lasting over four hours and conducted by Beethoven himself. Music historians point out that Beethoven once wrote "I want to seize fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will." Further, in reference to the beginning of the Fifth's first movement he remarked to a friend, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!"
Which brings us to the Seventh. Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 between 1811 and 1812. Compared to the Fifth, the Seventh is a lighter, livelier, more sparkling piece of music, a work that one of its many admirers, composer Richard Wagner, called the "apotheosis of the dance" because of its sprightly rhythms.
It's in the Seventh that Manze shines. Under his direction, the music does, indeed, dance, even sings. It's a scintillating performance that abounds with good cheer. It is perhaps not as warm an account as that under Sir Colin Davis (EMI) or as meticulous as under the aforementioned Kleiber, but it actually sounds as though Manze is having fun directing the music. The score comes alive with dash, élan, and bounce, the way we might expect to hear it from Sir Thomas Beecham or Nicholas McGegan, and I mean that as high praise. Even the usually dour second-movement set of variations that under many conductors comes off sounding like a funeral march here radiates a notably sunny eloquence. Then it's on to the playful scherzo and lofty, riveting finale. In all, it's an impressive Seventh and one worthy of recommendation.
Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Llkenhans and engineer Daniel Kemper recorded the symphonies at the Groser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus Hanover, Germany in January and March 2019. They made it for playback via a Super Audio CD player in hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo and via a regular CD player in two-channel stereo. I listened in SACD two-channel stereo.
We get good, clean sound here, with a moderate amount of orchestral width and depth and a fine sense of ambient hall bloom. Dynamics, too, are good, if modest. I would have liked a bit more range and impact, but these qualities are here not unlike most recordings of Beethoven symphonies. Clarity is good, as well as frequency balance, although bass and treble extension seemed fairly ordinary. To be fair, however, I found the recording quality of the Seventh a tad better than the Fifth all the way around. Whatever, I probably expect too much from an SACD recording, I don't know. Suffice it to say that there's hardly anything one can criticize about the sound of either symphony.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: