Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Also, C.P.E. Bach: Symphonies Wq 175 & 183/4. Bernhard Forck, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902420.

By John J. Puccio

If any of Beethoven’s major works benefit from being played by a period-instrument band following historically informed performance practices, it’s surely his first two symphonies. He wrote them, after all, with one foot still firmly planted in the Classical Period and the other foot starting to move in the direction of Romanticism.

The Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, under the guidance of concertmaster Bernhard Forck, give us performances that undoubtedly come close to what Beethoven might have wanted in his day, yet they are not rigid in their adherence to the composer’s famously controversial tempo markings. If we may take Roger Norrington’s recordings with the London Classical Players as a benchmark for following Beethoven almost to the letter, Forck’s interpretations are more relaxed, a minute or more slower than Norrington in all the fast movements. By comparison, Norrington may be more exacting but he also sounds more wooden, more concerned with playing the notes in proper speeds rather than letting the music flow more naturally as Forck does. In essence, Forck plays both of these first two Beethoven symphonies somewhere between the composer’s absolute tempos and what we hear from most traditional readings on modern instruments. It’s not a bad trade-off and works better here, I think, than in Forck’s recording of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which I reviewed some months earlier, where the near-metronome tempos took away some of music’s charm.

Anyway, Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C major in the late 1790’s, premiered it in 1800, and published it in 1801. It clearly shows the influence of two of the composer’s forerunners, Mozart and Haydn, yet it also shows traces of what was to come in his Third Symphony. That is, we see dissonance and contrast used more predominately than ever before. Maestro Forck doesn’t overemphasize these characteristics, but he does play with them enough to make the audience aware of their significance. While Forck may observe HIP standards, at the same time he recognizes that this music looks forward to the Romantic Age and, as occasion arises, he softens it a touch, “romanticizes” it, as it were. The result is a delight, some of the best early Beethoven you’ll find.

Bernhard Forck
Beethoven wrote the Symphony No. 2 in D major in 1801 or 1802 and premiered it in 1803 at a time when his deafness was getting worse, and almost incurable. Not everyone seemed to like the symphony in its day, one critic writing that it was like “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.” Harsh. Yet it wasn’t just in Beethoven’s time that the symphony got panned. Even more recently musicologist Robert Greenberg has written, “Beethoven's gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress--like the fall of 1802--were legendary. It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it. Otherwise, how could such an interpretation become common coin? And common coin it is.”

“Gastric problems” or not, the music has survived the barbs nicely through the centuries, and Maestro Forck plays it with a lively, though never extreme, enthusiasm. It’s remarkable, too, that the orchestra, playing on period instruments, sound so effortlessly modern. There is none of the abrasive quality we sometimes hear in period orchestras. And the reduced size of the ensemble affords excellent transparency and immediacy. These performances are among those period-instrument/historically informed affairs that will appeal to folks who usually resist such things. The recording makes another fine addition to the catalogue.

Coupled with the Beethoven are two sinfonias (early symphonies) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), written several decades before the Beethoven works and chosen, I would imagine, to point up the differences and similarities those few decades made in the development of orchestral music. Franck and his team play them with the same restrained ardor they display in the Beethoven, making them a light and airy listen. However, I didn’t much care for their positions on the disc, opening the program and then separating the two Beethoven symphonies. I would have preferred having them set apart on their own. Still, with a CD player one can play them in any order one chooses or disregard them altogether.

Artistic Director Rene Moller and sound engineer Tobias Lehmann recorded the symphonies at Teldex Studio Berlin in September 2018. The sound has a nice sense of presence, of left-right, back-front stereo spread. It’s also realistic in its frequency response and dynamics, but it never hits you over the head with anything unusual: no brightness, no edge, no dullness, no noise, no closeness.
Although there is nothing spectacular about the sound, everything seems just right for a smooth, pleasurable experience.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa