By John J. Puccio
Serving Currentzis’s occasionally unorthodox approach to the classics is his handpicked, relatively small, period-performance orchestra, MusicAeterna, which he founded in 2004. According to the Web site Allmusic.com, Currentzis chose his players from around Russia and persuaded them to move to Siberia, where they experienced intense rehearsal and recording schedules. According to James Rhodes in The London Guardian, "They live, eat and breathe there, and the majority of their waking moments are spent creating music." During this time, the orchestra appeared on several of Currentzis’s recordings on the Alpha label. The following year, Currentzis moved to the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, and MusicAeterna was reconstituted in that city as Currentzis began to forge distinctive, highly dramatic interpretations of music from the Baroque to the early 20th century. Sony Classical signed MusicAeterna to its label and in 2013 released their first album with Currentzis, a collection of arias by Rameau. The conductor and orchestra’s fame spread internationally with recordings of Mozart operas and the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony.
Currentzis and MusicAeterna have performed all over the world, as well as in their home city of Perm. Their repertory ranges from Baroque choral music to Russian music and contemporary music, and they have toured with a concert version of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. In 2016, MusicAeterna became the first Russian orchestra to open the Salzburg Festival.
On the present recording, they tackle Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, written in 1811-12. At its première, which Beethoven conducted, the composer remarked that it was one of his best works. The second movement Allegretto proved so popular he had to encore it, and it has often been performed in concert separate from the rest of the symphony.
Beethoven’s Seventh has remained among the composer’s most popular symphonies to this day, and it’s easy to see why. One of its fans, Richard Wagner noted the work’s lively rhythms and called it the "apotheosis of the dance." In other words, a model of perfection for dance music.
So, what does the Currentzis recording bring to the table that previous recordings have not? That, of course, would be a purely subjective assessment. You would think the first thing from a historical perspective might be a slavish adherence to Beethoven’s rather quick metronome marks, but, no. A quick comparison to two period-instrument performances, one from Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players and the other from Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, show that Currentzis’s timings are just about between the two: Norrington the fastest, McGegan a tad slower. To my ear, the difference in this new Currentzis account is that it strives more for dynamism than most, for a vigorous forceful thrust throughout the dance rhythms. Yet it does so with the utmost grace and perfection in mind, the orchestra reacting to every note as a polished whole, as though they were all one instrument. In this regard, it reminds me a little of the old Fritz Reiner performance with the Chicago Symphony. It’s clear that both conductors knew exactly what they wanted, even if it took away some of music’s ultimate joy.
The second movement is, as I mentioned, an Allegretto (a moderately fast, intermediate tempo between an Andante and an Allegro). It’s here that we find Currentzis at his most idiosyncratic. The deviations in dynamic levels are intense, and the sense of forward momentum seldom decreases. Yet the movement never sounds rushed or hurried. It unfolds splendidly.
Beethoven marks the third movement scherzo Presto-Presto meno assai (fast, then less). The central trio is an Austrian “pilgrims hymn” repeated twice. Currentzis takes the composer at his word, starting very fast and exciting and transitioning seamlessly to a more moderate tempo. Currentzis plays the whole thing with a smoothness of flow that rivets one’s attention.
The symphony concludes with an impassioned flourish, an Allegro con brio (a fast, spirited, animated tempo). Musical analysts over the years have described it as a fiery bacchanal, the dance rhythms more and more a revel, an unrestrained merrymaking. Currentzis keeps the rhythms at the forefront, but I didn’t find the degree of exhilaration I expected. The conductor seems a bit too fastidious with producing exacting but not particularly stirring or stimulating notes.
My own personal reaction to Currentzis’s interpretation is that it doesn’t always conform to my own preferences. I always think of Beethoven’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies as his most genial and happy symphonies, the Seventh especially alive with its bouncy, infectious dance music. It’s perhaps why I enjoy Sir Colin Davis’s modern-instruments recordings (EMI and Philips) and Nicholas McGegan’s period-instruments recording so much. Yet unlike these other conductors, Currentzis appears more concerned with the exactitude and detail of the notes rather than with the pleasure they can produce. Still, even for all his fastidiousness, Currentzis’s performance is really not significantly different from many others, so I can’t complain much. The sound is good, and the dynamics are extraordinary; a lot of folks will enjoy it.
The only real drawback to the disc is that it contains only the Seventh Symphony, no couplings. At almost an even forty minutes, the symphony hardly takes up half the disc, and a lot of classical-music listeners might be conditioned to expect somewhat more.
Producer Giovanni Prosdocimi and engineer Damien Quintard recorded the symphony at the Great Hall, Vienna Concert House, Vienna, Austria in July and August 2018. The sound they obtained is very dynamic, with a wide range and good impact. It’s also very clean and smooth, a trifle close, and fairly one-dimensional. There’s not a lot of hall ambience, either, which adds to the sound’s clarity but diminishes its realism. It’s the kind of sound that seems to embrace the conductor’s clear-sighted vision of the music without quite taking us into its heart.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: