Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna. Sony 19439743772.

By John J. Puccio

The Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis is the latest musician to take the classical music world by storm (even though he was nearly fifty at the time of this review), producing sometimes controversial but decidedly absorbing interpretations that at the very least meet his own demanding if unconventional standards. He reminds me a little of Gustavo Dudamel over a decade ago in his creativity, enthusiasm, and willingness to throw caution to the wind. It’s clear Currentzis knows exactly what he wants and isn’t about to let anyone stop him from achieving it.

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, 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.

Anyway, the symphony opens with a Poco Sostenuto, sustained about as Beethoven might have wanted, which leads inevitably to a full-fleged Vivace (lively and fast). Here, Currentzis is not so very different from many other conductors. This is certainly not an “unorthodox” reading. In fact, while Currentzis is unmistakably precise, he ultimately sounds pretty much like everyone else. Still, there are some delightful nuances, mostly of dynamism and rubato, that make some of it a delight to hear.

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:

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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