By John J. Puccio
But wait. There’s more good news. Not only does Von der Goltz play the Seventh Symphony, he includes a second disc with The Creatures of Prometheus. No, not just the familiar overture but the entire ballet. And here I have to admit that beyond the overture, I don’t think I had ever heard the complete ballet before. The set becomes a double pleasure, or a triple pleasure if you also take into account the excellent interpretation of the symphony and a quadruple pleasure if you appreciate the excellent Harmonia Mundi sound. Yeah, it’s a treat.
Still, I hear you say, I’ve already got a period-instruments recording of the Seventh. Sure, and so do I. About four or five of them. Still, consider some of the alternatives I’ve heard: Roger Norrington’s reading is rather rigid; Nicholas McGegan’s is delightful but is done no favors by a live recording; Christopher Hogwood’s turn is excellent but like McGegan is let down by somewhat indifferent sound; John Eliot Gardiner’s account is also good but not quite a first-choice consideration; the aforementioned Currentzis is simply too ordinary as well as too inconsistent; and I recall an old recording by the Collegium Aureum that I didn’t much like and haven’t heard in years. By comparison, then, Von der Goltz wins on all counts.
Anyway, Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 in 1811-12, with the composer himself conducting the première. He later remarked that it was one of his best works, and it’s easy to see why it has remained among Beethoven’s most popular symphonies to this day. One of its many fans, composer Richard Wagner, noted the work’s lively rhythms and called it the "apotheosis of the dance." In other words, a perfect example of dance music.
The second movement is an Allegretto (a moderately fast, intermediate tempo between an Andante and an Allegro). It sounds and functions like a funeral march similar to the one in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, but this time it’s more freely flowing, more rhythmic. Here, Van der Goltz measures things at a headier clip than expected, and it strides forth with grace and authority. There is nothing ponderous or heavy about the movement.
Beethoven marks the third movement scherzo Presto-Presto meno assai (fast, then less). The central trio is an Austrian “pilgrims hymn” repeated twice. The interpretation takes on even added life with Van der Goltz in full command, the music bouncing along full throttle delightfully. Perhaps he misses some of McGegan’s high spirits in the recording by the Philharmonia Baroque, but it’s close, and in better sound I tend to favor Von der Goltz.
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. Now Maestro Van der Goltz really cuts loose and produces a veritable storm of dance-like pulsations, with the momentum unyielding. It concludes a performance second to none and better than most.
Disc two contains Beethoven’s one and only ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, written and premiered by Beethoven in 1801. It contains two acts, an introduction, fifteen numbers, and a finale. Beethoven based his story on the mythical parable of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus in order to create Mankind from clay. Since the characteristics of dance music is so obviously on display in the Seventh Symphony, it makes sense to pair it with actual dance music, and the two works complement one another nicely. What’s more, Van der Goltz seems even freer here than in the symphony, and the ballet appears as lithe and nimble yet as dramatic and powerful as I suspect Beethoven intended.
Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann recorded the music at the Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany in February 2020. The sound is clear, clean, and dynamic. With definition this good, it’s a pleasure to listen to the original instruments. There is also a moderate degree of orchestral depth, space, and resonance to add to the realism of the presentation, so if you enjoy period instruments you really can’t go wrong.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: