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Beethoven: Sym 1 & 2/Norrington

David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

A friend of mine called while I was auditioning these terrific performances, and when I told him how much I was enjoying the disc he said, “I know. You start out liking Beethoven’s 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th, and wind up loving the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th.” He was joking, of course; but he does have a point. There’s a lot to be said for Beethoven in small packages, particularly in terms of the tension between the reduced timescale and the typical largeness of gesture and abundance of energy. These are exactly the qualities that you will hear in Roger Norrington’s new “live” recordings. Both symphonies come across as uninhibited romps, with batteries freshly charged and ready for action.

The two symphonies fly by effortlessly, fortified in no small degree by Norrington’s newly acquired ability to conduct the music in long phrases rather than one bar at a time. The outer movements leap from the speakers with exceptional vividness. Trumpets and drums hammer out their parts forcefully but never crudely, and the woodwind parts penetrate the mass of strings with unobtrusive clarity. The two slow movements (especially that of the Second Symphony) benefit from the natural warmth of the non-period strings, even when played with minimal vibrato. Tempos in the two minuets remain danceable rather than frantic, the textures kept light. Best of all, as the finale of the First Symphony particularly demonstrates, all of this excitement does not preclude a touch of appropriate wit, or some judicious flexibility of pulse where called for. Unlike Norrington’s first go, he never sounds merely dry and mechanical.

Hänssler’s sonics capture a tiny bit of unavoidable audience noise but otherwise represent the art of live recording at its finest. For clarity, impact, and top-to-bottom realism these performances sound terrific even if the perspectives are necessarily “up-close and personal”. It’s easy to overlook excellent versions of these comparatively modest works in favor of Beethoven’s “big” symphonies; but the first two arguably have benefited the most from the period-instrument movement, and just about all recent recordings (Barenboim’s, Rattle’s, and Wand’s among them) have been very successful. These are no exception–and in terms of sheer high voltage, including a bit of real wildness here and there, they set a standard that will be very hard to beat.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

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