One strange by-product of the record industry's supposed decline is that Beethoven symphony cycles, which were once a staple activity of the larger labels and their big-name orchestras, have now been taken over by less high-profile orchestras on labels, such as in this case, like BIS and Avie. Nor do I mean the Minnesota Orchestra or the Manchester Camerata any disrespect, as they have already shown with previous discs in their Beethoven series, they needn't fear comparison with any other orchestra in a catalogue bulging with recordings of these great works.
Osmo Vänskä's cycle has been garnering enormous praise and this coupling of the second and seventh symphonies completes the series in some style. Douglas Boyd couples the seventh with the fourth in the second disc in his own cycle with his excellent Manchester orchestra. Both conductors strike the happy balance between historical performance practice and more traditional approaches and turn in performances that are lively and light on their feet but, on the whole, without any of the
extremes of tempo that might shock traditionalists – the one exception is Vänskä's reading of the Adagio introduction to the Second Symphony's first movement, taken at something surely more like Andante. Both releases, incidentally, benefit from liner notes by Barry Cooper; Vänskä's also specifies the use of Jonathan Del Mar's new Urtext edition of the works, although I suspect Boyd uses it too.
Of course, Boyd was the oboist in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Beethoven cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, recorded in the early '90s, the first cycle to show how successful the mixing of modern and authentic approaches could be. His readings reminded me on a couple of occasions of Harnoncourt's, but have an alertness and directness all their own. He's leisurely in the Adagio introduction to the fourth's first movement, and is not afraid to let the tempo relax a little in the more lyrical episodes of the movement's main Allegro vivace. However, there's a real liveliness elsewhere and Boyd excels in getting his players, especially the lower strings, to keep things light but strongly articulated. The wind playing is full of character, and the strings – not a large number, the list in the booklet tells us – are lithe and athletic. Boyd's performance of the Adagio is flowing and lyrical – with outstanding work from the clarinettist - but we are also constantly aware of the important 'ticking figure', as Cooper calls it in his notes, that makes the movement so original. The final two movements have all the thrust and momentum one could want, with the finale skipping along wonderfully, distinguished by some more outstanding work from the band, particularly from the wind.
So Boyd's fourth is immensely enjoyable, and Vänskä's performance of the second symphony is simply a joy from start to finish. Even the speeded up Adagio introduction to the first movement, a bit of a shock at first, is fully persuasive, distinguished as it is by some lovely wind playing and pinging accents. The Allegro con Brio is infectious and virtuosic, the Larghetto affecting and the final two movements irresistible. The Minnesota Orchestra is outstanding and responds with total commitment and effortless technical command to its Music Director's approach.
In many ways, there's not much to choose between Vänskä and Boyd in the seventh, the main difference being that the Minnesota Orchestra, for Vänskä, sounds a little more luxiously upholstered, particularly in BIS's engineering; the smaller Manchester Camerata, on the other hand, produces a more direct, leaner sound, maybe a little rougher round the edges, too. What one gains in a touch of extra directness, though, is outweighed by reduced power, in the scales that are so prominent in the first movement's sostenuto introduction, for example. Boyd also, perhaps, manages to bring a bit more raw excitement to the Finale and third movement, but Vänskä's readings have a momentum that is, if anything, more irresistible. He pushes his players to the edge and they respond with athleticisim and power, and many will also prefer the greater weight they are able to bring to the Andante. Both conductors have the full measure of the all-important rhythmic thrust and variety that pervade the symphony.
Having mentioned the greater weight that Vänskä has at his disposal, it's worth pointing out that at no point does he sound heavy. Indeed, part of the greatness of his achievement is to get a sound that has both an attractive sheen and incredible lightness, delightfully spiced up with sharply pointed accentuation and rhythmic alertness. Although the American orchestra is just that little bit more compelling in this work, these are both performances of the seventh that are excellently detailed, beautifully performed and show, ultimately, just how wonderfully invigorating historically informed performance by modern orchestras can be.
Talk of Vänskä's as being the Beethoven cycle 'of our time' doesn't mean much, but this is without doubt an outstanding release on a par with its predecessors and Vänskä's Beethoven is going to take some beating. Boyd doesn't quite manage the same balance of power and refinement, but his are nonetheless excellent, direct and exciting performances.
Incidentally, January 2009 will see BIS embark upon a cycle of the piano concertos with the same Minnesota/Vänskä team, joined by Yevgeny Sudbin.
By Hugo Shirley