This recording is part of a complete cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies by the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia conducted by Bela Drahos on the budget - priced Naxos label. It consists of the Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Opus 60 and the Seventh Symphony in A Major, Opus 92.
Beethoven's Fourth Symphony was published in 1806. The composer's even-numbered symphonies generally lack the heroic, heaven-storming quality of the 3d, 5th, 7th, and 9th. But the Fourth is great Beethoven, full of joy, humor, liveliness, and confidence.
The symphony opens with a long, brooding slow introduction that raises tension masterfully and sets up the listener for an allegro in the heroic mode. This expectation is dashed, however, by the entrance of the humorous, expansive main theme of the movement. The spirit of mastery pervades the movement and the work. The second movement is a song-like adagio, mostly lyrical and quiet, which rises to moments of power and triumph at the center and conclusion. The third movement is a brusque scherzo and the conclusion is a Haydn-like movement in perpetual motion. This symphony to me seems to be greatly influenced by Haydn combined with Beethoven's own unique intensity, sense of forward propulsion, expansiveness, and willingness to take chances.
The Seventh Symphony was completed in 1812, four years following the completion of the first six symphonies. Virtually every listener has commented upon the dance-like, frenzied character of this great work. The title of the Walt Whitman poem, "I sing the body electric", captures something of the mood of Beethoven's seventh.
The first movement again has a slow, tension-building introduction featuring a lovely, come-hither theme in the oboe. It is followed by a vivace which, as with so many Beethoven opening movements, seems to come close to pulling the work apart while rigorously failing to do so. The second movement is a slow solemn march and fugue in a dotted rhythm featuring a theme over plucked strings and tympani. The interested listener might compare it with the slow movement of the "Eroica" and with the piano sonata, opus 26. The third movement is a scherzo in which the trio is repeated. The fourth movement is a whirlwind dance which leads to a Baccanalic conclusion. This is a grand symphony of rhythm, force, and movement.
Drahos's Beethoven cycle has received mixed reviews. It is performed by a chamber orchestra and some listeners have commented that the performances lack dynamic contrast, power and intensity. I have listened to this recording several times and came to like it more with repeated hearings. It has a clarity and a spirit that help capture the music. The listener should enjoy what is presented here and not worry unduly about whether this is the best performance of Beethoven available on disc. It isn't that, but it really doesn't matter if one wants to hear the music.
I envision low-priced discs such as the disc under review as appealing to the listener new to the music or to a listener on a tight budget. Certainly, such a listener should be encouraged to explore this music. Any disc that will present Beethoven symphonies in a manner that will introduce new listeners is worthwhile. Other more experienced listeners will also enjoy these recordings and have the added pleasure of comparing them with recordings which which they are already familiar. Even if one does not like Beethoven performed in this manner, the listener's understanding of the music will be increased.