Beethoven Symphonies CD review

On November 16, 2013 |

Unlike a number of other conductors in the early music movement, Nicholas McGegan has waited a long time to commit any of the Beethoven symphonies to disc. The wait has been well worthwhile. These are now my favorite period performance versions of the Fourth and Seventh symphonies on CD. I previously had preferred the Fourth of John Eliot Gardiner. It is faster than McGegan’s in every movement, sometimes significantly so. I feel that McGegan’s tempos allow the music to breathe more and to build up more natural climaxes. Gardiner uses a larger string section, which produces a wider dynamic range than McGegan’s. But McGegan’s orchestra sounds better balanced to me, with the strings allowing for richer textures from the inner voices. Interestingly, both conductors employ the same principal flute, the excellent Janet See, whose album of Vivaldi concertos with McGegan and the PBO is well worth seeking out. In the opening movement of the Fourth, McGegan’s Adagio is like a journey through the Greek underworld, leading to an Allegro vivace that feels like the whole world springing to life. Its development section sounds very Viennese in its congeniality. The second movement resembles chamber music, similar to a Buddhist scroll painting in its play of light and shade. It is significant that McGegan’s violin section includes such period chamber music luminaries as Katherine Kyme, Elizabeth Blumenstock, and Jolianne von Einem. The third movement displays Olympian humor, while the last is very danceable, sort of Beethoven’s version of a hoedown. In both symphonies, McGegan is very generous with repeats.

One of the principal attractions of McGegan’s Seventh is timpanist Kent Reed. Over 20 years ago, I heard a splendid Seventh by the New Jersey Symphony conducted by my friend Jens Nygaard, in which the timpanist, Randall Hicks, really whaled away. The critic assigned to the concert complained that it sounded like a timpani concerto. By now, we are so accustomed to the thwack of period timpani that Reed’s performance doesn’t seem unusual. Before hearing McGegan, my favorite period Seventh was Roger Norrington’s Stuttgart account. He is more fastidious in the middle movements about Beethoven’s metronome markings, though McGegan’s tempos there feel less rushed. Norrington’s strings, modern instruments played without vibrato, make a thicker, less appealing sound than McGegan’s more gossamer section. What’s more, McGegan conducts the entire symphony with a Beechamesque twinkle in his eye that Norrington lacks. The introduction to McGegan’s first movement is fleet-footed, with beautiful wind playing. The main section features wonderful waves of sound that ebb and flow, while the coda offers splendidly braying horns. McGegan’s slow movement is measured, with a careful delineation of dynamics. Its sensation is that of a haunted, misty reverie. The third movement feels as if the different sections of the orchestra are engaged in a conversation. Its trio sounds like an ecstatic shepherd’s song. The concluding movement is a jolly, mercurial romp. McGegan’s Seventh, congenial as it is, is one you can live with very easily.

The sound engineering in both symphonies is excellent. If you are looking for these works on modern instruments, I would recommend George Szell in Cleveland for the Fourth and Karl Böhm with the Vienna Philharmonic for the Seventh, although his Berlin account is nearly as good. McGegan’s album is a marvelous blend of the wisdom of the old master conductors with the finesse of period instruments. His Beethoven is an extremely likable fellow of vast ingenuity, an artist with whose work you never are sated. There is not one unconsidered bar of music in the whole album.

Dave Saemann