BEETHOVEN: Symphonies No. 4 & No. 7 – Beethoven Orchester Bonn – MDG multichannel SACD 937-1995-6, 73:35 (1/5/17) ****1/2:

It is interesting to consider the position of the the Fourth Symphony Op. 60 in Beethoven’s oeuvre. First, consider the adjacent opus numbers, all products of that brief period of happiness and inspiration around 1806. There is the mighty Violin Concerto Op. 61. The three Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59, each a world unto itself. And then comes the most distinctive of the concertos, the Fourth in G minor. Has there ever been a series of masterpieces lined up like this? All the more reason to ponder the Fourth Symphony, which is perhaps the least performed of the nine.

Schumann esteemed it especially highly, calling it “a graceful Greek nymph standing between two Teutonic giants.” Indeed, I think it is the image of the Eroica Symphony that has the most to do with the relative eclipse of the Fourth. That work saw a seismic shift in the dimensions and technical resources of the medium. In the famous moment in the turbulent development section of the massive first movement, Beethoven makes a full-throated declaration of a C-major chord and immediately superimposes a D-minor on top. It is a grenade lobbed at 18th century harmony. It is Beethoven hurling a blob of paint at the canvas as to say, “this is what can be done with chords, and again this!” as he repeats the clashing dissonance. The expressive dimensions of classical music are altered in an instant; Schubert and and the Romantics take shape as a vision of the future.

Thus, when we hear the Fourth symphony, we wait around for this kind of heightened language and personal statement, and in fact, it never arrives. What we have instead is a peculiar and tentative overture, played at a whisper which then leads to a buoyant and cheerful Allegro Vivace, which hews to the classical virtues of balance and musical narrative. Every burst of enthusiasm amounts to a brief tempest in a landscape of pastoral simplicity and warm light. The Adagio is serene and unhurried; lyrical themes, the most affecting voiced by the oboe, appear and depart without asserting very much. There is a specifically Austrian sort of Schwung, which is perfectly achieved here. After this bird-watching expedition on horseback, we have two bright movements, filled with fine musical ideas, lively and colorful. Yet nothing of the heroic temper intrudes, neither demonstrations nor outbursts.

It must be said that the recording under review by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, conducted by Stefan Blunier, is played with real dash, and the sonics are superb. The producers at Dabringhaus und Grimm famously shun any form of sound modification, and this “no-added ingredients” approach delivers a concert-like experience. Yet the dynamic range seems to be so much higher than one is used to that I found it necessary to revert to headphones after a lot of fiddling with the volume. As for crisp ensemble playing, this group is first rate.

The Seventh has had a huge reputation ever since Wagner’s “Apotheosis of the Dance” designation. Indeed, the final Allegro con brio will vault you from your chair; at 4:42 it is a body-length ahead of its competitors at the finish line. The real trouble with this epic work is the long “funeral march.”  Supposedly evocative of the grim retreat of troops after the losses to Napoleon at Jena and Austerlitz, it has earworm properties which can make it an A-minor mental affliction.  After a friend of mine mentioned that it made him think of a long commute in November rain to a job that he didn’t much care for, I confessed that for me it never failed to remind me how much I disliked Bolero. However, in this reading by Blunter, I found myself carried along by the dramatic sweep of the insistent theme. We expect to be thrilled by the large-scale Presto, and indeed, we are. It is made from the same cloth as the famous Ninth. Our admiration for this orchestra and label reach a crescendo as the extreme dynamic range works entirely to the advantage of the dramatic rhetoric.

In all, two very fine performances of Beethoven. Even in a crowded field, I submit that this CD could hold up with the best, especially for those equipped with quality headphones.

TrackList: Symphony No. 4 op. 60:  Adagio – Allegro vivace; Adagio; Allegro Vivace; Allegro ma non troppo; Symphony No. 7 op. 92: Poco Sustenuto – Vivace; Allegretto; Presto; Allegro con brio

—Fritz Balwit