BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7 – Park Avenue Ch. Sym./ David Bernard – Park Ave. Ch. Sym.

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies No. 1, Op. 21 and No. 7 ,Op. 92 – Park Avenue Chamber Sym./ David Bernard – Park Ave. Ch. Sym. (4/26/13), 67:22 ****:

The major classical composers truly are immortal. I’m writing this on the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. And I’m sure people will be enjoying the piece 200 and 2,000 years from now.

This is the third album of Beethoven symphonies by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony Orchestra, and it pairs No. 7 with No. 1. The P.A.C.S. has now recorded them all except, strangely,  No. 2. There is no indication, in the accompanying notes, nor on their web site where or when the recordings were made. But they are well done, with Maestro Bernard choosing specific, suitable tempi for each of the movements.

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) arrived in Vienna from Bonn at age 21, with sufficient reputation to have lessons with Haydn paid for by a patron. No doubt he would have approached Mozart with the same request had Mozart not died the previous year.  Nevertheless, Beethoven’s first symphony sounds to my ears more like Mozart’s last rather than like any of Haydn’s.

Beethoven’s First Symphony was premiered, with his Second Piano Concerto, his Septet, and pieces by Haydn and Mozart, in a concert in Vienna on April 2, 1800, thus announcing his arrival in the centre of the musical universe. The first movement opens with a 12-bar “musical joke” and exhibits Beethoven’s melodic inventiveness throughout. The full breadth of orchestral instrumentation is on display in the second movement, but Maestro Bernard plays the Andante perhaps more slowly than Beethoven wished,  and marked. The term Scherzo was not common at the time, but that’s what the third movement is. The fourth begins with another teasing joke, using scales here and throughout to build anticipation.

The only problem I found with this recording is one of editing rather than performance. There is a very short time, barely a second, between the end of the First Symphony and the first note of the Seventh.  And if any note in all of classical music needs “space” it is that first one. Even the notes refer to “an unbearable sense of anticipation”, completely lost by starting the first movement too soon.  [A few labels seem to be guilty of this same problem; don’t know why…Ed.]

The Seventh Symphony has been called Beethoven’s “most dance-like” and begins with a two-part first movement – Poco sostenuto – with the long  ascending scales again, and Vivace with wild dance rhythms which, upon hearing, Carl Maria von Weber declared to have been composed by one “fit for a madhouse”. The second movement is a dirge with variations, and the third is a wonderful scherzo labeled Presto.The symphony closes with, as commentator Donald Tovey has described, “Bacchic fury” including an extremely rare use of the fortississimo or triple-f dynamic marking. Maestro Bernard sets a rousing pace for this finale.

The Seventh Symphony was completed in 1812  but not premiered until more than a year later. It was one of many periods of emotional upheaval in Beethoven’s  life. Health matters bothered him, his deafness most of all. He was fighting a custody battle for his nephew, and he had just begun correspondence with the “Immortal  Beloved”. A long-anticipated meeting with Goethe occurred and after it, Goethe wrote “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable but surely does not make it any more enjoyable for himself or others by his attitude. He is easily excused, on the other hand, and much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which perhaps mars the musical part of his nature less than the social.”

David Bernard has won competitions and awards for his conducting, and we hear his spirit and precision with a small orchestra to good effect here. The album is worth acquiring to round out a collection of Beethoven symphonies.

—Paul Kennedy

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