Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Here we have two recordings pairing a fourth symphony and a seventh – one to start a cycle and one to complete one. Both composers wrote nine numbered symphonies, although Bruckner’s “No. 0” has pretty well made it into the canon, and there exists a “No. 00” as well, while Beethoven wrote part of a No. 10 but did not get very far with it. In both cases, therefore, these discs pair works from somewhere in the middle of the composers’ output – on the face of it, a rather curious decision. The Bruckner pairing, with which Mario Venzago begins a cycle that is being called “A Different Bruckner,” is somewhat more defensible: the Fourth is Bruckner’s most-performed symphony and the Seventh is the one with which he came into his own as a composer, gaining a huge triumph when the work was first played. But this is not Venzago’s or CPO’s stated rationale for combining these two works; indeed, there is no stated rationale at all. What is stated is how Venzago intends his Bruckner cycle to be “different,” following in the tracks of his previously released “A Different Schumann.” Venzago’s plans for Bruckner are intriguing, and his analysis of the symphonies is extremely interesting. He makes a distinction between composer-as-composer and composer-as-interpreter, arguing that when a composer says how his works should be played, he is inevitably trapped in the conventions of his time and is therefore acting as an interpreter – while later interpreters, such as Venzago himself, need to look at the pure composition and determine what effects the composer was seeking and how to achieve them at a much later date. This is a fascinating intellectual argument, and one more appropriate for, say, Mahler, who famously indicated the minutiae of his performance expectations, than for Bruckner, who insisted on very little. But what it does is send Venzago into the realm of historical performance practice, and that is what he and Sinfonieorchester Basel attempt, generally with considerable success, to offer listeners. Bruckner, like Brahms, is a composer thought of as “heavy,” with orchestration that (in Bruckner’s case) is at best organ-like in sonority and at worst simply clotted. But Venzago has noted that the orchestras of Bruckner’s time, for which he wrote his symphonies, were smaller and lighter-weight than those of later times, with a significantly smaller string complement; thus, Bruckner can be conducted, in informed period-practice style although without the use of authentic 19th-century instruments, in a lighter, more buoyant vein than usual. That is what Venzago gives us in this Fourth and this Seventh: works of grandeur and scope, but ones clearly informed by the spirits of Schubert and Schumann. Venzago also chooses some tempos that are far from traditional (among modern conductors, anyway), and he is more willing to employ rubato and other techniques of emphasis and de-emphasis than are most conductors today. The result of all this is a performance of the Fourth and Seventh that is not quite like any other – sometimes highly effective, even revelatory, sometimes seemingly rather headstrong and self-indulgent, but never less than interesting. Whatever the merits of pairing these particular symphonies may be, there is no doubt that this first entry in Venzago’s Bruckner cycle stakes out some new and different territory and bears not only a hearing but several of them. The approach is highly intriguing, and if Venzago sticks to it throughout, he will definitely offer listeners a Bruckner cycle distinct from the ones to which they have become accustomed.
The pairing of Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh in the final disc of Philippe Herreweghe’s cycle for PentaTone is somewhat harder to understand. The arrangement of the whole cycle is a trifle odd: Nos. 1 and 3, recorded in 2007, share one disc; Nos. 2 and 6, from 2009, share another; Nos. 5 and 8, from 2007, are on a third; No. 9, from 2009, gets its own SACD; and Nos. 4 and 7, the oldest recordings of all – from 2004 – complete the sequence. Unlike Venzago’s Bruckner, Herreweghe’s Beethoven does not seem to have been conceived of as a complete set, even though that is how it has turned out. Leaving aside the peculiarities of pairings and recording dates, though, this is a very fine Beethoven cycle, with the readings of the Fourth and Seventh at the same high level as those of the other symphonies. Conductors in general have come to appreciate the Fourth more in recent years, no longer handling it as some sort of step backward into supposed simplicity after the “Eroica.” More lightly orchestrated than its predecessor and more Haydnesque, it is also more harmonically developed and filled with elegant instrumental touches, which Herreweghe clearly appreciates: this is a poised and elegant reading that flows well and has a fine balance of delicacy and power, despite one unfortunate slowdown right at the end of the Scherzo. The Seventh flows beautifully, too, especially in the lovely slow movement, which is here paced so it rocks back and forth gently even as it moves ahead. A stately opening movement, bouncy and well-balanced Scherzo and emphatic finale with strongly accented rhythms add up to a worthy and convincing performance and a fine completion of Herreweghe’s Beethoven sequence, its atypical sequencing and performance dates notwithstanding.