Jan Willem de Vriend, The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Challenge Classics SACD CC72500.
Although we get quite a few recordings of the Beethoven Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, often coupled together, we don't get too many recorded in SACD multichannel stereo. Therefore, for fans of the SACD medium, as well as for fans of Beethoven, we can welcome this Challenge Classics disc with the Netherland Symphony Orchestra.
Interestingly, it was just a few years ago that we got the same coupling from conductor Bertrand de Billy and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra on an OehmsClassics SACD. Maybe that SACD recording succeeded well enough to prompt this one, I don't know.
In any case, the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra uses select period instruments, and Jan Willem de Vriend, its chief conductor since 2006, follows period-music practices to help make eighteenth and nineteenth-century works seem as close as possible to how they may have originally sounded. The results are not quite like those of a full-on period-instruments ensemble, but they're close enough.
Things begin with the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote in 1812 and has since become one of his most-popular pieces. De Vriend opens the symphony with as vigorous and dashing a delivery as anybody could want, with kudos here to the percussion section who hammer this one home in high style. In the ensuing Allegretto, interpreted either as a funeral march or a procession through the catacombs, the conductor again provides a highly rhythmic beat, moving a little faster than we may be accustomed to hearing and emphasizing the dynamic contrasts more than ever. It makes an imposing statement.
In the Presto, De Vriend is again fleet-footed, apparently taking Beethoven's tempo markings at face value and working up a healthy head of steam. The final movement is justifiably one of the great triumphs of jubilant merrymaking in music, and De Vriend produces a considerable amount of ebullient energy. This Seventh is among the finest I've heard in some time, and while it breaks no new ground, it surely conjures up wonderfully high spirits.
Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, in the summer of 1812, finishing it just shortly after he completed the Symphony No. 7. You'd think by its cheerful tone that the composer was in the best, happiest years of his life when he wrote this pair of symphonies when, in fact, both physical and emotional strains were troubling him. Whatever, the Eighth has always taken something of a backseat to the two great symphonies that sandwich it front and back. Still, it's remarkably bubbly and exuberant.
Under De Vriend, the Eighth is amiable and festive, its forward thrust always pointed and right, its mood always buoyant, if not always as sweet as it might be. The second-movement ticking of the metronome (legend has it that Beethoven was paying tribute here to the inventor of the instrument) moving at a brisk but somewhat perfunctory gait. The third movement is appropriately stately and the finale joyous. Nevertheless, this performance of the Eighth seems more like one to admire rather than to love.
In terms of sound, the Challenge Classics engineers recorded the performances at Muziekcentrum Enschede, Netherlands, in 2008 (No. 8) and 2010 (No. 7). In both works, the company provide nicely balanced SACD sonics, which the listener may play either in two-channel stereo as I did or in multichannel if you have the appropriate playback equipment. In two-channel stereo, the sound is excellent: vibrant, detailed, and dynamic. The stereo spread is quite wide, and the sonics make a strong impact, with decent bass, extended highs, and a clean midrange. Moreover, a sense of stage depth adds to the realism. The sound may be big, yet it's not overwhelming; it's just the right size and breadth to allow listeners to feel as though they are at the performance. A good separation of instruments without sounding compartmentalized, a feeling of air, and a mild hall resonance continue the illusion.