Beethoven sym7 PSC1182

Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 2001 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92
Egmont: Incidental Music, Opus 84
Henriette Bonde-Hansen (soprano)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2000, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden
Simax Classics PSC1182 [70]

This interesting pairing of the Seventh Symphony with the complete Egmont incidental music makes for exciting listening. The dramatic aspect of Beethoven the symphonist is always high on the agenda and so it proves here, although not necessarily for the usual reasons. Dausgaard certainly has the measure of the music – in both pieces – and drives it particularly hard. And this music can take such an approach – in fact it suits the Seventh Symphony very well, particularly in the driving intensity of the outer movements.

However, the decisions on tempi may have had something to do with the nature of using the relatively small string body of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. For if the performances (and that of the symphony especially) have a weakness it is the lack of bloom in the string sound. Of course such things may stem from the combination of the performance and the recording, but the latter seems highly satisfactory and therefore the temptation is to suggest that the thin string sound is the result of a relatively small ensemble: the highly informative insert notes list the whole ensemble as 38 players. Without extra doublings in the winds, this would mean a total of 25 strings. And the photograph on the back of the booklet suggests only two double basses. Therefore the string sound will have its limitations in terms of bloom, even if it also has its strengths in terms of attack and accuracy.

Since there is no real slow movement in the Seventh Symphony – the second movement is an Allegretto – the lively driving pace of Dausgaard’s performance makes its exciting mark. If anything it intensifies the salient characteristic of the music, as described by Wagner: the apotheosis of the dance. The lack of full string tone may worry some people more than others, but it is not a problem of the playing, merely a decision central to the interpretation. And this interpretation is nothing if not compelling.

The same might also be said of the Egmont music. Here the competition is nothing like as fierce, of course, and the intensity of the performance catches just the right tone. The vision is central to Beethoven’s aesthetic: a wronged man in his prison cell bravely overcoming fear of his looming execution by conjuring noble thoughts of his lover and an idealised vision of freedom.

Dausgaard’s blazing performance of the Overture sets the pulse racing, and the less well known numbers which follow maintain the tension in their various ways. Henriette Bonde-Hansen sings her two numbers with refined judgement and is captured in just the right recorded balance.

This is an imaginative coupling, performed with drive and a real insight into the fundamental nature of both works. If a chamber orchestra sound is acceptable to you, then the recommendation becomes confident, even urgent.

Terry Barfoot