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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphonies #4 & 7

  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia/Béla Drahos
Naxos 8.553477 DDD 75:28
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Here again we have Naxos entering heavily-trafficked repertory with a little-known ensemble, and led by an equally obscure conductor, the first flutist in the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Even in the budget realm, this combination would seem a risky, if not foolhardy effort. But once more Naxos scores an upset, proving it has a nearly bottomless fund of untapped talent and resources. Actually, this is the fourth release in a cycle of the Beethoven nine symphonies (only the Ninth remains to be issued now), and if the previous three entries are on this level, I'd rank this set with my previous favorites, the Bernstein (DG), Harnoncourt (Teldec), and Jochum (Angel) sets.

Simply put, there isn't a tempo in either of these two readings that doesn't sound absolutely right, a flourish that doesn't seem utterly natural, a quiet moment that doesn't mesmerize, a climax that doesn't seem the perfect culmination. When I listened to the finale of the Seventh (probably the greatest Beethoven symphony), I sat astounded, dazed, in seventh heaven (pun intended). I had to reach for Toscanini's NBC Symphony recording from Nov. 9, 1951, also a great performance but in dated mono sound. The Italian maestro was compelling, to be sure, but did not surpass Drahos in this movement.

In the Fourth Drahos and his spirited players deliver an utterly effervescent performance, where detail emerges cleanly and orchestral balances seem perfect. This is one of the greatest Fourths ever committed to disc.

The only quibble I have with this recording are the horn sonorities in the main theme of the first movement of the Seventh. They are rather too dominant for my tastes. But, I hasten to add, that is a minor quibble that hardly detracts from the overall effectiveness of the performance.

The sound Naxos provides is excellent, as are the notes by the indefatigable Keith Anderson. Let me mention here that a critic with a major classical review journal has damned the first two issues in this cycle with faint praise. But trust me, I can say with total confidence that if you are looking for a compelling disc of these Beethoven symphonies, you can't lose with this recording. Highest recommendations.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Cummings