Over the 40 year span that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been perfuming, only the last dozen of those have featured the major Beethoven symphonies. What's more, the last – and only – Beethoven recording was set down in 1987, the year of my birth. So it goes without saying that this is a major coming of age party for the ensemble. With over 70 recordings so far over that four decade span, the Orpheus forces have demonstrated a strong affinity for works ranging from Bach to Stravinsky. The excellence of their first foray into these works is thus unsurprising.
I'll be honest; the trailers for this release – which is also the flagship disc for the orchestra's in-house label – did not excite me. There was some unexpectedly coarse ensemble work, and wherever these players rehearse has a singularly unflattering and miserable acoustic. Happily, the actual end product satisfies a great deal more. This is a nearly ubiquitous coupling on disc, so if you're going to put something new on the market, it best be good. And so it is. The leaner sound for these majestic symphonic statements takes some getting used to; once you do though, relish the superb attention to detail and dynamics. Working without a conductor has been the calling card for these players, and again you have to marvel at how well they work together. Listeners excepting something radical or jaw-dropping from an interpretative standpoint will likely be a trifle disappointed. There's none of the radical speeds or point-making exercises that seem to pass for modernity these days. Rather, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra uses their greatest skill set – listening to each other to create cohesive music – and produces a truly natural and organic pair of Beethoven symphonies.
The driving forces in the outer movements of the 5th are remarkable for their exceptional clarity and for the ability to hear each individual orchestral voice. Without sacrificing any of the requisite orchestral weight, these players dust off this famous score and really let loose. Part of this clarity comes from the fact that no section ever overpowers the others; ensemble balance is about ideal. The inner movements impress by flowing effortlessly forward, never losing sight of the sense of Classical poise that some more famous recorded versions miss entirely. The welcome attention to dynamics-over-tempo manipulations also ensure that the musical tension begins in the first movement and doesn't let up until the final note. There are different ways to look at this music, but as an account with chamber orchestra, this is the way to go.
The 7th shares many of the virtues of its illustrious disc-mate. Again, the textures are amazingly clear, with a real sense of purpose from beginning to end, Without ever exaggerating anything, or overdoing any fluctuations of tempo or dynamics, these well-drilled players bring a freshness of approach that I suspect many listeners will enjoy. However, both here and in the 5th, climaxes occasionally sound forced. Indeed, the Orpheus players run into trouble when they attempt to make their sound bigger than it is. That doesn't mean they can't play these works. They do, very well in fact, and things go best when they stay within themselves and simply let the music do the talking. Most of this disc features this latter quality, and it is with that in mind that I make this an enthusiastic recommendation for an orchestra that continues to evolve itself.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman