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SACD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87 *
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
* Sally Matthews, soprano
* Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano
* Barry Banks, tenor
* Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone
* San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SACD 821936-0058-2 Hybrid Multichannel
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Michael Tilson Thomas recorded the Beethoven Symphonies in the early stages of his career with the English Chamber Orchestra, and it remains one of his most forgettable major projects. To my knowledge, Sony never bothered with it after taking over from CBS Masterworks, and I've only seen one of the individual discs in my years of collecting and writing. Now that he's built a legitimate international powerhouse orchestra and tackled Mahler, Beethoven seems a logical place to go.

The Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth are currently available (the Third can be found as a budget companion to Thomas' Keeping Score series). This Second comes with a substantial bonus in the form of Beethoven's nearly 40-minute Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. Whether you appreciate it or not will depend on how much you like mediocre Beethoven. Mind you, some of the choral writing is still amazingly forward-looking, and the instrumental writing is mostly taut and exciting. But the composer never wrote well – or at least kindly – for vocal soloists, and the results are predictably uninteresting, The work also seems to go on longer than it has to, like most cantatas on strange subject matter. The San Francisco Symphony plays well with what little it has to do.

In the Symphony, the large San Francisco forces prove refreshing after years of scaled-down Beethoven. The opening sections are beautifully phrased by the wind chorales, while the strings enter with equal radiance. Moderate tempos and full sonority characterize this mostly old-fashioned performance, though Tilson Thomas doesn't prove himself a slave to any particular tradition. What we have here is a distinctly new-school conductor (one who made his name in Mahler, Debussy, and Americana) bringing his updated thoughts to the classics. Despite some rather damp percussion (and one could wish for harder accents from everyone), there are also no mannerisms to speak of. This is just good, clear Beethoven.

And perhaps that's the problem. This doesn't feature the beauty of Karajan, nor the nervous energy of Toscanini, nor the deep seriousness and conviction of Klemperer. And there are dozens of modern conductors to contend with. Anyone collecting this series will want this disc – the sound and ensemble are both top-notch – but I can't suggest this as a reference edition.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman