Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner
Philips 9500 033
Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.
The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.
It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.
Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.
Vivaldi is greatly overrated
Lately, a few people have asked me what LPs they need to start a “best of” classical music collection. Navigating the interminable realm of classical recordings is daunting at best, so here’s a list of the most popular, need-to-own, works, in chronological order. I’ve also included two or three (totally subjective) standout performances on vinyl.
The Four Seasons (1723) / Antonio Vivaldi
Generally what people think when you mention the term Baroque. Vivaldi completed these 4 concerti for violin to convey, it’s believed, the countryside around Mantua. Probably the most (over)recorded piece ever composed, with ensembles doing everything they can to distinguish themselves from the staggering quantity of different versions, like changing tempi and instrumentation, it remains a staple of the repertoire.
Neville Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a performance on period instruments. Long considered the gold standard of the work, it’s probably the closest thing to hearing The Four Seasons as Vivaldi himself may have heard it.
A more modern, extremely fresh, version from Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra.
Max Richter’s 2012 minimalist tweaking of the The Four Seasons provides a meditative, gorgeous listening experience. Besides being a deeply felt update of Vivaldi, it’s one of the best-sounding contemporary vinyl pressings out there.
As a postscript, it’s best to stay clear of big orchestra renditions, such as Herbert van Karajan’s peculiarly large-scale recording, with Ann-Sophie Mutter as violin soloist. And really anything with the name Nigel Kennedy attached to it.