Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2009 and the recording is still available.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Op.60 (1806)
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92 (1812)
Manchester Camerata/Douglas Boyd
rec. live, 2007, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
Avie AV2169 
Four years ago, Colin Clarke praised the Manchester Camerata’s debut disc on Avie, which paired live performances of Beethoven’s second and fifth symphonies at budget price. In 2008 the second instalment in the Manchester Camerata’s projected cycle of live Beethoven symphony recordings has arrived, this time in the premium price bracket. Are these premium performances? Certainly Avie’s production values, with fine booklet notes contributed by Barry Cooper, are second to none. The recorded sound is transparent but natural, with winds and strings well balanced – as much a product of Boyd’s direction and his orchestra’s size as of the engineering. Any minor imperfections in ensemble in these live performances do not detract materially from the listener’s enjoyment and audience noise is minimal. And the performances themselves? Sincere, committed, measured and detailed. Enjoyable and satisfying? Yes. Exciting and overwhelming? No.
The fourth receives a warmly expressive reading. Textures are light, dynamics and markings keenly observed, and phrasing classically poised – just listen to the lilting strings and cooing horns in the second movement adagio. The overall effect is not so much unbuttoned in the manner of, say, Vänskä as slightly relaxed. A feeling of lightness pervades the opening allegro vivace, which is given space to breath, though rhythmic pointing in the third and fourth movements ensures that the moderate tempi do not sap momentum.
The seventh fares just as well. The first movement opens with an almost dreamy introduction before the vivace dances away. In the third movement, the attractive chuckling rhythms delight almost as much as the whooping horns with their telescoped crescendo and decrescendo. Minimal vibrato breathes a chill wind into the second movement. The finale is of a piece with the rest of the performance, but would benefit from more abandon.
Competition is fiercer in Beethoven symphonies than in just about any other field of recorded classical music. Whether these poised, detailed performances will inspire you comes down to interpretative preference.
For me, the best of recent fourths remains Osmo Vänska’s on BIS, which pulses with excitement even as it illuminates the score. Haitink’s exciting live traversal with the LSO runs Vänska a close second. I have not yet heard Vänska’s recently released seventh, though it has already been praised in these pages, but again Haitink and the LSO are the best of the rest of the recent recordings I have heard. Downloaders may also want to investigate the recordings of the Manchester Camerata’s northern neighbours, the BBC Philharmonic, that were made available by the BBC during the Beethoven Experience back in 2005. Chandos’ Classical Shop has made the cycle – including the fourth and the seventh – available in high quality mp3 sound. While not quite as detailed or as tidy as the readings from Boyd and his band, Noseda and the BBC Phil are tremendously exciting. Of course, all of these alternative recordings feature modern symphony orchestras rather than chamber orchestras like the Manchester Camerata.
If you are looking for a coupling of these two symphonies specifically, Michael Greenhalgh’s recent review suggests that Paavo Järvi, conducting a Bremen orchestra of similar size, may be your man for more explosive performances than these. Of the classics in the back catalogue you would be hard pressed to do better than Szell. That said, these fresh, enjoyable Mancunian accounts are worth your notice.
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