Beethoven: The Symphonies
Academy of Ancient Music & Christopher Hogwood
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Good, if not perfect
I own a lot of recordings by Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (which I absolutely love), and when looking for a collection of Beethoven's symphonies, this was my first choice. And it is - different! The instrumentation and size of the AoAM orchestra creates a special sound, and makes up in fierceness for what it lacks in size. This is a great recording if you are a fan of blaring trumpets, and a strong brass section in general. The downside is that the brass sometimes becomes so dominant as to distract from the overall composition, and occasionally even drowning out the strings that you are accustomed to hearing clearly in other recordings. Other minor complaints I have include that the audio mastering could have applied some (more) compression to reduce the dynamic range. It is a bit too large for most normal listening conditions: I found myself forced to turn up the volume during the pianissimo in order to hear anything at all, and turn it down for the fortissimo in order to protect your speakers (and your ears). I also found some movements to be performed at a somewhat too high tempo (notably No. 7 Allegretto). But these are minor issues, and perhaps a matter of taste. On the whole, this is a very good performance and recording. Among the best are probably Symphony No. 9, which I found to be one of the most vibrant and energetic performances of the piece that I have heard, and No. 6, where the size and instrumentation of the orchestra rather are to the advantage of the pastoral mood of this piece.
People seem interested in what the 5th and 9th symphonies of this cycle have to offer, quite appropriate! Without doubt, 5 and 9 are worth the price of this set and the noble, heroic stand of the 3rd can’t be beat--really--these performances are worthy experiences! O, the battle of the revisionists and the purists rages! I know there are a lot of other near-$30 sets out there, many fine ones including Mackerres (next purchase), Gardiner, Karajan, Solti, Haitink/LSO live, Abbado, but this is the one you should consider first or at least next. It doesn't have to be the definitive version (gone with Beethoven) in your collection but it deserves to be in your collection. Closest we shall come to a premiere audience of the 1800’s, with one small benefit, we've had 200 years to get it right! Maybe the AoAM conjures thoughts of thin, dreary and unimaginative performances, but, they produce a fiercely opposite effect - 1 for the purist's! The attractive uniqueness of this recording is three-fold: first, AoAM records the symphonies chronologically (which is ironic because Beethoven wrote many sketches out of sequence). Second, they're performed on period-authentic instruments (gut-stringed violins, valveless brass, sharp-toned woodwinds, skin-covered timpani) lending a striking yet smooth, archaic effect performed with exceptional urgency and vitality. Third, it is [re]orchestrated and played from what Beethoven wrote, utilizing alone his markings and cues, no subversive tempos/dynamics, no surly embellishments. In conclusion, because of the smaller-sized orchestra of the day, the AoAM musicians are forced to play with great power AND clarity. Performance is appropriately overwhelming, subtle and sublime. Kudos to the brass section!! The timpani are electrifying! The choir and soloists - little vibrato ergo beautiful and precise! Encore! --A memorable, majestic production.
A Great Experience
Maestro Hogwood's performance of these symphonies is energetic, bracing and a joy to hear. Like many old fogies, I was skeptical of these "Original instrument" performances. Some simply sounded out of tune and/or strange. I resisted listening to these performances until I was confronted by the Hogwood performance of the 9th on Radio. It is strange and sometimes seems to fast but as you listen you tend to forget the strangness of the instrument sound and realize it's appropriateness. Every performance of each symphony in this set is exciting to hear and has really fine sound. Start with your favorite and you will hear what I mean.
Formed: 1973 in London, England
Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s