BEETHOVEN Symphonies Nos 5 & 7 (van Zweden)
The signs are that Jaap van Zweden will restore to the New York Philharmonic some of the bulk (muscle tone, maybe a pound or two of fat as well) shed during its previous diet of modernist and period-conscious classics under Alan Gilbert. His Beethoven is solidly built from the ground upwards, led by crisply distinct (but not divided) violins and strong on countermelodies such as the elated arc in cellos and basses to answer the horns’ great call to arms in the finale of the Fifth (at 0'40").
Without any agogic indulgence, van Zweden brings an attractive lilt to the Fifth’s Andante con moto from its first teasing up beat. He also encourages the kind of currently unfashionable, keenly shaped legato that balances elements of dead-march and cantabile lament in the Seventh’s Allegretto, and ties these performances back to a tradition inherited from émigré maestros such as Szell, Reiner and Steinberg.
Aside from some spot-miking – the bassoonist comes off well – the sound stage is set back to take in the NYPO sound at full tilt, including the glare of its upper strings which dimmed slightly during the Gilbert era. I like the surges of electricity in the finales of both symphonies, more judiciously built and paced than the sometimes frenetic accounts he led in 2011 with the Dallas SO, on which the new album is in every respect an improvement. There may be nothing here to equal the megawatt intensity of Bernstein’s 1960s NYPO cycle but a quick, hawk-eyed intelligence (voicing the cut-and-thrust of the Seventh’s Scherzo) and improvisatory melodic freedom (is that swing I hear in the Trio?) offer more than adequate compensation.