BEETHOVEN Symphony No 7. Wellington's Victory
Here is a fascinating journey back in time: as close a recreation as we can probably get, two centuries later, of the concert which took place in this same venue – the Austrian Academy of Sciences – on December 8, 1813. On the programme was Beethoven’s recently completed Seventh Symphony, a pair of marches written to show off Johann Mälzel’s ‘Mechanical Military Trumpet’, and the evening’s pièce d’occasion, Mälzel’s Die Schlacht bei Vitoria in Beethoven’s orchestral realisation. The work had been devised by Mälzel as a showcase for his mechanical orchestra, the Mälzel Panharmonicon, after the defeat of the French by Arthur Wellesley’s forces at the Battle of Vitoria in northern Spain the previous June. The story of how Beethoven became involved is told with admirable succinctness in Alpha’s elegantly written (and elegantly translated) programme book – essential reading for anyone who still believes that Beethoven had much to do with the project conceptually.
The Redoutensaal, the grand ballroom of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, had been hired for the occasion to accommodate an unusually large orchestra and to make use of the adjacent corridors up which the opposing British and French forces could march. It was this spatial dimension of The Battle of Vitoria – or Wellington’s Victory as the piece came to be known after Wellesley’s elevation to a dukedom in 1814 – which so commended it to the stereophonic age. You probably recall Antál Dorati’s 1961 Mercury recording coupled with that famous bells-and-cannons account of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (11/61) or the rather spruce 1969 Berlin recording under Karajan (DG, 12/69).
These added pre-recorded gunfire. Martin Haselböck sticks with the augmented percussion section used at the first performance. This is absolutely right, though it rather underlines how musically threadbare the battle sequence is ahead of Beethoven’s victory fugue on ‘God save the King’. Haselböck takes the fugue rather slowly but that’s what happens when you put large orchestras into large halls. Beethoven probably did likewise back in 1813, assuming his hearing was up to it. I should add that the recording is first-rate.
Mälzel’s mechanical trumpet, a splendid-looking machine, makes a bright piping sound in the Pleyel and Dussek marches. As for the symphony, Haselböck draws from his period instrumentalists a performance that is as sonically satisfying as it is vital and well-proportioned. It also has a strong dance feel to it, as befits the ballroom ambience. The only thing that mystified me was a seeming lack of antiphonally divided violins, a point of some consequence in this symphony. A most absorbing disc, nonetheless.