Music Reviews

‘Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5’ by National Symphony Orchestra

It’s simple: If you go for it, do it well

Some time ago the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC, following the example of other top orchestras, decided to launch their own label. NSO Executive Director Gary Ginstling: “We believe the orchestra is at the top of its form and comparable to any great orchestra in the world, so of course we want to share these performances with as many people as possible” (Washingtonian, November 2019). 

Music Director, Gianandrea Noseda, and the orchestra’s executive management clearly understood that if you go for it, you have to do it well. The recording sessions were entrusted to one of the world’s best record engineering teams: Soundmirror of Boston. For distribution purposes, a cross-Atlantic link was secured with one of Europe’s best Orchestras, The London Symphony (LSO live). The first release, in February 2020, was a live recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony in SACD format. The classical niche market was pleased to see a new quality label coming to the market.

It brought the NSO instant praise, both in terms of excellent playing and eminent recording quality. Further releases were planned, including all Beethoven symphonies. However, assuming that in the aftermath of Covid-19 and due to changing market conditions commercial steps had to be taken, SACD releases disappeared, but the recorded quality remained, with Native DSD henceforth assuring its downloadable dissemination among said niche dwellers. A sigh of relief.

How many more Beethoven do we need? 

I haven’t counted all of them, but in high-resolution alone (and isn’t that what we are talking about?) there are over many hundreds (new, remastered and doubles included)! From ninety-nine of the First to one hundred and twenty-nine of the Ninth. Every thinkable format and quality are available, catering for a host of tastes. From cherished oldies, via historically informed, to exciting full surround. So, how many more Beethoven do we still need? I think that this is the wrong question.

With every new release, we not only owe it to the conductor and his musicians having given their best, to pass an honest judgement, but also because no single performance is the same. Not that it is easy. A first round of listening against one’s memory gives a broad indication of the kind of fish we caught in the net. So, here we go. 

For no particular reason, I started with the third movement, Menuetto-Allegro Vivace, of the Fourth Symphony. And guess what: The musician that immediately caught my attention was the timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam. His beats were right on the dot giving the movement an exciting and dance-like forward thrust, without going into extremes as we sometimes observe with what a friend of mine jokingly calls “historically deformed practitioners”. Gilliam remains a loyal part of the overall musical fabric.

Another phenomenon that caught my ear was the orchestral interplay; the passage of a melody from one string section to another. Impeccable and seldom heard. It is not just a matter of discipline – what it undoubtedly is – but, to my mind, above all a form of perfect collective commitment inspired by Maestro Noseda. 

My interest was aroused.  

A modern performance in a classical setting

Some might relish the heavy-handed, large orchestral performances of the past, whilst others prefer the lighter textures of chamber formations, whether or not presenting themselves as historically informed, with or without ditto instruments. A symphony orchestra playing in full surround, placing the listener in the middle, can, as far as I’m concerned, be impressive for once, but unrealistic upon repeated hearing. Narrowing a possible choice further down, the prospective buyer may want to know that the NSO deliver a modern performance in a classical setting, like, for instance, Bernard Haitink did when he recorded in 2006 the complete set with the London Symphony (LSO live). Despite similarities – Haitink is leaner, Noseda on the beefier side – the NSO wins hands down on sound quality. 

Fate knocks at the door

If there is one symphony of the two recorded here that can make a difference for a final choice, it is the Fifth. Literally, a matter of ‘Fate knocks at the door’? In our judgement, we have to be careful though. Fate is a notion that can have a different meaning for different people. The same applies to the interpretation of a score. It is about speed and intensity. 

As far as speed is concerned, the question is whether and how to follow Beethoven’s metronome markings. Scholars do not altogether agree on this subject. According to Martin Pearlman’s reflections (Boston Baroque): “Putting metronome markings on music can be a tricky business for composers”, arriving at Beethoven’s conclusion: “One must feel the tempos.” Noseda’s speeds are personal choices, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than others, but his feeling of tempi is actually quite engaging and never disturbing for the listener. The first movement of the Fifth is swifter than most, but not as much as many modern performances, with a well-judged equilibrium between rhythm and speed; the other movements follow traditional patterns. 

That said, building up tension is the driving factor in the Fifth Symphony. In that respect, Noseda can easily put up with the best. The spooky start of the Scherzo – which isn’t fun at all – leads, full of mysterious menace, to a climax that flows uninterrupted over in the final triumph. A triumph for orchestral playing and three-dimensional sound reproduction as well. The fruit of ‘live’ is noticeable. The orchestra relates clearly to the electrifying sentiments of the audience in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. An impressive experience.

The first impression is half the battle

It is said that if the first impression is good, half the battle is won. Although we must wait for the next volumes before giving thumbs up, one might assume that on the basis of this release, this new Beethoven cycle will be able to favourably compete with the better half thus far available. And knowing that no effort is spared to produce the best possible sound, it deserves already serious consideration. The Ninth Symphony (and final volume?) is scheduled to be played from June 1 through June 3, 2023. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. 

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


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