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Beethoven: Symphony No 7, Leonore Overture No 3 / Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony

Beethoven / San Francisco Sym / Thomas
Release Date: 06/12/2012 
Label:  San Francisco Symphony   Catalog #: 54  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3. Symphony No. 7 Michael Tilson Thomas, cond; San Francisco SO SFS MEDIA SFS 0054 (SACD: 53: 40) Live: San Francisco 9/2011;10/2010

We appear to be in a sort of post-everything kind of era in Beethoven performance, one in which HIP rubs shoulders with a Thielemann-style counter-revolution. Then there are the conductors who seem to be, if not unaware of various trends and stylistic practices, at least not directly beholden to any of them. Carlos Read more Kleiber was one of those; Michael Tilson Thomas is another.

MTT and his San Francisco Symphony are due to complete a mini-cycle of Beethoven symphony recordings with the release in 2013 of the Ninth; all of the odd-numbered symphonies except for No. 1 will be available from these artists at that time. Tilson Thomas’s is not a Beethoven of fleet tempos and light textures; this is Beethoven of heft and power (reason enough to concentrate on the odd-numbered symphonies), but it is also Beethoven with clearly defined inner voices, rhythmic flexibility, and elegant phrasing.

What is immediately apprehensible upon hearing the opening movement of the Seventh Symphony is the glory of the San Francisco strings: not velvety or plush, but a blending of smoothness with strength, the throbbing cellos and basses carrying the pulse while the violins and violas skate above. Principal flute Tim Day injects a special penetrating poignancy into the vibrant celebration of the full ensemble in the opening of the Vivace.

Martial-sounding low strings give the second movement a very sober aspect as it opens. The pace is moderate but never drags, a very judicious allegretto rather than either a lugubrious adagio or a too-brisk allegro . Counterpoint is vividly illuminated through the characteristically excellent sound production.

Here, I must pause: Tilson Thomas chooses to omit the initial repeats in the last two movements (after observing the one in the Vivace). In addition, the Presto is taken at a very comfortable but by no means fast tempo (with repeat, it would last about 10:15). Normally, these two conditions, and the fact that they tend to reverse the tempo relationships, should raise questions about the interpretation, and I have ( ad infinitum, ad nauseum ) been at pains to point this out. When I contacted the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas offered the simple explanation that he has always chosen to take those cuts. (My thanks to Louisa Spier, senior publicist, for relating MTT’s comment.)

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, my feeling is that this performance is one of such élan and overall good spirits, played with such precision and commitment, and committed to disc with such fidelity and power, that it is easy, for once, to overlook its textual anomalies.

The finale isn’t the usual whirlwind that often comes after a moderately paced Presto—with the repeat, it would time out at about 9:20, a respectable approximation of Beethoven’s intended tempo (John Eliot Gardiner, 9:07; Benjamin Zander, 8:57). That being so, at a mere 7:23, one can’t help but feel a bit shortchanged; the audience, however, is heard to give instantaneous and enthusiastic approval.

As with the performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto that was paired with the Fifth Symphony on an earlier recording, the performance of the overture, if not quite as substantial as the concerto, is far more than a mere makeweight. Tilson Thomas skillfully traces the episodic nature of the piece, from grim determination to growing hope, to final triumph. Once again, the orchestra demonstrates just how flexible it is, as convincing and compelling in music of the Classical era as it is in the works of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, or Adams.

As mentioned, the sound on this disc is first-rate: It is full-bodied and more tightly focused than the sound of the Mahler recordings, but any loss in atmosphere is more than compensated for by the increase in heft; the instrumental sound is of amazing fidelity, especially in the strings; the bass tones are deep but not overly reverberant.

This recording won’t be to everyone’s taste; if your allegiance is to period practice, you won’t be happy with these performances. One could also object to the relatively short total time of the disc (especially at full price). If, on the other hand, you admire superb musicianship, infectious tempos, and multichannel sound that can’t be bettered, you should seriously consider this new SACD.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Leonore Overture no 3 in C major, Op. 72a by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805-1806; Vienna, Austria 

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