Is Beethoven’s 7th symphony Allegretto the greatest?

Beethoven’s 7th Symphony Allegretto is intricately explored by music contributor Nicolas Ritchie

In the well-documented and perhaps daunting music catalog of Ludwig van Beethoven, one is often invited to delight in the triumphant stylings of his iconic “Symphony No. 9”; the fourth and final movement, in particular, is a point of supreme significance in the history of music. However, if we look closer at the second movement of Beethoven’s acclaimed “Symphony No. 7” one may just find a much more poignant yet inspirational piece of music, creating a more dynamic portrait of the famed composer.

Written during a time of strife and conflict within Europe (only slightly predating the Napoleonic invasion of Russia at the start of the composition), the piece is a haunting addition to the composer’s legendary archive.

THE ALLEGRETTO

A churning piece of music, the Allegretto (2nd movement) begins with a section of violas and cellos that bring in the melody from a soft and distant place into the foreground, where it then builds up like a rumble of thunder. The intensity builds as the melody is repeated, eventually being overtaken by violins and cellos that expand on the now-familiar lines. As the work grows into an abundance of overlapping and melancholic bars, the melodic theme is soon joined by the wind section’ which is then repeated yet again, building even more tension with each repetition, before finally reaching its peak and then coming to a graceful rest led by the winds.

In a fine example of ternary form, we are then taken into the B section, where an assortment of clarinets and light strings modulates from the key of A minor to A major.

Here, the brilliance of the Cellos keeps the pace continually moving in the background while the winds and strings take turns gliding through the themes that provide a supreme respite from the bookended minor sections.

Next, we come to the sunny and uplifting B section, guided mostly by clarinet, as it takes us to a descending line of winds, then violins, cellos, and then back up the chain once again. One finds that the original melody from the A section is then referenced by the winds, giving way to some dancing staccato violins which bounce back and forth with the cellos thereby gliding us towards the final section and ultimate resolution.

As can be heard, the thunderous weight of the strings now bears down forcefully as we are dropped into the climactic A section for the final time. At last, we hear all the sections combine and playing together splendidly and triummphantly; only then to refer back to the opening clarinet melody of the B section once more.

Ultimately, the horns winds and pizzicato strings take us back to the familiar agitation and thumping from the start of the movement, before finally giving way to the opening note from which we began. Within a nine-minute piece of music, itself only part of one of the composer’s finest symphonies, Beethoven has taken the listener through an onslaught of tension-ridden melodies that evoked such a response upon its first performance that it was immediately regarded as worthy of an encore!

Throughout history the piece would go on to be played by itself, even gracing several scenes of dramatic significance in the film version of Beethoven’s life, solidifying it as a must-hear for any listener of Beethoven and classical music as a whole.

RECORDINGS

Led by conductor Josef Krips, the interpretation by the London Symphony Orchestra is rich and expansive. (Beethoven: complete symphonies). Not a false note is found, nor a hint of trouble on the part of any musician to maintain the marching tempo. The orchestra sounds united, and yet each instrument is allowed its time to rise and fall, conducted with grace and delicacy.

Joseph Krips Collection

As to the quality of the recording, it is pristine and allows for the dynamics of the piece to shine through, while also feeling like an intimate capturing of the hall the musicians were working in. In this case, the separation between each instrument can be identified with ease, highlighting the more subtle nuances between the A and B sections. An ample amount of reverb is provided by the recording space; this being lush without becoming muddled or to overbearing during the more complex moments of the piece.

Krips navigates the movement with such ease and ability that even the otherwise melancholic moments are given life and inspired touch.

The performance by conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Wiener Philharmoniker brings a somewhat different interpretation to the piece. Bernstein is slightly more heavy-handed than Krips, which does indeed create powerful moments at the climax of the A section and the return to such at the end, but has the effect of making the gentler moments of the B section slightly less graceful.

His emphasis as a whole seems to be more on the cellos and the addition of a more powerful timpani drum, rather than letting the winds and second violins lend equal weight to the remainder of the orchestra.

At certain moments in the movement, it even feels as if there is a struggle with the tempo of this performance, with the occasional note dragging enough to alert the ear. It is almost as if Bernstein would like to conduct the piece at a slower tempo, as he does during live renditions .

The recording itself is of a somewhat duller quality, lacking some of the high-frequency clarity present in the Krips performance. Nonetheless, the growl of his timpani and the bite of his cellos make for several moments of supreme gravitas in a movement that certainly demands it on more than one occasion.

3 MORE EXCELLENT RECORDINGS of BEETHOVEN’S SYMPHONY # 7

Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Berlin Philharmonic (1999)

Beethoven’s Seventh has been recorded by well over 100 conductors, many of whom have recorded multiple takes of this work. Thanks to his brilliant performance with the New York Philharmonic in 1936, Arturo Toscanini certainly could claim to have raised the bar.

Following this, conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, and Hermann Scherchen presented radically diverse interpretations of the piece, while Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic’s recording from the mid-1970s deserves a unique place in any collection.

Each of the 2 recordings below can bring back memories of the original compositional techniques in use.

This is abundantly accomplished in Claudio Abbado’s Berlin recording, which pays attention to the melodic narrative while using a wide range of dynamics, from a magical pianissimo to the most powerful fortissimo. DG E471 4902

Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (2012)
Decca 478 3496

Chailly assumes the role of Arturo Toscanini by presenting a lively, rhythmically tight, and classical interpretation of the piece at quick tempos. Despite employing a full orchestra, the conductor and musicians manage to create a magical transparency thanks to a leaner string tone that enables the woodwind, brass, and timpani to penetrate the material with incredible impact.

A dramatic section of the first movement is when the horns reach their peak intensity. Chailly, however, can also produce delicate passages. For example, the scherzo in the third movement achieves an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of articulation, while the string fugato in the middle of the Allegretto combines vigor and mystery.

This album is desirable due to the Leipzigers’ excellent performance and Decca’s clear and transparent sound quality.

WHERE the AUDIOPHILE BEAT MEETS THE MUSICAL ELITE! !

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