Nikolaus Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien

Beethoven: Symphonies 4 & 5

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his period orchestra, Concentus Musicus Wien, never recorded a complete cycle of the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, and this 2016 Sony release is their only recording of the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major and the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, made almost ten months before the conductor's death. Harnoncourt planned for this to be his last recording before his retirement, so it inevitably has the feeling of a valedictory performance, and one can also hear it as the orchestra's warm tribute to its leader and his sterling musicianship. But beyond the well-deserved accolades, this is a truly fine live recording of one of the most famous symphonies of all time and its somewhat less loved sibling, so the musical value of this singular Beethoven disc is quite high. Because the Symphony No. 4 is often overlooked, it's gratifying that it opens the album, and listeners are well advised to try it first. The distinctive woodwind sonorities, the punch of the brass and the timpani, and the crisp articulation of the strings make it a delightful performance, and the pronounced use of the bassoon as a lyrical instrument gives this performance a special character lacking in more conventional performances. The dramatic Symphony No. 5 needs no introduction, but this well-considered reading explores the piece's internal workings and Beethoven's innovative use of instruments, and Harnoncourt draws out extraordinary details in the winds and brass that are seldom heard as clearly as they are here. This is a splendid disc for its original and thoughtful interpretations, remarkable sound quality, and compelling energy, and it is a superb achievement that serves Harnoncourt's memory well. Highly recommended.

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