Gustav Kuhn

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5

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Although it's not identified as such anywhere on the packaging, this disc by the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, made at its home in northeastern Italy, is a live recording. The sound is reasonable even if it tends to slight the strings. The potential buyer may wonder whether this regional orchestra has something to add to the thick dialogue concerning these famous Beethoven symphonies. Indeed it does; these technically solid recordings do not sound precisely like any of the better-known ones. Whether they will be to the individual listener's taste is another matter. The Bolzano region, having changed hands among empires various times, remains culturally as much Austrian as Italian, and indeed the interpretations by conductor Gustav Kuhn are of the conservative Viennese sort, with an emphasis on Beethoven's Classical antecedents, an elevation of line over local detail, and a generally even keel throughout. His approach is quite detailed, and it works best in the small scale: in the Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, and in the slow movement and scherzo of the Symphony No. 5. These sound, respectively, like a country dance that a brass band happens to pass by and a haunted-house soundtrack at a carnival. Kuhn likes to present a rhythmic figure deadpan the first time it occurs, picking up on and amplifying its significance as it reappears through a movement. This is fine in many instances, but the really powerful strokes are shortchanged. The first movement of the Symphony No. 5 is going to be too stiff for most listeners, and the triumphant C major in the finale, no matter how cleverly Kuhn laces the brass motives around the movement structure, lacks the expected weight. (The interpretations don't match the impressionistic, rather overheated booklet notes, which manage to bring in everything from Caspar David Friedrich to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.) Each symphony is followed by applause, rather languid, but punctuated with occasional shouts of "Bravo!" from the souls whose understanding of Beethoven aligns with the rather eccentric one offered here.

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