It feels wonderful to write "Seiji Ozawa's latest recording," given that he has been a respected conductor for the duration of my entire life. Looking back, a performance of Tableaux from Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the Royal Festival Hall in the 1980s, with the composer present and, at the end, positively ecstatic about the performance, stands out. Recently, his Beethoven Ninth with the Mito Chamber Orchestra and the Tokyo Opera Singers came my way; now here's the Seventh, celebrating his 85th birthday, coupled with a beautifully chiselled, disciplined performance of the third Leonore Overture. Perhaps not the most exciting performance of that overture, but it is one full of detail and life.
However, it's the Seventh on our plate today, and Ozawa is in exalted company: Carlos Kleiber's May 1982 live account with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester on Orfeo (YouTube link below to the full performance). Although Kleiber also recorded the Seventh with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG, this allows us to compare like with like, two live performances. And the Orfeo Bavarian performance deserves highlighting, it is one of the great Beethoven performances; and in Beethoven Year, nothing but the best will do.
Ozawa's Beethoven Seventh is a fairly reflective affair, in keeping with the Leonore. But there is an audible joy from the players, the dotted-note opening of the first movement proper (the Vivace that follows the sostenuto introduction) just as fresh on the repeat as first time round. There is a spring to the whole of the Vivace that brings in the dance element: one is indeed reminded of Wagner's famous 1849 description of the piece as the "apotheosis of the dance". And then ... the mood turns, and the great bass ostinato towards the end of he movement and the tension builds unforgettably. Anyway, as always, don't just take my word for it. Here is that first movement complete:
... and to compare Carlos Kleiber, as you might like to do throughout, here he is in toto, with the movement timings beneath the picture to help your navigation:
Listening to the Kleiber both here and throughout, the effect is of complete immersion in the score. For him, the dance is frenzied with a manic undertone from the off; for Ozawa, the music dances appealingly. You'll hear more detail in the Ozawa, but Kleiber's first movement is unstoppable.
The famous Allegretto follows (anyone remember "Your Hundred Best Tunes"? - this movement was on the LP I owned!). Kleiber's Allegretto is unafraid to skirt the lowest dynamic levels, his iron rhythmic sense absolutely in keeping with his overall vision. Ozawa is more immediately approachable; loving, one might say. There's more than a hint of Beethoven's previous symphony, the "Pastoral" about Ozawa's Allegretto:
Kleiber's third movement comes close to the monumental in its Trio; the Presto indication at the opening is properly so, fleet of foot and, again, electric. Ozawa's Presto is slower, jaunty almost, so there's less contrast with the hymnic Trio (although I do love the insistence of the second horn of the Saito Kinen's repeated phrases!):
The finale is a fabulous romp with Ozawa. Still dance-like, still controlled, accents beautifully punchy yet manicured, but now the energy is cumulative (there's a bit of microphone spotlighting some might disagree with, but frankly here one really does get carried away with the Maestro's vision, and when we hear the final applause it is well deserved):
Even here, though, Kleiber triumphs. The drive of his finale, coupled with his complete grasp of Beethoven, could surely only be found in Furtwängler (maybe we'll take one of that conductor's Ninths when we come to it ... or maybe an "Eroica". We'll see). Interesting to hear the reactions of the two audiences, too. Immediate acclaim for Ozawa; initially, a sort of stunned rivulet of applause rising to fanatical screams for Kleiber.
Classical Explorer began its journey with a Beethoven Symphony - the Fifth, with Currentzis. We are spoilt in the Seventh to have two great Maestri. Two down, seven to go, if my maths doesn't fail me (it often does). And then we'll start the cycle again, with different performances. This music is, after all, inexhaustible.