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Posted October 1, 2010
This performance is required listening for anyone who is serious about classical music; it is by far the best recording I've ever heard of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. The opening movement, Allegro vivace e con brio (fast, lively and zesty), truly lives up to the composer's instructions. What makes it stand out is not merely the tempo, which is breathtaking, but the precision and control, which are extraordinary. This performance actually sounds like the product of a single mind, with every note attacked by every instrument at the same instant. At the end of the first phrase of the first movement, there is a tiny pause, after which the orchestra takes up the second phrase of the opening theme, again with absolute precision. To pick up the musical thread after a hesitation of that sort, with such clarity, is simply extraordinary. This is the playing of a fine ensemble that is completely in tune with the musical statement that its conductor is trying to express.
The Marlboro Festival Orchestra is smaller than the major symphony orchestras that are represented on the majority of Beethoven symphony performances; that is a partial explanation for the combination of speed and clarity that Casales is able to bring out. But other performances by small orchestras don't come any closer to this one than the big orchestras with famous conductors do; something rare and special is going on here. It's worth noting that this is a live performance, though the audience is so silent that you might well think they held their breath through the entire work. (This is true on the LP version as well, not simply some trick of digital remastering.) They must have known how very lucky they were to be present at such a moment.
The performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on this cd is disappointing by comparison. The fourth movement, Allegro con brio, calls for the same sort of speed and precision that Casales creates in his performance of the first movement of the Eighth. But his performance of the fourth movement of the Seventh is both slower and less precise.
It's worth noting that the orchestras on these two performances are actually quite different. First of all, the Eighth was recorded in 1963, while the Seventh was recorded in 1969. More importantly, the orchestra for the performance of the Eighth consisted of 42 players (including 29 string players, only 13 of whom were violinists), while the orchestra for the Seventh consisted of 53 players (with 22 violinists among the 40 string players). For comparison, the typical major symphony orchestra has at least 90 musicians, with 60 or more string players. A smaller orchestra permits greater precision. So it stands to reason that Casales's performance of the Eighth would be better in that respect that his performance of the Seventh.
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Posted March 25, 2010
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