OTMAR SUITNER, who is working his way through the Beethoven symphonies with his Berlin State Orchestra for Denon, has arrived at the Seventh now (OF-7029-ND). He has in fact arrived at the Ninth, which he taped in June to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Denon's introduction of digital recording, but it is the Seventh that has just been released, and it more than maintains the high standards set in his already issued "Eroica," "Pastoral" and Fifth. To come directly to the point, it is one of the all-around most satisfying Sevenths we are likely to hear--live or recorded, digital or analog.
As in his earlier Beethoven recordings, Suitner is generous with repeats, he has his forces in ideal balance, and his choice of tempi throughout the work is so "naturally" effective as to obviate the whole question of choice. Nothing is rushed, nothing is held back; everything seems unarguably determined by the rhythmic thrust of the work. And the Seventh is the one symphony of Beethoven's in which that particular element enjoys a prominence it is given in no other.
We used to marvel at "powerhouse" Sevenths. In Suitner's performance the power is not felt in the form of an onslaught, but in the work's lyricism as well as its drive, in its radiance as well as its exultancy, and in the clean line that makes every imaginative touch of Beethoven's clear. The East Berlin players are gloriously well equipped to give everything Suitner and Beethoven demand of them, and the sound itself is superb.
Suitner's Beethoven cycle, when completed, may well turn out to be the most successful of the several distinguished packages of the Nine. In the meantime, his Seventh demands nothing less than first place among all current recordings of this much-recorded symphony. Now--when do we get a chance to hear this conductor with our American orchestras?
Another digital recording of a popular symphony likely to excite similar enthusiasm is Vladimir Ashkenazy's new Sibelius Fifth with the Philharmonia Orchestra, on a disc filled out with the same composer's "En Saga" (London LDR-71041). Like his earlier recording of the Sibelius Fourth, Ashkenazy's Fifth is exceptional in every respect. He does not take a "monumental" approach, but a hearteningly vital one: Every phrase seems convincingly alive, and the marvelously crisp brasses conspicuously enhance that impression.
As in Suitner's Beethoven, one feels the uncommon radiance of the Sibelius as Ashkenazy projects it. His sense of proportion never fails him in this work (he even seems to know what to do with those mysterious chords at the end), and the underrated "En Saga" has never sounded better. Ormandy, Karajan and Bernstein have given us outstanding accounts of this great symphony, and they are not diminished by Ashkenazy's achievement; but the sheer sonic splendor of his digital recording gives him a bit of an edge.
In yet another continuing cycle, Claudio Abbado's new Mahler First, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG digital 2532.020; cassette 3302.020), is a bit of a disappointment--by the standards Abbado himself set up in his earlier Mahler recordings. This is a very good performance, handsomely recorded, but not a great or especially memorable one. Horenstein, Tennstedt, Kubelik, Haitink, Paita and Bruno Walter still tell us more about Mahler's First.
Herbert von Karajan is probably not about to embark on a complete cycle of the Nielsen or Shostakovich symphonies, but he has a new digital recording of one by each of those composers. His first recording of any music by Carl Nielsen is a surpassingly persuasive Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable" (DG 2532.029; cassette 3302.029). The Shostakovich is a remake of the only work by that composer he had recorded before, the greatest of his symphonies, No. 10 (2532.030; cassette 3302.030).
When Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic go at any music with the conviction and intensity they bring to these performances, the results can only be described as irresistible. Neither of these symphonies has been so well served on records before; few recordings identify themselves so unmistakably as indispensable. (While the music itself is of course far less consequential, the same must be said of Karajan's new recording of Strauss' Alpine Symphony, DG 2532.015, cassette 3302.015.)