New Classical Tracks: Beethoven, made in Minnesota

Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra's "Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 6."
Album cover

"Are you crazy?"

That was Osmo Vanska's first reaction when his record label asked him to record the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra three years ago.

There are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven symphonies currently in print. That includes classic interpretations by legendary conductors like Herbert von Karajan and George Szell.

Vanska loves Beethoven, so after careful consideration, he realized he did have something fresh to say. And he was right. The orchestra's latest CD in this cycle highlights Beethoven's Symphonies No. 1 and 6, and it follows three highly praised predecessors.

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This Beethoven recording is brimming with a glowing sense of enthusiasm. Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra use bouncing rhythms and broad dynamics to punctuate Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major.

In the first movement, the strings are clear and balanced. The woodwinds brush on the added detail. The crisp rhythmic precision of the strings really makes this movement sparkle.

This CD was recorded last June using surround sound recording technology. The goal is to reproduce the sound of the concert hall as authentically as possible. We hear a much broader dynamic range thanks to this high-end technology.

In the third movement of Symphony No. 1, bold crescendos are even more fearless, and soft diminuendos are sometimes so quiet you have to turn up the volume to hear every nuance.

Four years after completing his first symphony, Beethoven started drafting ideas for his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, known as the "Pastoral Symphony." Another four years passed before it would be completed.

Beethoven gave himself a challenging task when he decided to portray the countryside in this symphony. To reach his goal he focused on feelings, rather than the programmatic elements.

"Pleasant, cheerful feelings which awaken in people on arrival in the country," is the subtitle of the first movement. I can't help but feel good when I listen to it.

Under the baton of Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra turns this movement into a nature ballet. The woodwinds twitter like birds, as the melody wells up through the orchestra like a bubbling brook.

The second movement is a "Scene by the Brook." This beautiful piece is a sanctuary of sound.

Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra play this exquisite movement prayerfully. The woodwinds flutter elegantly through the birdsongs. The strings float in unison creating a buoyant yet thoughtful mood. Truth be told, this is my favorite part of the entire recording.

When Vanska decided to take on the challenge of recording a new cycle of Beethoven symphonies, the thought of competing with all the classic interpretations was daunting.

With the release of the fourth recording in this five-disc series, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra are taking their place alongside many other great conductors and orchestras. They continue to meet the challenge put before them by putting their own stamp on these great symphonies.

Along with its three predecessors, this new recording in the Minnesota Orchestra's Beethoven cycle has staying power.