Some recordings of great works make such an impression that afterwards there’s no going back to others. Kurt Masur and Leipzig Gawandhaus Orchestra’s account of Beethoven’s 7th is nothing like this. It’s so boring that it temporarily ruined my impression of the symphony and almost made me give it up. Then, by accident, I stumbled over Carlos Kleiber and the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s live performance of the work.
When it comes to Beethoven, Kleiber is best known for his benchmark recording of the 5th symphony. Coupled with that one is a studio recording of the 7th symphony, but it’s really the mentioned live performance that makes my hair raise, especially in the first movement. For me it’s the quality of this movement that determines whether the rest of any recording of Beethoven’s 7th is worth checking out.
There are at least two other live recordings which have been released on CD with Kleiber conducting other orchestras, but to my knowledge this particular recording only exists on DVD video from Philips. And it’s definitely the most exciting of the lot. The tempi are on the fast side without being too fast. The first movement’s got a heavy drive, with continuity and momentum like an unstoppable train. I really can’t sit still after the flute kicks off the dance-like rhythms. And just listen to that flute! It’s got a beautifully clear and windy sound that makes other recordings sound like it’s being subdued.
Carlos Kleiber and The Concertgebouw Orchestra deliver the most thrilling performance I’ve yet heard of Beethoven’s 7th, and it’s reproduced with good sound quality. In Kleiber’s hands and in this particular performance I’ll rate it the best symphony by Beethoven.