Beethoven: Symphony Nos. 1 and 6 ("Pastoral"); Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä (BIS, hybrid Super Audio CD)

The penultimate disc in the Minnesota Orchestra-Osmo Vänskä cycle of Beethoven symphonies pairs No. 1 (1800) with No. 6 ("Pastoral," 1808). The distance between these pieces is greater than their dates might suggest. The first, despite forward-looking features, can be heard as souped-up Haydn; the "Pastoral," with its intimations of romanticism and its cultivation of orchestral sensuousness, opens onto a different world.

Beethoven performance is in perpetual flux; every recording offers a snapshot of this happily interminable process. To my mind, Vänskä's current way with Beethoven, which seasons the precision, sonority and undeviating tempos of modernist performing style with elements of Classical-period practice, is better suited to the First Symphony than to the Sixth. In the earlier work, the élan and focus of conductor and players are irresistible: the rat-a-tat-tat 16th-note figures in the opening movement, to choose just one example, are superbly enunciated (though the Trio is short on charm and the Finale's humor underplayed).

In the "Pastoral," however, I can't quite shake my anachronistic preference for a suppler, more Viennese approach, exemplified by the Bruno Walter LP I grew up with. There are lambent moments in this music -- three pages from the end, for instance, where the violins, pianissimo and sotto voce, sing a final variant of the shepherd's tune -- when Vänskä's adherence to a metronome mark feels needlessly ascetic, a case of misplaced rigor. He lavishes care on nuances of ensemble, but his often-unyielding beat injects a hint of unwanted tension into the rhapsodic "Scene by the Brook," and sometimes cramps the orchestra's marvelous solo winds.

Balances, exemplary in previous installments of this series, are marginally less so here; the horns, in particular, sound rather distant. And listeners whose piggy banks have been depleted by the holidays should know that they can acquire a decent set of all nine Beethoven symphonies for not much more than the cost of this CD.


Philippe Jaroussky: "Carestini: The Story of a Castrato"; Le Concert d'Astree, conducted by Emmanuelle Haim (Virgin Classics)

French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is one of the few in his voice category who can even think about singing music written for the Handel-era castrato Giovanni Carestini, for whom Handel wrote major roles in operas such as "Ariodante" and "Alcina." The music fits him perfectly, not just because he can handle the virtuoso coloratura runs, but because he sustains such a beautiful vocal line in the more reflective arias, where he's even better. His sensitivity to the text, plus his rapport with the baroque idiom, make this one of the best vocal albums of 2007 -- thanks also to the vital, precise conducting of Emmanuelle Haim.


To hear samples, call 612-673-9050 and press 5313 for Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 (first movement), 5314 for Symphony No. 6 (fourth movement) and 5315 for Philippe Jaroussky.