Jaap van Zweden doesn’t officially take over as music director of the New York Philharmonic until September 2018, but he has already begun to involve himself in the life of the orchestra; he was recently featured in the multi-media announcement of the 2018-2019 season and he and the orchestra have just returned from a triumphant tour of China and Japan. Now comes their first recording together, with many more scheduled for the near future.
Van Zweden has a reputation as a taskmaster, as a perfectionist who will fuss continually over the tiniest detail until he gets it right. While this approach does not ingratiate him with some orchestras, others do recognize that it is never personal with him; it is all about the music.
A 2007 recording of the same Beethoven’s Symphonies by van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony is notable for its speed and intensity. In these new 2014-2015 recordings of the same works with the New York Philharmonic, van Zweden has dialed back the tempi somewhat, but his signature intensity is still very much in evidence, bringing to mind conductors like Toscanini and Solti, who give us the same emphasis on rhythmic exactitude and forward motion.
There is no exaggeration in van Zweden’s Beethoven. There are no unusual accents or tempo fluctuations and there is no sense of imposing a “personal” interpretation on the music. By comparison, in a recent recording of the Fifth (Reference Recordings FR-718), Manfred Honeck takes its famous opening bars in a very measured slow tempo, while van Zweden takes them “in tempo”, i.e., as directed by Beethoven — in the same tempo as the rest of the movement.
While Jaap van Zweden shows little indication that he has been paying attention to “historically informed” conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt or Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and in that sense, his Beethoven might be considered old-fashioned or traditional, there is no doubt that it is compelling. Although the first movement of the Fifth seems oddly careful and lacking in drama, the rest of the performance is full of energy and drive, as is the whole of the Seventh.
He may not be taking over the podium until September 2018, but the van Zweden/New York Philharmonic era has already begun in New York and the first fruits of the collaboration are promising indeed. The New York Philharmonic has never sounded better.