Of all the mainstream European conductors to have achieved world prominence in classical music during the last four decades, Nikolaus Harnoncourt may easily be one of the most controversial, primarily due to what some see as a somewhat eccentric conducting style and pacing, and the tendency, bought out by his background in the original instruments movement, to stick slavishly close to the tempos of a piece as the composer had written them. Just as many disagree with Harnoncourt's methods as those who agree with them, especially when it comes to the Viennese classical era embodied by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. A case in point is this particular recording of Beethoven's 4th and 7th symphonies from the conductor's late 80s/early 90s Beethoven cycle for Teldec with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
What may surprise a lot of people is that, apart from nos. 5, 6, and 9, Beethoven's symphonies were not composed for exceptionally large orchestras--save for an added French horn in the "Eroica", the size of the orchestra is no larger than it ever was for Mozart or Haydn. It was the limits that Beethoven's music pushed the players to that makes them so formidable even today. This is true even in something so deceptively "retro" as the Fourth, which, like the first two symphonies, is proportionally similar to the Haydn/Mozart model. Harnoncourt recognizes this in the main, though there are two sections of his interpretation of this symphony that threw me sideways: the missing of one chord at the coda of the first movement, and the lack of a second horn at the coda of the Adagio. But at least his pacing of the work is what we're accustomed to, and not like he or the C.O.E. are rushing off to a fire sale, as I felt was the case with parts of Harnoncourt's Concertgebouw recordings of Mozart's 30th and Schubert's 2nd.
The Seventh, which Wagner rather accurately called the "apotheosis of the dance", is a work driven by motoric rhythms throughout all four movements, and both Harnoncourt and the C.O.E. handle this well, especially in the all-important Scherzo, although I do have to agree with another reviewer that the portentous Allegretto (which made a cinematic appearance in the 2009 doomsday film KNOWING) is handled a bit too quietly. Again, however, in terms of pacing, Harnoncourt has things well in hand, with the reduced forces of the C.O.E. able to handle the imposing demands of a work driven like few others of the Classical period.
The performances themselves, which were done a little over twenty years ago (!), were recorded live in Graz, Austria, and have a lot of the intensity of a live performance, sans audience. And although these are not necessarily the kinds of interpretations that everyone will feel are suitable for these symphonies, they are at least close to what Beethoven may have had in mind without the excess fussiness that has been known to mar overt period-instrument performances. Even if Harnoncourt's conducting style is a bit on the bizarre side on occasion, the genius of Beethoven still shines through on this recording.