Abbado is a very famous name in the classical world - but we should ask, famous for what? Italian and Russian opera and other big vocal works were his real speciality and the area where he made his biggest contributions. As chief of the Berlin Phil he had the reputation of a 'new broom'... however, it is debatable whether Karajan left so much rubbish around to be swept out. Abbado certainly got rid of a lot of the existing Berlin players, and to judge by these recordings a lot of the musical traditions as well. The question is has he something to put in their place?
There is something missing from these performances, which is a sense of joviality and earthy humour, a generosity of spirit, an instinctive feeling for the mood of the music as a whole rather than the precision of the details, a sense of singing melody. Instead we have a rather aggressive and hard-driven approach supposedly informed by 'period instrument' practices, but without the more distinctive and darker sonorities of period instruments. The result is very 'clean' and 'tight', but that is only one side of Beethoven. The performances are too perfect, in the sense of bland - naturally there are no wrong notes, but there is also little of those roughnesses and modulations of tone that add so much to the expression of a performance.
Abbado also seems to be a metronome fanatic in these works, despite the very debatable nature of Beethoven's markings. The first casualty of this is the Scherzo of the Seventh, where the slower Trio section sounds rushed and insignificant with no space for the melody to find its expression. Once in the 50's we had conductors who took this too slow, now we have the reverse. The famous second movement has a good tempo but starts much too quietly, with the top line completely dominating the balance, and with a deliberate accentuation of the first beats that distracts from the long phrasing of the melody. The finale is the worst of the movements, a dour, cold reading where the semiquavers come with the relentlessness of a machine-gun. Where is the Dionysian abandon?
The Eighth starts with a very quick first movement: nothing wrong with this in principle, but Abbado misses much of the humour and does not find lyrical relaxation in the second subject. The first statement of the main theme on woodwinds bears the mark of ill-digested 'period' habits, the phrase losing energy at the end rather than going all the way through. The rest of the symphony is a decent performance with generally rather quick tempos, but really nothing special. For example in the Trio I have heard much the cello triplets come out with much more clarity; in the second movement Allegretto the staccato string figures have been pointed with more character.
For a good cheap recommendation for these symphonies that has in good measure what Abbado lacks try the Wyn Morris LSO disc (Carlton); the complete set with Schmidt-Isserstedt is also cheap and very well-played. The Cluytens set on EMI shows what the BPO of old was like - dark and forceful - and still has good sound although some tempos are over-relaxed. For the Seventh one can go for Dorati (Mercury), Erich Kleiber (Decca) or of course Carlos (DG) although the son's is a rather more tightly-buttoned affair. For the Eighth it is rather more difficult. Scherchen (MCA) conducts superbly but has slightly defective recording quality; Barbirolli can also be tried.