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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Symphonies: No 1 in C major, Op. 21; No 2 in D major, Op. 36; no 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’; No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60; No 5 in C minor, Op. 67; No 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’; No 7 in A major, Op. 92; No 8 in F major, Op. 93; No 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’*
Overtures: ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’, Op. 43; ‘Coriolan’, Op. 62; ‘Egmont’, Op. 84

*Yvonne Kenny (soprano); Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano); Patrick Power (tenor); Petteri Salomaa (bass); The Schutz Choir of London
The London Classical Players conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
Recorded in No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 1986-1988
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 61943 2 8 5 CDs [353.09]

Some years ago there was a major exhibition of contemporary art, which went under the title, "The Shock of The New". When Roger Norrington’s cycle of Beethoven symphonies was released between 1987 and 1989 the performances could well have carried the collective title, "The Shock of The Old." I remember collecting several of the original issues and it has been fascinating to return to the whole set after a lengthy interval.

This was not the first period instrument cycle to appear. I think I am right in saying that cycles by both Christopher Hogwood and Frans Bruggen were at least in progress, if not completed by then. However, Norrington’s collection was ground-breaking and attracted significant attention particularly because he had so thoroughly re-thought all the symphonies, not least in terms of tempi. He paid very close, but not slavish attention to Beethoven’s metronome markings and the results were, to say the least, provocative. Indeed, as I recall the original releases carried details of the metronome markings for each movement. This feature is absent from this reissue as are the detailed performance notes by Norrington himself, explaining in detail his approach to each piece. Instead there is a fairly general note which gives only a superficial indication as to Norrington’s ideas: a great pity.

Having said that, the reissue is greatly to be welcomed as it usefully collects together some very thought-provoking performances at an affordable price and in good, clear recorded sound. In order to accommodate the whole cycle on five discs the symphonies are presented in a rather random order. It is probably easiest to provide some listening notes on each disc in turn.

Disc 1. Symphonies 1 & 3; ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’

Not the first to be recorded, but Symphony No 1 sets the tone for much of what is to follow. Strings lithe and agile though occasionally a bit light in the bass. Wind immaculate and articulate. Brass accurate and positive (the rasping horns are a revelatory delight throughout the cycle.) One slight complaint: the timpani, played with hard sticks, of course, are a bit aggressive in this work – though not elsewhere. Generally, Norrington balances his forces very well and the lighter tone of the period instruments allows an abundance of inner detail to come through. The Andante may seem a trifle brisk but this is early Beethoven, closer to the world of Mozart and Haydn, so a walking pace is not inappropriate. The scherzo is simply exhilarating and the finale even more so.

The ‘Eroica’ is more problematical. The first movement pulsates with energy but lacks some breadth. It’s not the actual speed: I compared this with accounts by Harnoncourt (on modern instruments) and by Eliot Gardiner and found both set a similar pace but manage to impart a bit more weight. Perhaps the secret is their greater willingness to modify slightly a basic pulse for rhetorical effect?

Similarly, the funeral march lacks the necessary space and gravitas at Norrington’s flowing tempo. Note, however, several telling touches such as the sepulchral timpani strokes. The drama is vividly conveyed, even if a mite swiftly. The scherzo is mightily effective, by turns mercurial and fiery. Outstanding horns in the trio. The finale is less successful. The main allegro is fine but in the Poco andante I just don’t feel Norrington relaxes enough: there’s no sense of repose, so important before the coda is unleashed. However, the LCP meet all the conductor’s demands with aplomb, not least in the exultant closing pages. A provocative but not wholly successful account. The short overture is an appropriate appendix.

Disc 2. Symphonies 2 & 8; ‘Coriolan’; ‘Egmont’

This coupling of the two symphonies was the initial CD release the first time round and is highly successful. Norrington’s tempi throughout Number 2 seem wholly convincing. In particular the puckish finale is given a simply superb performance which sweeps the listener along on a tide of high good humour. The pace here is hectic but the players’ articulation never falters.

If anything, the Eighth is even finer. The first movement erupts in an exhilarating burst of energy, which is sustained from first to last bar. The delightful second movement chugs along with irresistible wit and the Minuet is also most engaging. The finale sparkles and dances. A marvellous coupling of Beethoven’s most endearing symphonies.

‘Coriolan’ receives a bracing, turbulent performance but I found ‘Egmont’ too fast and unyielding.

Disc 3. Symphonies 4 & 7

A wonderfully pregnant account of the slow introduction to Number 4 after which the first movement proper bursts joyously into life. Norrington really makes us aware that Beethoven has included the words, con brio in the tempo indication. The speed for the second movement is pretty challenging, even by Norrington's standards (the marking is Adagio, after all.). Here we get more of an andante and this performance plays for at least 1 ½ minutes less than in either Harnoncourt’s or Gardiner’s accounts. There’s some lovely wind playing (from the clarinet especially) but I’m not at all sure this movement comes off. No reservations about the scherzo; and the coruscating finale is brought off very well indeed.

The celebrated description of the Seventh as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ certainly applies here. There’s a fine spring in the step of the first movement (and the horns are spectacular). The second movement is faster than usual - or should I say ‘more flowing’? I find the lightness of tread persuasive.

Yet another brilliant scherzo although the trio is disconcertingly brisk. Some will welcome this as removing pomposity. Furthermore, the faster speed is of a piece with the quicksilver music of the scherzo proper. Norrington’s relatively restrained speed in the finale is a bit surprising. One might have expected a "hell for leather" dash for the line. In fact his speed, almost identical to Gardiner’s is appreciably steadier than Harnoncourts’s. Norrington doesn’t quite sweep all before him here (though the extra articulation permitted by his steadier speed is vital). Mind you, for my money no-one approaches Carlos Kleiber in this movement for sheer drive and elan.

 

Disc 4. Symphonies 5 & 6

A coupling in which the primary colours of a period band are particularly telling.

As you might expect, the Fifth is intensely dramatic. The driving rhythms of the first movement are grist to Norrington’s mill and he moves the drama forward with great urgency. The pacing of the second movement is, dare I say it, pretty "traditional" and the playing of the LCP is marvellously eloquent and responsive. The gut strings of the celli and basses produce a wonderfully sepulchral sound in the ghostly opening of the third movement and the subsequent horn fanfares are really arresting. Another movement in which Norrington and his players keenly observe the details of Beethoven’s score and lay them out for us to relish. The tension in the lead up to the finale is palpable and that movement itself is suitably jubilant.

The ‘Pastoral’ is not such an unqualified success. It is beautifully played, with some exquisitely (and suitably) rustic wind playing. The first movement, though, is surely too brisk, whatever the metronome may dictate. One has the impression not so much of a stroll as a jog in the countryside. The rural landscape passes by in something of a blur. By contrast, the second movement is a delight. The brook flows past us at just the right speed and here, perhaps, the wind playing is at its very finest. No complaints about either the third or fourth movements (predictably the period instruments whip up a pretty elemental storm, punctuated by tremendous thwacks on the timpani.) The finale is smooth and grateful. If only there had been more space in the first movement this would have been a very distinguished account but I have to modify my enthusiasm despite the fact that there is much in the rest of the performance to admire and enjoy.

Disc 5. Symphony No. 9

It’s with this performance that I have the most issues and all relate to tempi. The first movement is fine. The pacing is judicious, albeit on the swift side, and the playing is bitingly dramatic. The scherzo too starts off well, played at a virtuoso pace with which the players cope effortlessly. Problems begin for me with the trio, which is taken at a much slower speed than is usual. There’s no denying that this provides a most effective contrast with the main material of the movement. However, it seems to me that this treatment slackens the tension fatally.

The tempo indication for the third movement is Adagio molto e cantabile but Norrington seems to have focused entirely on the second half of that instruction. Timings aren’t everything but it is noticeable that he takes a mere 11’. 08" for this movement. By contrast Harnoncourt takes 13’. 04" and Gardiner, no slouch, 12’. 08" I’m the last to encourage stodginess but Norrington here seems to rob the music of its essential spirit and gravitas.

The finale is, perhaps the most controversial of all. Firstly, the opening recitative passages for the lower strings are played in strict (and brisk) tempo. This is fully in line with the score. However played like this the passages just sound gruff and perfunctory. In fact, the first couple of minutes, before the "big tune" appears, make a much reduced impact in Norrington’s hands. The next surprise comes with the marching-song section which features the tenor soloist. Norrington adheres to the metronome marking which means he is much slower than any other conductor I have heard. The trouble is that this passage leads straight into a fiendish orchestral fugato with no tempo change marked in the score. Norrington remains faithful to the letter of the score (he’d be quite wrong to speed up at this point, of course) and at this tempo the orchestral passage sounds limp. Equally, the following passage in which the choir sings the Ode to Joy in full harmony lacks ecstasy at this pace and remains stubbornly earthbound. Thereafter, prescribed tempo modifications work in the conductor’s favour and the performance gets back on the "traditional" rails but by then I feel the damage has been done. Sadly, this performance as a whole does not crown the cycle as it should. The soloists sing well and the choir, relatively forward in the sound picture, is excellent.

So, what is one to make of the cycle as a whole? Some performances (Numbers 3, 6 and 9) are not wholly successful but even these are of consuming interest: Norrington is never dull. The whole represents a conspicuous achievement, I think, both in terms of interpretation and execution. Clearly, Norrington has thought long and hard about every bar, taking nothing for granted. He thus challenges the listener consistently to listen with open ears to some of the most familiar music in western symphonic literature.

I don’t think anyone would regard this as a first-choice cycle. However, it is essential listening, I think, and should be heard even by those who normally find themselves out of sympathy with period instruments. In my view, while far from the last word on the subject, it is one of the most provocative and thoughtful Beethoven cycles ever committed to disc.

John Quinn

 


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