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
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
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.