A typically uncompromising Harnoncourt package with
no. 2 placed first (it was written before no. 1), no concession
to crass economics in the form of a filler to the short second
disc (though this team would surely have raised sparks with the
Choral Fantasia), and no mention on either the cover or in the
booklet that some of us poor vulgar souls have been calling no.
5 the "Emperor" ever since Beethoven’s contemporaries
gave it that nickname.
My feelings about this set evolved in the course
of listening to it and I’d better say, in case my opening salvo
suggests this is going to be a carping review, that this is a
series of performances which forces us to reassess our attitudes
to Beethoven style, and that can be only to the good.
No. 2 begins with a brusque, furrow-browed opening
gesture, answered with all the gentle sweetness of a Mozart serenade.
Each moment of this exposition thereafter receives maximum characterisation,
and each moment is allowed to have its own particular tempo, rather
than be slotted into a single tempo which is held throughout.
The adjustments of tempo back and forth are a little disconcerting.
Then Aimard enters at a different tempo again and he allows himself
as much if not more freedom as Harnoncourt. However, it sounds
more natural, or normal, and this poses our first question. Pianists
tend to allow themselves the luxury of a flexible pulse because
there is only one of them (or, in the case of a concerto, the
conductor is expected to follow as best he can) and they can work
out their pulse variations in the course of long hours spent practising
at home. Orchestras and chamber groups generally settle for a
constant tempo, or at least only a few pre-ordained changes, firstly
because not all conductors are up to controlling such pulse-flexibility
(not a problem for Harnoncourt, clearly), or are allotted enough
rehearsal time in which to obtain it (also this was not a problem
in the present case, I imagine). Therefore we are not surprised
at Aimard’s tempo variations whereas those of Harnoncourt take
some getting used to. It is sometimes suggested that solo pianists
should learn from their chamber and orchestral brethren the virtues
of a steady tempo; it has less often been suggested that orchestras
and conductors might learn to play around with rhythms and tempi
as solo pianists are wont to do. Indeed, precious few conductors
since the days of Mengelberg have attempted this, and the received
wisdom, at least until recently, was that it was a thoroughly
bad practice. If Harnoncourt causes us to reassess this received
wisdom, this can do no harm. Sample the opening of no. 3, with
every phrase separated by elongated rests, so that the music gets
under way only gradually; Beethoven’s score has been virtually
stripped down and reinvented.
Aimard is a pianist more associated with contemporary
repertoire. In Beethoven he is unfailingly fluent and well-phrased
with a light-filled touch that most resembles, among famous Beethoven
pianists of the past, that of Wilhelm Kempff. There is never a
hard or a crude sound to be heard, his piano always sings and
the interplay between the hands is exemplary. He is capable of
both withdrawn poetry and divine rampage; as with Harnoncourt,
controversy is likely to centre around the range of speeds which
he allows to accommodate these extremes.
Harnoncourt’s pioneer work in the original instruments
field shows in the short, stabbing accents of the more rhythmic
themes (try the opening of no. 3), or in his tendency to apply
a diminuendo to a chord which is more often held at a constant
volume (hear the second bar of no. 1). He can be brutal, as in
the passage before the piano’s first entry in no. 3. But he can
also be exquisitely tender, encouraging highly poetic phrasing
from his wind soloists. His insistence on non-vibrato playing
from the strings results, not in coldness but in an organ-like
richness. The slow movement of no. 5 offers a sustained example,
but others abound all through.
In general, it can be said that in the first
three concertos Aimard and Harnoncourt give us bristling, furrow-browed
Beethoven where the rhythmic profile of the music demands it,
but instead of maintaining their drive they relax into post-Mozartian
poetry whenever they get the chance. The result is that Beethoven
seems rather less purposeful than we usually think him to be,
and at times I felt I was listening to some such amiable proto-romantic
as Hummel or even John Field. While shedding light on many incidental
passages, perhaps the overall vision has been reduced, even domesticated.
No. 4 is a special case. The pianist’s dreamy
opening is taken at face value by Harnoncourt (I rather expected
the tempo to be whipped up at the first forte passage) and their
poetic, evanescent way suggests that they have decided to try
playing the work in the style of Scriabin or Delius, just to see
what happens. And yet, how wonderfully transparent it all is,
the answering phrases between violins and cellos really clear
for once and the piano totally integrated into the texture. I
shall never hear this work again in quite the same way.
No. 5 gets a spacious, romantic conception, with
the outer movements systematically fielding two tempi, one for
the louder passages and a slower one for the gentler moments.
The result seems more the work of a contemporary of Schumann than
of Beethoven. Thus concertos 1-3 and 5 make a logical progression,
from proto-romanticism to full romanticism, with no. 4 standing
apart as a visionary, sublime statement.
The received wisdom of Beethoven interpretation
was laid down in the 1930s by Weingartner for the symphonies and
Schnabel for the sonatas and concertos. The Gospel according to
Weingartner and Schnabel taught that each movement should be driven
through at a constant tempo; as interpreted by many of their successors
this led to a rigidly inflexible pulse. But it was not ever thus.
Weingartner and Schnabel arrived at the dawn of tolerable recorded
sound, but Beethoven performances from such pianists as Eugen
D’Albert or Frederick Lamond suggest a quite different attitude
to pulse, not unlike that of Aimard and Harnoncourt. A full-scale
investigation into pre-Schnabel Beethoven on record has not been
made, so far as I am aware, yet some of the earliest artists to
record Beethoven were not so far distant in time from the likes
of Czerny and Moscheles who had it from the horse’s mouth. So
it is just faintly possible that Aimard and Harnoncourt are recovering
a flexibility which should never have been lost. The sheer fact
that they provoke such thoughts is surely to be judged positively.
So what sort of recommendation can I give to
this finely engineered set? If you are buying your first Beethoven,
I suppose this might be a risky choice, though better that than
some routine professional job. If you think you know these works
well and are prepared to reassess your reactions to them and to
what constitutes a Beethoven style, then you can look forward
to many hours of illumination. My own responses to the concertos
have definitely been enriched. I wonder, though, if these are
performances were not better heard live, since they often depend
on sheer unexpectedness for their effect. I’ll report again in
ten years’ time!