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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies: 1 in C, op. 21, 2 in D, op. 36, 3 in E flat, op. 55 Ė "Eroica", 4 in B flat, op. 60, 5 in c, op. 67, 6 in F, op. 68 Ė "Pastoral", 7 in A, op. 92, 8 in F, op. 93, 9 in d, op. 125 Ė "Choral"*
*Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Rudolf Schasching (tenor), Robert Holl (bass), Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live, June 29th 1990 (4, 5), July 1st 1990 (8, 6), July 3rd 1990 (1, 3), July 5th (2, 7), June 21 1991 (9) in the Stefaniensaal, Graz
TELDEC CLASSICS 0927 49768-2 [5 CDs: 74:52, 71:18, 70:31, 74:43, 66:44]

This was the cycle that set the pace for performances of Beethoven which use modern instruments but which take into account all that has been learnt by the use of period instruments, of which Harnoncourt himself was a pioneer. It was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm around ten years ago; more recently the feeling has been expressed that it is not holding up so well to the test of time.

It is not normally my practice, when listening to music I know so well, to follow with the score; later on the oracle may be consulted over specific points. It quickly became evident that in this Beethoven cycle specific points would be so frequent that the score was indispensable. These are performances that strike more for their small details than as a whole. So anyone who reads my notes below and thinks I am being pernickety, seizing upon niggling matters and ignoring the overall line, is invited to look up my other Beethoven symphony reviews on the site (there are quite a lot) and reflect that, if I adopt a different method here, it arises from the nature of the performances themselves.

Symphony no. 1

Harnoncourtís liking for rhetoric shows in his creative treatment of note-values and rests in the introduction to the first movement. This makes for a more throat-clearing effect than those performances which proceed at an even tempo. At least it avoids a drop in tension as the Allegro con brio starts, as sometimes happens. The main body of the movement bowls along ebulliently at a swift but not excessive tempo. Not actually memorable but satisfyingly vital.

In the following movement one is struck by the swift one-in-a-bar tempo and by Harnoncourtís very deliberate slurring of the pairs of notes which characterise the main theme: the first and second note, the fourth and fifth, the seventh and eighth and so on. It is a moot point whether Beethoven meant these slurs as phrasing or, as most other conductors seem to think, as bowing; that is to say a technical matter for the violinist. The effect is that of a courtly minuet full of little bows and graces. I am torn between finding it piquantly charming and feeling that plainer interpretations have found more depth in the music.

A very fast Menuetto (so-called, we all know this is a true Beethoven scherzo) means slowing down for the trio. I find it odd that Harnoncourt plays the wind chords in the trio so smoothly, completely ignoring Beethovenís staccato markings. Several conductors have seen fit to repeat the first section of the Menuetto when it returns after the trio; Harnoncourt repeats the second section too, and I wonder what his authority is (several of the cycles on period instruments also adopt this practice).

The finale is basically brilliant, but as early as bar 8 of the Allegro molto e vivace I wondered why Beethovenís staccato markings were being made so little of. Admittedly the coiled-spring Rossini-like staccatos which Toscanini taught us to accept as the norm may be overdone in the opposite direction, but this passage vocalises one of my big worries about these performances; for all their speed, they can be strikingly deficient in actual forward movement.

Symphony no. 2

In the Allegro con brio of the first movement Beethoven has marked an unusual number of dynamic contrasts, sprinkling liberally fortissimos, pianissimos and sforzandos all over the score. Obviously these have got to be done, but you have to find the music in them. Much of this is simply brutal, forcing an ugly sound out of the orchestra. More bullish than ebullient.

The Larghetto shows that Harnoncourt can proportion his fortissimos to the context in hand when he wants to, and much of this flows quite nicely. I query whether the march rhythms starting at bar 128 should dominate the texture when other instruments have melodic phrases which most other conductors prefer to bring out.

Another swift scherzo, superbly sprung, resulting in a slower trio. In theory I agree that the trio should follow immediately, without any pause, but when the reverberation of the hall means that the first bar of the trio is completely covered by the echo of the end of the scherzo, then common sense suggests that a tiny pause would be in order. Here again we have both repeats in the scherzo when it returns and if youíre not expecting the second, your surprise will be all the greater since, thanks to the reverberation, you wonít notice theyíre playing it till theyíre about a bar and a half in.

Some terrific playing in the finale, which goes at a real lick. The magical change to D minor on the rondo themeís second appearance is rendered null by the reverberation. For all its vitality, I found this a pretty joyless, jack-booted reading.

Symphony no. 3

A swift first movement has an impressive sense of continuity, although even Harnoncourt has to yield a little in second subject territory and he makes a notable rallentando on the three forte chords that close the exposition (and an even bigger one at the end of the recapitulation). The effect, in the context of such a tightly controlled interpretation, is incredibly pompous, like an old gentleman waving his umbrella to stop a taxi. There is the expected thrashing at accents, but for all its busy-ness the performance gives less of an impression that it is getting somewhere than many others that build it up more patiently. Itís a very modern hero and one wonders if Harnoncourt is suggesting that Beethoven had a hidden agenda, rather on the lines of some of Shostakovichís depictions of Stalin; praising Napoleon to his face while (for those in the know) sneering at him behind his back. But if this had been so, Beethoven would not have needed to scratch out the dedication.

The opening of the Marcia funebre will be the stuff of an original instruments manís dreams. The strings are shorn of all vibrato, and instead of building up a long legato line, as incorrigible romantics from Weingartner to Toscanini and Klemperer have done, the long notes are allowed to fade away. Itís rather impressive. Another section which gets an interesting new look is the fugato starting at bar 114. One of the conductorís tasks, according to Wagner, was to bring out the melody. Mindful of this duty, conductors such as Klemperer have brought a rare luminosity and transparency to this passage by giving each line its exact weight and guiding the ear towards the part which carries the argument forward. Harnoncourt evidently believes that the conductorís duty is to bring out the sforzatos, stabbing at them without trying to relate them to their context. The passage acquires a new look since the familiar melodic lines are obscured by a series of sforzatos arriving from various parts of the orchestra. Itís fascinating in a way, and if you think itís what Beethoven wanted youíre welcome to it. What I do find impressive, though, is the way Harnoncourt holds his tempi steady in the various episodes; many conductors, Weingartner in primis, find it necessary to move forward.

In the Scherzo Beethoven made one important change during the repetition after the trio; the insertion of a few bars in 2/4 time. On account of this he had to write the whole lot out again instead of merely writing "da capo". So what does he do about the repeats? The short first section, the repeat of which was written out in any case, is maintained, while that of the longer second section is not. There are similar cases elsewhere in Beethovenís work and they all point in the same direction; short first section repeats are maintained on the repetition after the trio, long second section repeats are not. The scherzo is so swift that the tempo has to slacken between bars 128 and 150; that apart it is superb. The delayed upbeats Harnoncourt applies frequently in the trio are just as mannered and irritating in their way as was Furtwänglerís romantic dawdling in its later stages, and perhaps less musical.

The finale, for all its speed, has little Beethovenian drive (or is that a romantic concept I should try to forget?) and sounds rather segmented. Given the conductorís ideology, I would have expected a less protracted treatment of the Poco Andante. Harnoncourt makes some interesting comments on Beethovenís metronome markings during an interview in the booklet, and of course we donít expect slavish observance of them, but surely their relative values tell us something? This Poco Andante is scarcely faster than the Marcia funebre, yet Beethoven marked the latter 80 and the former 108, which is a big difference. By the time we get to the great horn statement of the "Prometheus" theme this is the same old romantic Beethoven we have always known.

Symphony no. 4

An impressively mysterious introduction. Maybe neither Harnoncourt nor his players really believe in the zippy pace he sets for the Allegro vivace since the tempo keeps dropping back, picking up and dropping back again until by the time the exposition is repeated they have settled down to a perfectly normal speed. Thereafter things go very nicely though I must point out a couple of oddities. At bar 81 all instruments are marked fortissimo, but the theme is in the lower strings. If each instruments plays at his fortissimo all we will hear are the trumpets and drums hammering away on just two notes, which isnít very interesting. The normal practice is to mark down the fortissimos on the heavier instruments and mark up those on the weaker ones in order to bring out the melodic and contrapuntal interest of the passage. Indeed, in the old days thatís what people thought a conductor was there for. Evidently Harnoncourt doesnít agree. Another oddity is his accenting the staccato string octaves from bar 121 in groups of three, for which my score gives no authority at all and reduces the music to mere pattern-making, followed by a pompous rallentando in bars 133-4. A pity; as I said, much of this is very good, and Harnoncourt keeps his sforzato accents here in reasonable proportion to the context.

The Adagio has the long melodies very beautifully played, but the accompanying figure is very jerkily done, deliberately intrusive, rather as though somebody is cheekily playing a polka in the background which has nothing to do with the matter at hand. I suppose nothing in the score actually says it mustnít be played like this, and if you like it ...

Virtually every performance Iíve heard of the scherzo suffers from a tendency to separate the rising and falling phrases between the wind and strings, creating a stuttering effect. Harnoncourt avoids this pitfall and this movement is extremely vital and brilliant. Good, too, that he plays the trio only Un poco meno Allegro, as Beethoven asks, and not Molto, molto meno Allegro, as so often happens. This is another case where Beethoven writes out the return of the scherzo Ė and eliminates both repeats.

The finale is a triumph of spick and span orchestral playing. If you think this music has spiritual qualities too, youíll have to go elsewhere, but itís certainly vital. At bars 305, 307 and 309 Harnoncourt evidently feels that Beethoven hasnít given him enough accents to jab at, and provides some of his own (at any rate, they arenít in my Hawkes Pocket Score; perhaps more recent scholarship has found them). Despite my reservations, this is the best performance so far.

Symphony no. 5

A thrustful, urgent first movement Ė not a hint of an unmarked romantic rallentando in the four-note motto theme, naturally Ė but also finding time for a very clearly phrased second subject, more meaningful than is often the case. It is noticeable that in this movement Harnoncourt balances the instruments so as to bring out the melodies, exactly as I complained he did not in parts of no. 4. What an unpredictable man he is!

It is a measure of the amount of tempo variation we usually hear in the Andante con moto that while you will perhaps find Harnoncourt rather fast at the beginning (it seems a minuet), many other passages sound "normal" and a few even seem slow. Harnoncourtís steadiness obviously makes it all the more telling when Beethoven really does go into a faster tempo for a few bars near the end. I donít think Iíve ever heard a better account of this movement.

In the first edition and most subsequent printed editions, the scherzo and trio are not repeated Ė the trio leads directly into the mysterious pizzicato reprise of the scherzo and hence to the finale. Some evidence has been found that Beethoven originally wanted the scherzo and trio to be played twice. The first to record it like this was Pierre Boulez, a record that apparently existed solely to make this point, so uninterested did the conductor seem in the rest of the symphony, to the extent of omitting the repeat in the finale, which in the context seemed quite perverse. Whether the repeat is needed or not, you can hardly regret hearing such an urgent performance as Harnoncourtís twice over. The trio is fractionally slower but very fine all the same..

The mysterious reprise and the link to the finale generate a good deal of tension. When the finale itself bursts in it has the crudity of a village festival. Harnoncourt may argue that Beethovenís art is so all-embracing as to find space for a spot of honest-to-God banality, and he may be right. He also makes more than most conductors of the dolce marking on the second subject. One query: when, as in bars 22-25, there are sforzatos on the offbeats, conventional wisdom says that we have to accent the beats too, otherwise we will hear not syncopations but a displacement of the beat and bar-lines. In baroque music it may often be right to create this sense of displacement, but I am not so sure that the practice continued into the classical period. This is a particularly clear example but Iíve been a little perplexed by several others in all the symphonies up till now.

Still, recommendable fifths are few and far between, and this certainly is one.

Symphony no. 6

I braced myself for an upfront arrival in the country. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard the gentle opening! At 13:07 we are in Klemperer (1957) territory (13:04), but the Klemperer conceals a host of subtle tempo modifications while Harnoncourt is absolutely steady. The long crescendos and diminuendos are superbly controlled as are the dynamic gradations between piano and pianissimo on the one hand, and forte and fortissimo on the other. Nothing is allowed to disturb the serene, sublime atmosphere Ė sforzatos are carefully related to their context.

The Scene by the Brook is swift Ė this time Harnoncourtís 11:59 compares with the 11:56 of Keilberth, who is exactly on Beethovenís metronome mark Ė but more than any other swift reading I know, this one succeeds in maintaining a mood of total serenity. After a while it actually comes to sound slow. Like Weingartner and Keilberth, Harnoncourt separates the three-note motives in the accompaniment at the beginning. He also gives exactly the right weight to the various syncopated notes, for example the horns from bar 7, so they register but do not intrude.

After so much calm the Merrymaking of the Country Folk has a welcome vitality and the storm is powerful at quite a broad tempo Ė which is what Beethoven asked for. Quite a number of conductors have noted that Beethovenís metronome marking for the finale is only a notch faster than that for the Brook, and have made a memorably poetic moment out of the transition from the storm. Usually, however, they feel the need to move on a little later. Harnoncourt maintains his slow tempo, returning to the mood of Olympian sublimity with which he began, if anything winding down still further towards the end.

In some moods one might wish for a more bracing approach, but when you want the calmest, most serene Pastoral imaginable, here it is, a remarkable achievement, and who would have expected it from this source?

Symphony no. 7

No slackness about the tricky dotted rhythms in the main body of this movement, which is left to make its point bluntly but strongly. Though the booklet describes the second movement as Allegretto the actual feeling is closer to Beethovenís first thought, Andante. An impressively grave reading, with no running away in the more lyrical sections. A fast and brilliant Scherzo has a trio which avoids the romantic dawdling which used to be common and which would be quite intolerable in a performance which observes all repeats.

Thus far the performances is mainly a catalogue of pitfalls that have been avoided; exemplary but not as incandescent as some (hear the live Beecham from Switzerland on Aura). One would be grateful for this, but unfortunately the finale falls into a pitfall of its own. Scrupulously bringing out the sforzatos on the second fourth-note and then the fourth eighth-note (the latter are usually lost), Harnoncourt has failed to notice that thereby the swirling theme in the strings Ė which is the principal theme of the movement Ė goes unheard. Anyone who knew the symphony only by this recording would be unaware that the finale had a theme at all Ė it is reduced to "sound and fury signifying nothing". In view of the many excellent versions around I donít see how I can recommend one that gets a whole movement as wrong as this.

Symphony no. 8

By the standards of period instruments-influenced performances this has some fairly relaxed tempi (timings are longer than Norrington, for example), or perhaps it is Harnoncourtís carefully controlled phrasing which makes them seem so. The first movement seems more majestic than urgent and is very appealing. Consistently with the other performances, off-beat accents are allowed to create the effect of displaced bar-lines rather than a syncopation. In the case of bars 70-72 I donít see how mere staccato dots can justify turning the passage inside-out compared with how we usually hear it.

The second movement is light and graceful and the minuet flows at a good tempo Ė just as well since we get both repeats on its return after the trio, about which Iíve already had my say. The trio is introduced by a surprisingly romantic ritardando and what follows is delightfully affectionate. With a finale notable for the beautiful playing of the lyrical second subject as well as for its overall drive, this adds up to a highly recommendable version. I should point out that, if you listen at a neighbour-friendly volume, the dynamic range is so wide that you might scarcely hear the four note figure which drives the development of the first movement along, and you might not even notice the finale has started until the woodwind enter.

Symphony no. 9

The metronome markings of this symphony have given the original-instruments brigade a field day, since they vary between the impossibly fast and the unusually slow. Harnoncourt seemingly ignores the question and produces a fairly traditional performance, clear and well shaped but without any great aspirations. It is nice to have it spelt out so clearly which chords, in bars 149-150 of the first movement, are forte and which are fortissimo, and I shall never again be indulgent towards the conductor who doesnít notice or canít be bothered. There are similar points all through. Iím pleased to report that he does not give the repeats when the scherzo is repeated after the trio Ė for this relief much thanks.

The slow movement contains a few idiosyncrasies. On the upbeat to bar 8, why dig in as if there were an accent? A little later, at bars 15-17, is there any reason why the accompanying quavers in the strings should be staccato? And if there is, why do the wind not play in the same way when they have the same music a few bars further on? But to tell the truth, Beethoven shows in bars 56-58 that he has sufficient musical knowledge to write staccato dots when he wants them (did we doubt it?).

The finale is a clear-textured, level-headed affair, apart from a very exaggerated "poco adagio" shortly before the voices enter. The soloists are good and the last solo quartet makes more sense than it often does. But in the last resort I was underwhelmed, and thatís the last thing I want when I hear this of all symphonies.

Iím afraid this very mixed bag seems to suffer from too much of a "historical" approach. It is as if, for Harnoncourt, the "Eroica" can only be a stepping stone between nos. 2 and 4, not a revolutionary argument only superficially related to its own period. And the Ninth, by the same token, is just the next step up from the Eighth, a bit bigger and better, but not a great leap into the unknown. Thus two of the most epoch-making symphonies ever written emerge belittled. The listener who learns his Beethoven from this set may get the idea that the composer progressed logically from the First to the Fifth, touched the sublime in the Sixth and thereafter rather lost his way (as also in the recent Aimard/Harnoncourt set of the concerto, where the greatest heights of sublimity are touched with the Fourth).

Clearly, this is not a cycle I can recommend in its entirety. It is also being issued on separate discs on the Elatus label. You should certainly hear 5 and 6, maybe also 4 and 8, and even the Ninth. Or you might look up David Wrightís reviews of 3, 4 and 5 on the site and reflect that, if we critics canít find a little more consensus of opinion than this, youíll just have to forget us and make up your own mind.

Christopher Howell


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