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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 [34:48]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op 67 [35:41]
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, 8-11 May 2015, Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 136452 [70:29]

This was to have been the first release in a planned cycle of the Beethoven symphonies by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Although he played the first five symphonies in concert with Concentus Musicus Wien (CMW) he was able to record only these two symphonies before age and infirmity compelled his sudden retirement in 2015. This was followed all too quickly by his death in March 2016.

Harnoncourt was a controversial figure and this is neither the time nor the place to discuss the pros and cons of his career. What can be said, without fear of contradiction, is that he was a provocative musician in the literal sense of the word: whether or not you agreed with his approach to the piece he was conducting or with the results he obtained, he certainly made you think about the music.

The projected CMW cycle of the Beethoven symphonies would have been his second. He recorded them all between 1990 and 1991. I bought that set when it appeared and found it highly stimulating. That cycle was made with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (review), playing on modern instruments whereas the members of CMW, the ensemble that Harnoncourt founded, play on period instruments.

In the booklet the conductor writes at some length about his approach to these performances. It’s no surprise to learn, for instance, that he eschewed all the ‘retouchings’ of Beethoven’s scores which other conductors have made down the years, many of which Harnoncourt himself experienced in the days when he played as an orchestral cellist in Vienna. Though his 1990s cycle was made with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on modern instruments, it’s clear that Harnoncourt intended to have no truck with such an approach this time. For him the sonorities, individual and corporate, of period instruments were essential to fulfil Beethoven’s intentions. Among the other points he makes is a very interesting one about Beethoven’s own approach to tempo. The composer apparently declared that a metronome mark was only valid for the first seven bars of a movement; thereafter modifications of tempo were valid. As we shall see, Harnoncourt particularly espouses this notion in the slow movement of the Fifth.

First, however, we hear the Fourth, which Harnoncourt believed continues to be underrated to this day. I like the suppressed tension in the Adagio introduction, after which the Allegro vivace erupts with great vigour. What then unfolds is a performance in which significant use is made of dynamic contrasts, much to the music’s benefit. I like the mellow sounds of the woodwind section and I also relished the fine momentum that Harnoncourt and his colleagues establish and maintain. However, one problem for me is the timpani. The instruments that are used date from the eighteenth century – details of all the instruments are given in the booklet – and, naturally, hard sticks are used. The drums produce a rather dull sound but what I found disconcerting is the impact made by the timpani when played loudly. Frankly, I found the sound of the loud drums was often aggressive. I readily accept that the drums frequently emphasise Beethoven’s deliberately explosive use of accents. However, the timpani became wearing to the ears. Worse still, the sound made the music feel aggressive rather than high-spirited and energetic; surely the latter is more appropriate?

The Adagio is beautifully sculpted and I especially admired the very soft playing mid-movement. The Scherzo receives a zestful performance. As in the first movement, the observance of accents impels the music forward. The finale fairly scampers along. There’s a good deal of strength and brio in this performance though once again the timpani tend to sound hectoring at times.

It was instructive to compare this performance with Harnoncourt’s 1990 recording of the Fourth with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe which was, like his 2015 re-make, a live recording. The sound of the modern-instrument COE is more suave yet the performance is still full of energy, both internal and external. The timpani are much better integrated within the overall sound of the orchestra yet the contribution of the drums is as dynamic as it should be.

In his comments on the Fifth Symphony Harnoncourt mentions that by 2015 he had “reached the stage where in works of this period I give special emphasis to every General Pause in the score.” He readily acknowledges that this hasn’t found favour with everyone. I have to say that with one exception – albeit a very important one - I didn’t find his way with General Pauses too intrusive in this performance.

The first movement is trenchant and dynamic. At several points the rasping horns make a terrific impact. Frequently the orchestral sound is almost raw – deliberately so – and this emphasises the revolutionary character of the music. Harnoncourt describes the second movement as “a prayer, heard in multiple variations”, an idea which hadn’t occurred to me before. The marking is Andante con moto and I think it would be fair to say that the conductor emphasises the con moto part of Beethoven’s instruction. It’s in this movement more than anywhere else in either symphony that we hear Harnoncourt putting into practice his views on Beethoven’s attitude to tempo flexibility. To my ears these modifications rather disturb the flow of the music. I’m more than willing to accept that this is because I’m accustomed to hearing the music played at a more even pace. Whether I will come to like Harnoncourt’s approach to this movement is open to question but this seems to me a prime example of the way in which he challenges his listeners to think anew about music with which they are familiar. However, I’m afraid that so far I find the frequent tempo modifications give the impression that the conductor is constantly worrying at the music, unable to let it alone. The effect is fussy. Harnoncourt may see this movement as a prayer but that doesn’t stop him from bringing out a certain edginess in the music at times – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. I don’t think that’s just the effect of using period instruments. I appreciate the clarity that he and his players bring to Beethoven’s textures; one is aware, though not excessively, of what is going on in the subsidiary parts.

All repeats are observed in the third movement, which makes it quite long. The performance is very mobile and I like the telling interjections from the horns. The finale displays great vigour and optimism. For me, the performance is compromised somewhat by the tendency of the trumpets and trombones – the latter especially – to blare. You certainly get a vivid sense from this performance of the impact that the trombones must have made on early audiences. However, as with the timpani in the Fourth, I find the effect becomes wearying and intrusive. I’ve heard and enjoyed many performances of this symphony on period instruments over the years but I can’t recall hearing the brass sound so prominent – in what tends to be a hectoring, fist-shaking fashion – as is here the case. On the other hand the contributions of the piccolo sound almost cheeky; they’re great fun. When Harnoncourt reaches the final page he makes something of a meal of the General Pauses between the last few chords in a way that he didn’t do in his 1990 COE recording. I’m afraid I find the effect mannered.

There’s an old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Let me spin this round: in this case it’s the last impression that counts. Harnoncourt’s account of the Fifth contains many interesting and thought-provoking things but the way he treats the last few chords – or, rather, the spaces between them – tends to sum up this performance. It’s the oddities, no matter how carefully thought out, that resonate in the mind afterwards. Once again, Harnoncourt’s COE performance, though no less thought-provoking, is more traditional in its overall approach – and none the worse for that.

Harnoncourt’s last thoughts on these two symphonies contain much food for thought but I’m pretty certain that in the future it’s to his COE recordings that I’ll return. I have a strong preference for his first thoughts on these two symphonies.

John Quinn



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