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Justin Heinrich KNECHT (1752-1817)
Symphony in G: Musical Portrait of Nature [24:13]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 in F, “Pastoral”, Op.68 [41:56]
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902425 [66:14]

The headliner here is Beethoven’s “Pastorale “, but the real interest is in the pairing with JH Knecht’s five movement symphony depicting in music short verses describing events in nature. Those verses concern themselves with, in sequence, feelings of joy at a sunny day in the countryside with birds singing and a nearby brook gurgling, a storm rising, venting its full fury on the countryside, and then receding, leaving nature to sing its praises to God for deliverance from the tempest. Sound familiar? It certainly should, since this Portrait musical de la Nature, ou Grande Simphonie was the model for Beethoven’s own five movement Symphony depicting verses describing events in the countryside. What is remarkable is that this is the first time (so far as I can ascertain) that these two very closely connected works have been paired on a recording. Beethoven’s may be the greater of the two, certainly in length and quite possibly in musical merit, but Knecht’s is a fine work in its own right, and since it pre-dates Beethoven’s by some 23 years, and Beethoven very clearly “borrowed” quite a lot of ideas from it, its subsequent neglect has done the composer a profound disservice.

Perhaps we should begin by berating Harmonia Mundi for compounding that historical injustice. While Peter Gülcke delivers a strong essay in the booklet decrying the neglect of Knecht’s work, Harmonia Mundi have smothered virtually all evidence of the work by blazoning their disc and its packaging with Beethoven. His face dominates the disc cover and booklet, his name appears in such large letters on the front that it is easy to overlook the mention of Knecht in letters which are eclipsed even by the name of the orchestra, and the spine gives the impression that the disc is devoted solely to Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony. Shame on you, Harmonia Mundi!

Since the powers-that-be at HM have obviously decided that it is the Beethoven symphony which is going to make or break this new release, it is probably right to spare a few words on this performance, although the Beethoven is second in the playing order of the disc.

Freshness and vitality are the two words which spring to mind. Concertmaster Bernhard Forck pushes the work along with a driving impetuosity which has all the burgeoning energy of springtime. In the case of the peasants’ merrymaking, it is almost too energetic, with the music chasing itself at a frantic pace and the famous rustic band interjection sounding not so much stumbling under a surfeit of alcohol and as having injected itself with the 19th century equivalent of Speed. It is in this movement that the unusual seating plan of the orchestra – strings to the left, winds to the right – is most vividly revealed, and it adds a tangible sense of close community to the whole thing. The entire performance is delightfully light and bouncy, the crescendos and diminuendos gentle, and the period instruments of the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin making the texture highly transparent. Against this, the sudden eruption of the storm (with gloriously thundering timpani) has a vividly dramatic effect. Overall, however, this is not a momentous nor a heavy-handed performance, more one which celebrates the delights of nature above the iconic figure of Beethoven. I’ve heard many more imposing recordings of the “Pastorale”, but few which capture the delicacy of Beethoven’s writing so well, and none which I find so refreshingly free from cant or pomposity.

On the back cover of the disc’s gatefold package is an unattributed comment which suggests that Knecht’s symphony, far from being a musical depiction of nature (as is implied by his very verbose movement headings), is, in fact, “a highly convincing attempt by its composer to extricate himself from programme music”. This is arrant nonsense, for, as his own very fulsome movement descriptors show, Knecht was diving headfirst into the world of programme music, even to the extent of trying to get his music to capture the sound of sheep gambolling in the fields as the shepherd plays his pipe and the shepherdess “sings in her sweet voice”. In fact, this is a work as unequivocally programmatic as, say Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.
Luckily nobody told the musicians of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin that this was a symphony studiously trying to avoid being programmatic, and so they show no reservations in depicting the various episodes. From the very Beethovenian start of the first movement, the performance bubbles along with all the freshness of a spring day in the countryside. There is a lovely moment of antiphonal string/flute playing, depicting the lambs gambolling (to the left) and the birds chirruping (to the right) and it requires no great leaps of imagination to recognise the programme Knecht was so anxious to convey in his Grande Simphonie. The short second movement serves as a mood changing episode to lead us into the storm, with a wonderful sense of foreboding. The cellos help wind up the tension before the timpani announce the storm with rather less dramatic effect (it has to be said) that in the Beethoven, but with the rest of the orchestra giving a highly credible impression of a violent rainstorm and gusting winds which makes, as Knecht’s verses put it, “the waters of the torrent heave with a terrible noise”. The fourth movement again serves merely to change the mood from the storm to the sunny day of the finale, and it does so with a theme which seems to have caught Beethoven’s own imagination. The Finale is, after all the colour of the earlier movements, something of an anti-climax. Taking the programme literally – a hymn of praise to the creator for safe delivery from the storm - it takes the form of a simple hymn, with a lumpy set variations, one of which includes a delightful violin solo from Forck himself (who directs both performances from the violin). After several false endings, the work finally peters out pianissimo.
Marc Rochester

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