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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56 (1804) [33:49]   
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800-02)   
(arr. Piano Trio by Ferdinand Ries, supervised by Beethoven, 1804-06) [32:26]   
Isabelle Faust (violin)  
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)  
Alexander Melnikov (fortepianos)  
Freiburger Barockorchester /Pablo Heras-Casado 
rec. February and June 2020, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902419 [66:15]

When my MWI colleague, Brian Wilson, originally suggested that I might want to review this release, I felt a bit uneasy, and I mentioned that, although I’ve certainly had a fair amount of training in and exposure to HIP-influenced performances, it’s basically a style of music making with which I’m not in sympathy. Indeed, I’m beyond HIP-skeptical — I’m downright HIP-hostile. No worries, he replied. I was instructed just to make sure that my review was my honest assessment of what I hear.

So I’ll begin by quoting a passage from Polybius, the Roman historian of the second century BCE: “He who believes that by studying isolated histories he can acquire a fairly just view of history as a whole, is, it seems to me, much like the case of one, who, after having looked at the dissevered limbs of an animal once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the creature itself in all its action and grace.” (The Histories, Vol 1: Books 1-2)

And so it is the same with music history as with general history.

Academicians in the field of music have seized upon a few isolated passages in contemporaneous treatises to enforce an all too predictable branding on the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement. The characteristics of the HIP brand include a couple of elements to be heard on this new Harmonia Mundi recording: the same fetish for the near banishment of vibrato in both the solo string playing and the orchestral string playing, as well as the employment of original instruments, or contemporary copies of them – as is the case with Melnikov’s fortepianos.

It actually might seem valid for a listener (especially a new listener to classical music) to be on the side of the composer rather than of an arrogant performer who conceitedly refuses to do what the composer wanted. (Curse you, Maestro Stokowski!) And who knows what the composer wanted? The academicians do, of course! And this is exactly what they’ve convinced the musical public to believe: that their scholastic interpretation of contemporaneous treatises on musical performance practice is surely the one which the composers of a given time (say, the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century) would have recognized and been familiar with. As I mentioned, these include such concepts as the use (or, rather, non-use) of string vibrato (“just an ornament” — and thereby nearly banished in HIP performances), or keyboard parts being played on the instruments of the time. A type of “group think” has grown up in academic circles around these concepts, which, over the last few decades, has influenced a number of performing musicians.

It’s important to note that HIP performance practices are not necessarily based on what the contemporaneous treatises say so much as how the academicians themselves interpret and collate what the treatises say. Yes, we hear endlessly about how vibrato is “just an ornament”, and yet few scholars seem to want to deal with the writing of Handel’s contemporary, Geminiani, whom Paul Henry Lang (an academic and scholar in his own right) was so fond of quoting: that vibrato was “indispensable” in string playing!

Violinist Isabelle Faust and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras sit clearly on the side of today’s academicians rather than on the side of Geminiani. What vibrato they allow in these performances seems to be offered grudgingly, as if they’re somehow embarrassed by it. Of course, no string player alive or dead plays with vibrato in rapid passage work — hence the usage of the term, “ornament”, by the treatise writers. Yes, vibrato IS an ornament which one places on notes of more sustained duration. But listen to how Faust and Queyras play the quarter notes and dotted eighths in the slow movement of the Triple Concerto: amateur-sounding straight tone for most of the length of the notes, with only a hint of vibrato just before the note ends or moves on to the next note. Many listeners have become familiar this kind of playing, and some have even developed a liking for it. I am not one of them, and when I hear the sustained notes being executed in this way, I wonder: how “indispensable” vibrato is to these performers?

If anything, the strings in the orchestra are even worse, starting with the Concerto’s first movement exposition, where, despite the musicians’ competent changes in dynamic levels, whole notes and half notes merely sit there, bereft of vibrato and dead in the water. But audiences are supposed to like it, and indeed are often cowed into liking it, because it’s the type of sound Beethoven himself would have known, according to our academicians!

The trouble is that, even if Beethoven did know this type of sound, there’s little evidence that he was pleased with it! And this is especially true in the case of the fortepiano. In 1796, Beethoven as a young man was already complaining to one manufacturer that fortepianos sounded like harps. In fact, I think Beethoven was being too generous — to me, they sound more like toy pianos. Pianos did improve during Beethoven’s lifetime, and, for a while, he did like the Broadwood piano. But even here there’s evidence of the composer’s dissatisfaction, as, right before he died, he grumbled, “[t]he piano is and remains an inadequate instrument”. And yet, what do the HIPsters and their apologists in the universities want to do? They want to saddle Beethoven with the same inadequate instruments he objected to during his own lifetime!

So how do Melnikov’s two fortepianos (a Salvatore Lagrassa Viennese school instrument from around 1815 for the Triple Concerto, and a Christoph Kern, Staufen im Breisgau, 2014 instrument, after an Anton Walter Viennese piano from 1795, for the Symphony) sound on this recording? Both sound pretty gnarly (as in unpleasant!) in my opinion, with neither instrument able to sustain its tone to an adequate degree. I feel that Melnikov in particular is a really tragic case, because his earlier recordings of works by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff demonstrated that he’s a fine musician with a fine technique, and it makes me all the more sorry that he was lured over to the HIP direction in his performances of earlier repertoire.

I object strongly to the uncritical acceptance which HIP practices have received over the last few decades. Think back to violinists such as Grumiaux or Szeryng. If they had played in the manner in which Faust and other HIP-influenced violinists of play today, they would have been laughed off the stage for presenting outlandishly mannered performances and would not have been taken seriously. Today’s audiences listen to a recording like this new Beethoven album with docile contentedness. In short, we’re in the era of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Having said all this, I’ll note that the vigor and kinetic energy in some sections are outstanding, especially in elements like the sixteenth notes in the first movement of the Second Symphony arrangement, which usually pass by as a blurry buzz in many orchestral performances. Many other aspects of the performances (intonation, articulation, etc.) also show the performers’ high level of skill. But those two HIP aspects I’ve mentioned in this review are ever present and thus represent a huge impediment to enjoyment, at least for listeners like me.

Finally, I tip my hat to the booklet note writer, Beate Angelika Kraus, who not only makes a good case for Ferdinand Ries as the arranger of this piano trio version of the Second Symphony (with Czerny possibly having had a hand in it too), but also lists some fascinating statistics from the original publishers’ own records showing how much more arrangements of symphonies and other orchestral works outsold the full scores and parts for the originals. Talking about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, she points out that, “1,650 copies of the [Fifth Symphony] piano score were printed immediately in 1809, and Schott-Verlag published a piano arrangement of the work that remained in the catalogue until 1920, and of which 13,100 copies were produced in all. But when a full score was finally published in 1826, only 500 copies were printed.” There’s no doubt about it — publishers in the nineteenth century made their money on the arrangements of the large orchestral works, not on the original works themselves!

In sum, you know who you are: if you currently fancy HIP (or HIP-influenced) performances, the performances here have much to commend them. On the other hand, if you’re like I am with respect to the “Great HIP Awakening”, you’ll probably want to pass on this album.

Chris Salocks



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