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Beethoven sys HMM902448
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Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
Lodoïska Overture (1791)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 4 in B-flat major, Op 60 (1806)
Étienne Nicholas Méhul (1763-1817)
Symphony No 1 in G minor (1808)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93 (1812)
Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
rec. 2022, Teldex Studio Berlin
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902448.49 [2 CDs: 91]

This two-CD program of works by Beethoven and two of his most prominent contemporaries is an installment in what seems an ongoing project that includes the very enjoyable recording of pastoral symphonies by Beethoven and Justin Knecht (review). In the earlier project, Bernhard Forck and his period-authentic orchestra offered a performance of the Knecht that gives a much clearer idea of the symphony’s virtues than the rival version from Christian Benda on Naxos (review) and placed it convincingly in the context of Romantic-era celebrations of nature. (Even if the music of both Knecht and Beethoven could only be called proto-Romantic, like Haydn’s celebration of nature via the proto-Romantic English poet James Thomson’s The Seasons.) I found Forck’s performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony fine as well, perhaps not a first-tier choice but an admirable account all the same.

I’m not certain that Forck’s performances of Beethoven’s Fourth and Eighth symphonies give us versions rivaling old standbys, which are legion; you undoubtedly have your favorites. But again, Forck’s program intrigues, comparing as it does works by Beethoven contemporaries whose supposed “Beethovenian” gestures are deceptive. A case in point is the overture to the opera Lodoïska by Luigi Cherubini. First of all, like Beethoven’s Fidelio, Cherubini’s opera is a rescue opera, a significant subgenre in the era following the French Revolution. (Other examples include Ferdinando Paer’s I fuorusciti di Firenze and Simone Mayr’s L’amour coniugale). And like the series of overtures composed for the earlier incarnation of FidelioLeonore—Cherubini’s overture is not merely a curtain raiser but makes specific references to the action of the opera that is to follow. Add a Beethovenian drive and restlessness, and the overture to Lodoïska would seem to be a case of musical influence—if the overture hadn’t been composed in 1791, eight years before Beethoven’s First Symphony, which just barely hints at the Beethovenian aesthetic, and fourteen years before the first version of Leonore.

Similarly, Étienne Nicholas Méhul’s First Symphony provoked no less astute a critic than Robert Schumann to wonder if Méhul had cribbed from Beethoven’s Fifth (or vice versa). Again, Beethovenian élan and seriousness of purpose are much in evidence, and the scherzo especially, with its insistent string pizzicati, is reminiscent of the comparable movement in the German composer’s work. However, the two symphonies premiered shortly after one another in the very same year (1808). The composers couldn’t have known about or heard the other’s work. Interestingly, while Beethoven’s Fifth introduced new instruments to the Classical symphony—piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones—Méhul’s orchestration is pared down, omitting the expected trumpets. So perhaps, as Peter Gülke suggests in his notes to the present recording, Méhul’s model is not Beethoven but rather Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, also in G minor, also economical in its orchestration.

Probably thanks to the oft-noted resemblances between Méhul’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth, Méhul’s piece has been recorded several times before. I haven’t heard Christoph König’s recording on Rubicon, which seems to have been well received, but I have heard Michel Swierczewski’s version with the Gulbenkian Orchestra (review), recorded during the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I’ve also heard and Marc Minkowski’s recording with Les Musiciens du Louvre (review). I found Minkowski’s version an improvement on Swierczewski’s, though both are fine accounts. I’m not sure I’d recommend Forck’s performance over the Minkowski, but it is certainly compelling. With an orchestra of around 30 musicians, Forck is especially able to highlight the colorful writing for the winds. Also, he underscores one of the most important bases of comparison between Beethoven and the French composer. Perhaps Méhul’s program in the First Symphony is not the same as Beethoven’s trendsetting one, namely the progress from tragedy to triumph portrayed in absolute music, but the Frenchman’s finale is still clearly the dramatic culmination and ultimate statement of his symphony. Marked Allegro agitato, it is endlessly restless, feverish, “Beethovenian”. Even the minor-key second theme brings little relief; it is underpinned by constantly churning figures in the strings. Forck is certainly on board here, driving the music relentlessly, but he seems almost to lose control toward the end of the movement. Perhaps this is part of Forck’s plan, but I think a steadier hand and a more consistent tempo are called for in the final pages of the score.

Given that critics have long drawn a connection between Méhul’s First and Beethoven’s Fifth, it’s surprising that Forck programs instead two of the patently non-titanic even-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Maybe he subscribes to biographer Jan Swafford’s contention that the Fourth represents a turn away from the monumentalism of the Third Symphony and toward an emphasis on a Haydnesque “drive and transparency” that would inform the symphonies up to the Ninth—in other words, the hallmarks of what we think of as the Beethovenian style. In Forck’s Beethoven, I didn’t find the same ramping up of tempi that I heard in the Méhul First, but drive and transparency certainly characterize these performances, emphasized by the small forces Forck has at his disposal. As in the Méhul, Beethoven’s wind writing emerges with admirable color and clarity. However, there are some vagaries. For example, the famous double-tonguing passage for the bassoon in the coda of the Fourth Symphony finale registers almost not at all. And while the natural horns burble along attractively in the trio of the Eighth Symphony’s scherzo, they seem just about absent where I expect them to shine: in the coda of the Fourth Symphony’s scherzo and the coda of the first movement of the Eighth. Also, Forck’s tiny string section sounds anemic in certain passages, including the trio of the Fourth Symphony’s scherzo. Beethoven may be taking the name “trio” to heart, but still….
I’m sure the recording is not at fault; I listened to a CD-quality download of the program, and the results are detailed and truthful, especially those wonderful winds. And I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that these are less than very good performances despite my few reservations. However, the value of these discs lies in the important history lesson the program provides more than in the quality of the individual interpretations, especially the Beethoven.

Lee Passarella

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