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Beethoven contemporaries NBD0135V
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Beethoven contemporaries NBD0136V
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Beethoven And His Contemporaries - Volumes 1 & 2
Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik/Bernhard Forck
rec. live 24, 25, 28, 29 October 2020, SWR Schwetzinger Festspiele, Schlosstheater Schwetzingen, Germany
Picture format: 1080i High Definition
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Language: English
Reviewed in surround DTS-HD 5.1
NAXOS NBD0135V/NBD0136V Blu-ray [155 & 165 mins]

The 2020 SWR Schwetzinger Festival was due to take place in the Spring of the year but due to the pandemic it was postponed till the Autumn – as has happened again this year. The result was at least two changes to the usual fare, (see their website): there was no fresh asparagus and no castle park in bloom, both of which would have disappointed regular attenders. Fortunately, this series of concerts escaped unscathed - or at least, almost unscathed. The video shows a small, masked and socially distanced audience inside the Schlosstheater. This might have reduced the musical temperature of proceedings, but Germany’s fine period band seem mostly unfazed by this intense series of concerts with so much that is almost unknown, softened, if that is the right term, with Beethoven’s well-known symphonies.

The first concert consists of two symphonies by C.P.E. Bach and Beethoven’s 1st and 2nd. This, of course is a sensible combination since this is the Bach who was looked up to in this period as the master of the expressive and dramatic style of composition that ushered in the classical period. He is represented by Wq.175, written in 1755, and Wq.183 No.4 written twenty years later in 1775. This last would have been doing the rounds in Beethoven’s childhood and been part of the musical culture he assimilated. What is missing is the music of Haydn, a much greater influence still felt strongly in both symphonies, but the presence of C.P.E. Bach does provide an attractive backcloth here, because for Beethoven’s contemporaries, his music was as central as that of Haydn. All four works are performed with vitality, as one expects from this ensemble.

Concert 2 gives us the Eroica and one of Beethoven’s contemporaries - not a name one comes across often, Paul Wranitzky. His Grande sinfonie caractéristique is a big piece lasting as long as the 1st or 2nd Symphonies of Beethoven, but not of course the huge Eroica which came as a shock to audiences in 1803. Wranitzky, (also known as Pavel Vranický for those searching for more of his music), was a hugely successful and influential composer. He knew both Mozart and Beethoven, the latter trusting him with directing the first performance of his Symphony No.1. Wranitzky’s output included around fifty symphonies and a similar number of string quartets. He may well be one of the most important of Beethoven’s forgotten contemporaries. Seen like this, the chance to get to know his Op.31 Symphony is valuable and enlightening. Hearing this vital and imaginative piece with its noisy depicts of battle, one is hard put to it to work out why he was so completely eclipsed after his death. The Grande sinfonie caractéristique is indeed characterful, and so descriptive were its movement titles that the Viennese authorities thought it politic to ban performances for fear of offending the French. There is no doubt that the final celebration of peace was over-optimistic for music written in 1797. As Beethoven knew only too well, the impact of the French Revolution and of Napoleon was felt for many more years. The small piece by Mozart is included in the programme because it includes a theme so similar to the opening of the Eroica that one has to ask if Beethoven was aware of his quotation from the great Wolfgang Amadeus. It is much more likely that it is a coincidence because Mozart’s work first saw the light of day two years before Beethoven was born - a fun coincidence then. The performance of the Eroica that completes this concert is as vital and well played as the earlier pair of symphonies in Concert 1. Just as the organisers of this series must have intended, juxtaposing the Eroica with Wranitzky’s Op.31 shows the huge gap opening up between Beethoven and his contemporaries in terms of symphonic scale and structural complexity. If I may borrow from Wikipedia a quote from a commentator of the time:

Musical connoisseurs and amateurs were divided into several parties. One group, Beethoven's very special friends, maintains that precisely this symphony is a masterpiece.... The other group utterly denies this work any artistic value ... through strange modulations and violent transitions ... with abundant scratchings in the bass, with three horns and so forth, a true if not desirable originality can indeed be gained without much effort. ...The third, very small group stands in the middle; they admit that the symphony contains many beautiful qualities, but admit that the context often seems completely disjointed, and that the endless duration ... exhausts even connoisseurs, becoming unbearable to the mere amateur. To the public the symphony was too difficult, too long ... 

Concert 3 has a very coherent programme. To begin with Luigi Cherubini was admired by Beethoven as his greatest contemporary. Even the short overture Lodoïska demonstrates his feeling for the dramatic. The opera was his first great success, and he went on to write many more, though the only one to have a regular place in the repertoire today is Médée. Lodoïska, his comédie héroïque, ran for two hundred performances after the Paris premiere and went on to success all over Europe, including a production in Vienna in 1805. Even more significant in a concert culminating in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is the presence of Méhul’s Symphony No.1 in G minor. Méhul was primarily an operatic composer and only turned to the symphony at the end of his career. He was much admired by Beethoven and this first symphony was written in the same year, 1808, as Beethoven’s 5th, even sharing some of the latter’s insistent rhythmic drive. In most respects it is more in the tradition of Sturm und Drang and Haydn, its key and mood making one think also of Mozart’s Symphony No.40. Do not be surprised if you find yourself wondering about the other three completed symphonies by Méhul. This current disc seems to be the only period performance available of any of them. The performance of Beethoven’s 5th brings a fascinating concert to a fine conclusion.

Concert 4 opens with Ignaz Holzbauer’s Symphony in E flat major, Op. 4, No. 3 La Tempesta del Mare of 1769. Holzbauer was not exactly a contemporary of Beethoven, in that Beethoven was 13 when Holzbauer died, but this work contains an early example of a musical storm. This takes place in the finale which is a typical Mannheim School depiction utilising rushing strings and sharp dynamic contrasts. It is possibly the weakest work in all four concerts, not even being a particularly distinguished example of the Mannheim School. The best music, to my ears, is the third movement minuet which contains some nicely turned oboe passages. When one thinks what Haydn was producing at this time the paucity of Holzbauer’s ideas and development is very obvious. Even the orchestra do not appear very convinced. To be fair, he was primarily a composer of opera, in which he did have success. Knecht’s Symphony in G major was written in 1784-5 and makes for a very surprising 25 minutes. One could almost imagine Beethoven having Knecht’s work as a template for his own Pastoral Symphony, the two are so similar in overall design. The movement descriptions Knecht gives to his five continuously played sections, and even the sounds he makes, noticeably anticipate Beethoven. He spends longer over the storm sequence, and it has a great deal less impact. Given that there is no hint the pair ever met, and Knecht spent virtually his entire life in Biberach, some 600 kilometres from Vienna, and of course the works are separated by 24 years, the similarity has to be mere chance. I would defy any listener not to wonder at the start, and from time to time during the piece, if the orchestra are not almost playing the Beethoven. It is an imaginative work if inevitably inferior to the great work which follows in this concert. The Pastoral is performed with gusto and moments of considerable power, but I think by then the orchestra must have been tiring because ensemble does seem to be suffering, something more obvious if one listens with closed eyes. To be fair, playing four different concerts containing seven unfamiliar works in a period of six days, not to mention the pandemic, makes them heroes in my eyes.

One final aspect of these two discs that gave me great pleasure is the complete lack of presenters. Nobody babbles about the music before or after the performances. No celebrity appears to impress us with their clever insights. We just have an orchestra gathering, bowing to audience applause, a few titles on screen (in English) for each movement and credits rolling afterwards when the audience has finished clapping. Bliss! Just like a live concert with subtitles. That is how to do it – well done SWR. The video and audio are very good (note: the latter should be turned up about 5dB more than usual to give the necessary impact) and the accompanying notes are thorough as well as informative.

Dave Billinge

Concert 1 – 24 October 2020
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Sinfonia in F Major, Wq. 175, H. 650 (1755) [9:55]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 (1801-2) [34:39]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH 
Sinfonia in G Major, Wq. 183/4, H. 666 (1775-6) [9:19]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 (1800) [25:51]

Concert 2 – 25 October 2020
Paul WRANITZKY (1756-1808)
Symphony in C Minor, Op. 31, "Grande sinfonie caractéristique pour la paix avec la République françoise" (1797) [31:35]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Bastien und Bastienne, K. 50: Intrada (1768) [1:49]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, "Eroica" (1803) [45:54]

Concert 3 – 28 October 2020
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Lodoïska: Overture (1791) [10:07]
Étienne-Nicolas MÉHUL (1763-1817)
Symphony No. 1 in G Minor (1808-9) [26:49]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1808) [31:59]

Concert 4 – 29 October 2020
Ignaz HOLZBAUER (1711-1783)
Symphony in E-Flat Major, Op. 4, No. 3 “La Tempesta del Mare” (1769) [14:34]
Justin Heinrich KNECHT (1752-1817)
Symphony in G minor “Le Portrait musical de la Nature, ou Grande Simphonie” (1784-85) [25:29]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808) [42:17]

Volume 1 =-

Volume 2 -

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