Summary for the Busy Executive: When it cooks, very Beethovenian and beautifully played, besides.
For nearly six hours of music, I'm writing a rather short review. These symphonies seem fairly well known, so there's little, if anything, I can add there. I don't know how many integral sets – so let's say a jillion – of these symphonies compete for our cash, and the real question becomes why buy this set. I'll concentrate on performance rather than on the music itself.
Most hard-core classical collectors don't stop at one set of Beethoven symphonies. As much as any composer and more than most, Beethoven's music resists "definitive" interpretation. Performers continually find new, valid approaches. That said, however, most of us carry around a picture of "our" Beethoven in our heads. To some, Beethoven creates grand monuments to Humanity, and they want performances which give them that. Karajan, I think, speaks to this picture. To me, on the other hand, Beethoven's music has "edges" and a charge of nervous explosiveness. There's not only the feeling that anything can happen, including the opposite of what has gone before, but that what does happen is extraordinarily right. The music contains great rage and tenderness, nobility and agitation, and very little in between. There's very little modest contentment, such as one finds in Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvořák. I'd call the music "bi-polar," if it weren't for the unfortunate medical connotations and the composer's success at integrating all his moods. Consequently, although I enjoy some of Karajan's Beethoven, more often than not, that grand, suave approach seems to me to miss the music's point. For me, the archetypal Beethoven work is the overture to Egmont. For others, it's probably the Ninth, although even "my" Beethoven can be heard in the choral finale. For both of us, the tremendous emotional range, despite an "excluded middle," found in piece after piece probably accounts for a good deal of the estimation in which we hold Beethoven.
Again, there are lots of recordings out there, and I haven't heard anywhere close to all of them. This undoubtedly limits my usefulness as a reviewer. However, at this point, I haven't heard an integral set of the symphonies which completely satisfies me or, worse, where the account of each symphony in the set is my favorite. Apparently, Beethoven's symphonies pose one of the great interpretive challenges to a conductor, perhaps because of their range of mood and style. If I were to collect Beethoven symphonies for the first time, knowing what I now know, I would go for individual CDs rather than for a set. Of course, it's easy to say that now.
Even though the symphonies as a whole challenge conductors, performers do get a couple of breaks. Don't ask me why, but I've never heard a bad or clueless professional performance of symphonies one, five, and six. It could be luck, but these works do strike me as somehow sure-fire. On the other hand, the Eroica has broken the greatest of conductors, and the Ninth, like its magnificent contemporary Missa Solemnis, always threatens to shatter into musical fragments. With the others, a conductor faces the danger that their emotional essence will elude him. They are the Richard Corys of symphonies – outwardly straightforward, and yet always holding back something important that you probably don't know.
Anyway, on to Harnoncourt.
Harnoncourt, of course, made his name as one of the bright lights of historically-informed performance (HIP). He constantly pushed the limits of expression and took huge chances in his interpretations, which, more often than not, paid off in revelatory readings. This set, however, is not HIP. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays, for the most part, modern instruments in the modern way. Harnoncourt does make use of the valveless natural trumpet (for a very interesting reason; read the interview in the liner notes) and what sounds to me like natural-skin timpani. In short, the performance falls into the category of "modern, with slightly reduced forces." The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays wonderfully well, capable of everything Harnoncourt asks of them – from uncanny rhythmic precision and ensemble clarity to long singing lines – and Teldec has recorded them beautifully. These are, apparently, all live recordings, and (to paraphrase Shaw) you almost never can tell. There's not an incompetent performance in the lot, and while I may find some less satisfying than others, I really talk about my own predilections and shavings of good.
As I've said, this symphony seems bullet-proof. I've got recordings by Szell, Toscanini, Walter, Monteux (a standout), Karajan, Dohnányi, and Norrington as well. Harnoncourt's tempi run to brisk. For the first three movements, I felt in very good hands. Harnoncourt emphasizes the odd and nervous currents running through the work. In the first movement, the timpanist gets to whack away, threatening to blow the music apart. These are not the usual discreet booms of most accounts, but more like the opening racket of the Ninth finale. In short, Harnoncourt runs true to form by taking lots of chances. However, the account of the last movement, rather than fleet and witty, sounds a bit short-winded. Nevertheless, it's still pretty good.
This symphony gets short shrift. Furtwängler didn't particularly care for it, if we consider how many times he performed it. His recording, at any rate, lacks the penetration of his readings of the other symphonies (at least, from what I can tell through the sound – truly awful, even by the standard of "historical" recording), and he's known to have regarded the symphony as the least successful of the nine. Furthermore, I don't quite understand why so many listeners consider the symphony light-weight. I've never seen it break even into slot number 5 in the Favorite Beethoven Symphonies lists that pop up regularly in internet discussion groups. Most recordings merely go through the motions, the symphony included for the sake of completing the set. To me, it's essential Beethoven. Szell's reading is okay. Norrington's reading for me lies too far from my own ideas. It revels in the "delightful" and the lightness of the work. However, the symphony's composition coincides with Beethoven's "Heiligenstadt Testament," the remarkable document that records Beethoven's psychological torment – so much so, that large stretches of it read like a suicide note. To me, the symphony is the most emotionally rent of the nine. In the first two movements, light and dark war with one another, and dark seems to win. Themes initially stated in the major mode recur more strongly in the minor. Sunny expositions lead to anguished developments, as if happiness were continually sinking into depression. Beethoven's rhetorical strategies, stark juxtapositions, and emotional climate here remind me very much of C. P. E. Bach's. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he knew the earlier composer's work. The last two movements completely banish the gloom. This symphony is truly bi-polar. There's little, if any, attempt at emotional synthesis. It ends upbeat, but you have no idea how Beethoven got there. The happiness to me comes off as arbitrary.
Harnoncourt's reading is the best I've heard – that is, the closest to what I believe is the essence of this symphony. Rather than gliding over the somber elements, he emphasizes them and thus brings a sense of drama to the work – the clash of light and dark – missing in just about every other reading I know. A highlight of the set.
At one point (probably the middle Sixties), no recording of this symphony released in the United States lost money. You can imagine how many are out there. Every one I've heard has disappointed me in some way, and for a while I thought it may well have been that I simply disliked the work itself. No biggie. There are more than a few important works I don't care for. In this case, while I fully appreciated its historical significance, its craft, and its many innovations, structural and harmonic, no reading of the work made emotional sense to me. I then heard a live performance from – of all groups – the Louisiana Philharmonic, a second- or even third-rank orchestra based in New Orleans (my current residence). The conductor was Klauspeter Seibel, whose career has largely been with German opera houses. Everything fell beautifully into place, and I'm now in a position to state my dissatisfactions with other performances.
The first two movements to me are the killers. The first movement poses the challenge, not of length, but of coherence, although length does work against coherence. The conductor must choose which from its wealth of subthemes to throw into relief, and it's by no means a cut-and-dried decision. Great commentators (Tovey, Weingartner, Newman, and so on) fight about it. Some conductors try to play the symphony as if the problem doesn't exist and end up with a large blah. Others adopt a fast tempo on the assumption that speed alone will generate excitement and lose a lot of detail. Still others – notably Giulini, the later recording even more than the earlier - strike a noble attitude with very slow tempi, and you wind up mired in goo. Either way, slow or fast, they tend to smooth out the contrasts in the movement. The tempo and sense of "bounce" in the line provides one key to a great account. The sonic image I get from an ideal realization of tempo and rhythm is Pegasus on the wing: powerful and effortless. Harnoncourt errs a bit on the light and fast side, but he does achieve a reasonably strong outline of the work, nevertheless. Like just about everyone else, he tends to run out of gas toward the end of the development and doesn't quite know what to do with the coda (mainly because he hasn't emphasized the proper subtheme earlier, treating it instead as a transitional element).
In the second movement – the funeral march – musical iconography impinges on performance. It's been played so often at times of European national mourning that the tradition, in my opinion, weighs too heavily on interpreters. Furthermore, I believe the association of the symphony with Napoleon and Heroism has obscured its musical nature. For me, the symphony is as much about a contemporary version of the Prometheus story (indeed, it shares many musical similarities with Beethoven's music for The Creatures of Prometheus) as about Napoleon. Frankly, most performances sound hokey and over-inflated to me. The American equivalent, I guess, would be Barber's Adagio for Strings. Harnoncourt scores here, removing the varnish from the official portrait and giving us something a little more raw – what I imagine as closer to that which the first audiences heard. Among other things, Harnoncourt emphasizes the upward slides in the basses and favors a harsh massed woodwind sound. Yet, Harnoncourt can also elicit from the orchestra a sound as smooth as Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and again gets drama in the contrast. It represents a splendid rethinking of the work – the kind of fresh start that marks Harnoncourt's treatment of Baroque music. Harnoncourt's handling of the coda is especially fine, revealing the thematic architecture of the parts.
For most professional orchestras, the last two movements generally play themselves. Even so, Harnoncourt delivers one of the most rhythmically incisive accounts of the scherzo, sharper even than Szell's. I also enjoy Harnoncourt's unleashing the kettledrums at the climaxes. The finale is also quite fine, if the slightest bit blurry in detail. The rhythmic sharpness carries over, but here and there the balance goes awry, reminding you that this is indeed a live performance. My other quibble is that the vigorous minor-mode motive of repeated notes isn't bowed roughly enough. Still, I believe, a very fine account of the symphony overall and another highlight of the set.
A rather perfunctory account and a real disappointment, it catches fire only in the final movement. It's a very conventional reading, hardly what I'd expect from a musician of Harnoncourt's character. My favorite reading remains Szell's – rhythmically on the mark and patrician music-making. I've heard of a marvelous version by Carlos Kleiber as well, but I haven't been able to obtain the CD. The opening movement is one of the most joyous I know – as effervescent as an Italian comedy. It is also one of Beethoven's most elegant works, in the sense that a very few notes do a good deal of work. This radical economy flummoxed Beethoven's contemporaries and near-contemporaries. Weber made nasty remarks about the adagio introduction, where Beethoven stretches out one fragmentary idea (which, incidentally, becomes part of the first subject of the allegro) over several minutes. Despite a mildly atmospheric introduction, Harnoncourt in the allegro effervesces dutifully, rather than if his heart were in it. The second movement continues the stripped-down nature of the music – furthermore, at a slow tempo. Harnoncourt merely plays it, missing most of the subtleties in the piece. Apparently, Beethoven still eludes even very good conductors. One good moment, however, comes in the coda at the soft strokes of the timpani, where the ties to the main theme become apparent.
Harnoncourt manages to deliver a coarse, charmless scherzo, with no compensatory power. In the finale, everybody seems to wake up and realize, "My goodness, we're playing Beethoven!" At this point, you realize what you've been missing: the nervous energy, sense of power in reserve, and dancing rhythm that uniquely stamps this composer's music. While by no means up to Szell, Harnoncourt nevertheless conveys its restlessness and manic vibes.
Trying to figure out how many recordings have been made of this is like trying to guess the number of jellybeans in the giant jar. Nevertheless, I've never heard a truly bad performance of this, live or recorded. Even Jorge Mester's "gag" recording for Peter Schickele's sportscasting bit is pretty good. This work is probably the archetypal symphony. Certainly when considering the genre in the abstract, most people probably think of this work as the exemplar. And yet, it's such an odd work. Although conductors apparently know what the Fifth requires, I can't easily think of another symphony like it. Here, Beethoven extends the thematic economy of the fourth symphony across movements, as opposed to within movements. The opening rhythm can be found in just about every part of the entire work. Tovey, following Weingartner's commentary, points out how far Beethoven extends his musical sentences in this symphony from such a slender stock of basic ideas.
Interpretations don't vary greatly. To me, it's a perfect example of "black-and-white" Beethoven, with its strong contrasts and generally somber tone. Variety in performance tends to come from intensity and sharpness of attack. My favorites include Furtwängler, Szell, and especially Carlos Kleiber, who whips up a fury like no other. In fact, his is my first choice – one of the finest interpretations I've ever heard of anything. How he gets such power from the Vienna Philharmonic – usually rhythmically flaccid – I'll never know. All of them play it "fresh," pushing it in your face, as if it were Awful Modern Music. Add Harnoncourt to this list, who plays with an entirely suitable roughness, although without Kleiber's bite.
Again, I've never heard a bad performance of this work, although the range of interpretation is broader than for the fifth. For me, this is the most loveable of the symphonies. At certain times, I've preferred it to the Big Four (third, fifth, seventh, and ninth), if only because I suspect that grand is easier to pull off than modestly human. At other times, I reproach myself for pure cussedness. My favorite recording is Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, which shows Mengelberg's amazing phrasing at its best. I'm also fond of Walter's and Monteux's stereo recordings. The trap of the work lies at By the Brook and the Shepherds' Hymn, which can come off as dull and ordinary, if not somnolent.
Right away, in the first movement Harnoncourt does something I like – he calls for a string sound similar, although not as strong, as the one he uses in his HIP recordings. There's a slightly rough edge to the bowing – like a Scottish burr – which emphasizes the intimate, rustic quality of the music. Nevertheless, Harnoncourt delivers an elegant account. Tovey provides excellent commentary on the second movement. He lays his finger on its difficulty – a slow sonata movement, with repeats yet. The trick is how to maintain the forward impulse of the music over a very great expanse at the slower speed – like trying to jump the Grand Canyon at twenty mph. Harnoncourt emphasizes the "babbling brook" figurations and makes a serious mistake. The figurations are hypnotic enough on their own. I prefer to hear them as a "rhythmic drone," providing rhythmic movement when nothing else goes on, but almost subliminal at all other times. Otherwise, it's as if we continually look at the brook and miss the deer slipping through the woods. In particular, Beethoven creates very subtle counterpoint with some of the motives, and I miss this byplay. When we get to the famous section on the birds, it seems to come out of left field. In some sense, it does, but, as Tovey points out, Beethoven prepares the way for the section throughout this movement. If it weren't for the fact that the section sounds like birds, no one would give it any more thought than similar structural pieces in Haydn. The scherzo is okay, as is the storm, but these are relatively easy matters for interpretation. The finale is okay as well, although Harnoncourt toward the end brings back the rough edge to the string sound, brilliantly recalling the symphony's opening.
Harnoncourt pulls off probably the best performance of his set. Indeed, I can think of only one better recording of this work – Carlos Kleiber on DG, far and away the best I've ever heard, live or recorded. Kleiber gives a high Romantic, dramatic, heroic, even monumental reading, nevertheless full of nuance. Kleiber also achieves miracles of rhythmic sharpness with the Vienna Philharmonic, normally a lot spongier in their attack. Harnoncourt conceives of the music as something more modest. Compared to Kleiber, he keeps reminding me of the boundaries he has set, particularly in regard to dynamics.
The first two movements are wonderful – elegantly conceived and played. Harnoncourt inflates nothing and yet gets considerable affect. My one disappointment comes with the scherzo, which seems too lightweight and at times slightly rushed. This has little to do with actual tempo. Kleiber, I think, trucks even faster and gets exhilaration, rather than slight vertigo. Nevertheless, Harnoncourt pulls off a very nice trio, again by rethinking the orchestral sound – slightly astringent in the softer sections and beautiful wind playing throughout. In the finale, everybody triumphs – Harnoncourt, the COE, and Beethoven. Harnoncourt manages exhilaration and the oddity of the themes. The assumption of front-and-center by the subtheme headed with a descending sequence of rising fourths (hitherto found only as accompaniment) transforms the symphony from a driven, headlong rush to real joy, and Harnoncourt catches it full. Again, he gives you some sense of how it must have struck the first listeners.
Beethoven apparently began this symphony contemporary with the writing of his Seventh. It's a classic example of audiences putting composers between a rock and a hard place. For much of his career, critics kept after Beethoven to learn from Haydn and Mozart the art of True Proportion. Works like the Seventh were considered ugly and misshapen (although the slow movement of the Seventh was one of Beethoven's genuine hits). Beethoven finally writes a symphony of Haydnesque proportions and wit, and the critics slam it as trivial, particularly the Allegretto. Indeed, early performances of the Eighth replaced this movement with the slow movement of the Seventh, if you can believe it.
My favorite recordings of this include Szell and Norrington, the latter on period instruments. I think Harnoncourt very good indeed, but I have to pick nits. The opening movement is a bit too detached in the big striding theme of the first subject group. This thing should move like the Eroica, powerful and buoyant at the same time. Both the allegretto and the scherzo are quite fine, but the outstanding performance comes with the finale, where delicacy and muscle mingle. Again, Harnoncourt shines in the odd moments – especially in the odd stops during the development. It reminds me of a car skidding and recovering its balance immediately. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays especially well.
No performance has ever completely satisfied me. On the other hand, I tend to judge on the basis of the opening movement and the slow one, rather than of the scherzo and the choral finale. My favorite recording – the one that seems to me right on the interpretive mark – is the 1951 Furtwängler, absolutely astonishing in its ability to create a new kind of poetry and atmosphere. It's all inherent in the music, of course, but I've never heard another performance to match the mystery Furtwängler gets from his orchestra. I find Karajan's 1962 recording one of his best, but again Karajan's Beethoven isn't mine. Szell does wonderful things in the first two movements and disappoints in the last two. As far as modern recordings go, the big names bunch up in a wad, and no one really pulls free with something convincing or individual throughout. I've not heard an HIP Ninth that did anything at all for me, although Gardiner's actively irritates me.
Harnoncourt tries to give us the Ninth without varnish – a rethinking of the piece, again trying for something like its original effect (in a decently-played account) – rather than the Official Portrait. The experiment produces mixed results. The first movement immediately comes across as too small – like watching a theatrical set of the Grand Canyon. Many passages sound ordinary. Too often, one thing seems to merely follow another, rather than grow from something earlier. The stripped-down approach might have worked had Harnoncourt insisted on sharper rhythm and a stronger line. As it is, the movement proceeds by chops and jerks, with inexorability in short supply.
I can say the same for the first part of the scherzo, although here and there the horns lend an excitement that Harnoncourt and the band as a whole don't earn. Nothing, until the fugal entries of the main theme in the winds, really takes off. From that point on, the musicians transform from zombies to real life human beings. Still, there remain more exciting readings.
The Adagio poses the difficulty of the extremely long line. The only great surprise in the work is, in effect, no surprises – its tempo, its length, and the economy of the basic material, somewhat like the slow movement to the "Pathétique" piano sonata, except far more radical in its terseness. So many recordings run out of gas before the finish. Harnoncourt begins beautifully, if a little quick (he clocks in at a no-nonsense 13' 34"), delivering a line of great strength and flexibility. Everyone performs with the intimacy of chamber music. Still, he never trivializes the music. He gets poetry from the movement – clean, bright, decidedly un-swoony, different from any other account. This convinces me that Harnoncourt has a great Ninth in him. This time, it got away.
The finale opens up with the funk firmly settled in again – laid-back, if you can imagine it, like somebody humming to themselves on a park bench. The first singing of the tune in the cellos and basses, with the bassoon adding its wonderful counter-melody, has – I hate to say it – no vision: a very George Bush reading. Everybody is simply playing. The soloists – though not the choir - provide some sunshine. Holl, the bass, is the best of them, giving his lines some juice. He has obviously wandered into the wrong concert hall. The other soloists hoot. The Schoenberg Choir is essentially a chamber group. Even with the modest orchestra, they almost never make a dent. Things pick up at the Turkish March and the ensuing double fugue, as I, at any rate, would expect from this orchestra. Even so, other accounts provide more excitement. As a whole, the movement stomps along. We never really get the rolling power of the thing.
Forgetting the Ninth, I find Harnoncourt's a very nice set. Symphonies 2 and 7 are superior, 1, 3, and 8 stand out, 5 and 6 are good, and 4 and 9 are below par. Harnoncourt's Ninth I regard as a failure, with the exception of the terrific Adagio. In short, I wouldn't recommend this as your only complete set.
Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz