June 14, 2012

(++++) BEETHOVEN RETHOUGHT


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Renate Behle, soprano; Yvonne Naef, contralto; Glenn Winslade, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen. Hänssler Classic. $64.99 (5 CDs).

Beethoven: Der glorreiche Augenblick; Choral Fantasia. Claire Rutter, soprano; Matilde Wallevik and Marta Fontanals-Simmons, mezzo-sopranos; Peter Hoare and Julian Davis, tenors; Stephen Gadd, baritone; Leon McCawley, piano; Westminster Boys’ Choir, City of London Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. Naxos. $9.99.

      There are so many fine sets of Beethoven symphonies available that it is tempting to dismiss a new one as, at best, unnecessary – especially when “new” is a matter of opinion: Michael Gielen’s consists of performances from the years 1997-2000.  And these are not original-instrument or reduced-orchestra-size renditions or in any other way reflective of the trends (some would call them fads) of Beethoven symphony performances today.  Yet this is an exceptional cycle nonetheless, because Gielen has studied these scores extremely closely, understands them thoroughly, and has decided not only to take all the repeats (as other conductors have done as well) but also to adhere closely to Beethoven’s own metronome markings – which other conductors rarely do, the consensus of opinion being that those indications are simply too fast.  No, they are not – not as Gielen handles them, with an orchestra capable of nuanced playing and excellent instrumental detail even at speeds that are often somewhat surprising.  Gielen’s Beethoven is not quite like any other conductor’s, and listeners expecting just another well-played cycle are in for a surprise.  Quite a few surprises, in fact.  Some of them are in details: in the descending scale leading into the Allegro con brio of No. 1, for example, Gielen makes it a point to have every individual note clearly audible – other conductors call for (or are content with) a slur.  Some surprises involve contrasts between movements: in No. 9, the first movement is quick and the second unexpectedly slow, with an expansiveness quite unusual for this already-gigantic Scherzo.  Then there are interpretative decisions that make perfect sense but are unusual: in the finale of No. 9, the Turkish march simply flows naturally here, while it tends to stick out like a sore thumb (or a compositional miscalculation) in many other readings – Gielen simply accepts it as part of the overall scene-painting of the movement, just as he accepts Beethoven’s tempos as an integral part of the composer’s conceptualization of the symphonies.  The first movement of No. 3 takes some getting used to at Gielen’s pace, but the most surprising result of his tempo choices is the first movement of No. 6, which really speeds along despite the Allegro ma non troppo marking: Gielen emphasizes the first word where most conductors focus on the other three.  The following Andante molto mosso therefore offers greater respite and much greater contrast in this “Pastorale” than in most.  And then there is No. 8, which Gielen refuses to treat as small or inconsequential: it dates, after all, to the same time as No. 7 (whose finale is very much con brio here), and when Beethoven insists on musicians playing fff, he knows what he wants – and what he wants in No. 8 is a great deal more force than many conductors accord a symphony that is often handled too delicately for its own good.  Discoveries, elegances and nuances abound throughout Gielen’s Beethoven cycle, which is really quite refreshing to hear – an unusual circumstance where these symphonies are concerned.  There are, however, a couple of quibbles about the Hänssler Classic set.  A small one is that the text for the finale of No. 9 is not provided – although it is certainly easy enough to find elsewhere.  A larger one is the sequencing of the CDs.  Symphony No. 1 is paired with No. 3; No. 2 with No. 7; No. 4 with No. 8; and No. 5 with No. 6 (No. 9 is on its own disc).  These are the pairings as the works were originally recorded, but they are an irritant for anyone interested in how each symphony flows into the next or differs from it.  The timings would have easily allowed pairing Nos. 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8 – releasing the discs this way is simply lazy.  It is, however, well worth putting up with frequent CD changes for the chance to experience a very unusual approach to music about which listeners may have thought there was little new to be heard.

      Music lovers are often surprised to find out that there is a fair amount of Beethoven that is not performed – not regularly, and indeed not ever (or almost not ever).  But it is a fair bet that almost no one, musicians included, will have heard Der glorreiche Augenblick before its new Naxos recording.  The work’s listing as Op. 136 makes it seem like very late Beethoven (the Ninth Symphony is Op. 125), but in fact it dates to 1814, after the European powers had banded together to defeat Napoleon (although their second and final conquest of him at Waterloo was a year in the future).  The work – in English, its title is “The Glorious Moment” – is an elaborate occasional piece, the occasion being the gathering of Europe’s royal rulers in Vienna to attempt to return life to the way it was before the upstart Corsican rattled all the crowned heads (and replaced several of them).  Cast as a cantata featuring singers in the roles of Vienna (the city), Seherin (a prophetess), Genius, and “Leader of the People,” Der glorreiche Augenblick includes parts for solo cello (Ben Hughes) and violin (Clio Gould), plus a final choral section for boys’ choir.  It is a big work, elaborate throughout, to a suitably patriotic but poetically quite undistinguished text by Aloys Weissenbach and Joseph Karl Bernard.  Outdated within months because of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, it is more a historical curiosity than anything else – but it is a curiosity by Beethoven, and is therefore fascinating as a demonstration of how the composer, whose patriotism and love of liberty were quite genuine, expressed himself in celebratory mode at a time when all of Vienna (and, indeed, all of Europe) was breathing a huge, if temporary, sigh of relief.  Hilary Davan Wetton, a fine choral conductor, plays things straight – the only real way to handle them here – in a performance that is suitably serious, affirmative, and as uplifting as it was intended to be…at least for listeners who can close their eyes and imagine themselves in a particular city at a particular point in time.  Wetton misses one excellent opportunity, though: Der glorreiche Augenblick was first performed along with Wellington’s Victory, another infrequently heard and closely related Beethoven work (although not as obscure as Der glorreiche Augenblick).  There was plenty of room on this CD to hear both these examples of Beethovenian patriotism and still include the Choral Fantasia, but no – there is no celebration of Wellington’s triumph at the battle of Vittoria here.  The Choral Fantasia, though, is very well done.  Always intended as a kind of encore (although a huge one) – it was written for performance at the end of the famous 1808 concert that featured the first hearings of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Fourth Piano Concerto and other works – the piece has considerable verve and spirit within its very unusual structure, which includes an extended solo piano part, a full-orchestra middle section, and a concluding choral portion whose theme, initially heard in purely instrumental form, foreshadows that of the finale of the Ninth Symphony.  Wetton conducts it well, Leon McCawley handles the piano part with aplomb, and the chorus sings with enthusiasm – and kudos, many kudos, to Naxos for providing the full text and translation of all the words for both pieces on this disc.  Any listener interested in exploring some surprising nooks and crannies of Beethoven’s output will find this CD fascinating from start to finish.

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