Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil. Tafelmusik Media. $16.99.
It may come as a surprise to home listeners and concertgoers to learn that there is any sort of “Beethoven problem.” After all, his works, particularly the symphonies, are ubiquitous, performed just about everywhere by just about everyone, available in every format from 78-rpm records to cell-phone ring tones.
That’s the problem. How is it possible to make these works sound fresh, to keep them as interesting and surprising, as dynamic and dramatic, as they were in their own time, when they are now heard everywhere, all the time, under pretty much all sets of circumstances? These two new CDs provide one answer: perform the music on the instruments for which Beethoven wrote it. That is, bring the concept of historic performance practice, long accepted for Baroque music and gradually making its way into other eras, into the Beethoven symphonies.
When well done, this approach proves remarkable – as it is in the CD of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 played by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner. This live Carnegie Hall performance from November 2011 is nothing short of revelatory. Horsehair bows and gut strings significantly change the sound of violins; natural horns and trumpets produce sounds that pierce the air differently from those of modern instruments – and then fall back more readily into the ensemble; the occasional strain of producing the correct notes at the proper volume comes through as a positive thing, not a negative, showing just how revolutionary Beethoven’s music was and why some of it was initially deemed unplayable. John Eliot Gardiner also uses the exaggerated tempos that Beethoven himself indicated he wanted, with the result, for example, that the introduction to the first movement of Symphony No. 7 stretches out and out, while the movement’s main section really dashes along – and the contrast is pronounced between the symphony’s scherzo and its trio sections. The sound world of these performances is distinctly different from the one that modern concertgoers expect, and that difference is all to the music’s benefit. The introduction of trombones into the finale of Symphony No. 5 here creates a very distinct change in the sound of the orchestra – the instruments were previously used in sacred choral music but not in symphonies, and they give the finale a distinct overtone of “last trumpet” character (German speakers do in fact expect a trombone, not a trumpet, to herald the Day of Judgment). These are outstanding performances on every level – sonically, in ensemble, in the emergence of individual voices and their quick reabsorption into the orchestra, in tempo choice and in overall concept. They are indeed “revolutionary and romantic” readings, quite unlike typical modern ones of Beethoven, and they solve the “Beethoven problem” brilliantly by presenting the composer’s works as he intended audiences to hear them – a guise in which, even today, they still startle and amaze.
Bruno Weil and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra also offer an original-instrument approach to Beethoven, and create a different sort of context by juxtaposing the “Eroica” symphony of 1804 with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, first played in 1833, six years after Beethoven’s death. Weil’s Beethoven is not as startling as Gardiner’s, its tempos being more in line with modern expectations and its entrances and exits of instruments being smoother and less craggy: the Tafelmusik players are almost too comfortable with their instruments. Nevertheless, it is quite clear how this first large-scale Beethoven symphony builds in ways never before attempted, how it scales heights in its first two movements that surpass anything that came before, and how Beethoven makes unprecedented demands on orchestra players – the horns in particular – that he was to expand even further in later works. Like the Gardiner performances, those by Weil are live recordings (dating to May 2012), and there is a sense of palpable involvement and excitement in them, although in both these recordings the audience is commendably silent. The addition of the Mendelssohn symphony to the “Eroica” is an interesting experiment that is not wholly successful. The reason for the pairing is not really clear: the works are very different, and even though Weil gives the “Italian” symphony somewhat more-stately pacing than it generally receives, especially in the first movement, this is by no means a companion piece to the “Eroica” or a work on the same scale or of comparable seriousness. The CD certainly shows – and perhaps this is part of the intent – just how much Beethoven changed music, for the “Eroica” itself is a dramatic break with the past, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” would have been quite inconceivable in the years before Beethoven’s symphonies. The performances here are skilled and diligent, and if they do not quite soar in the way that Gardiner’s do, that is more a testimony to Gardiner’s superb approach than a criticism of Weil’s somewhat more-straightforward one. And Weil certainly provides another very fine answer to the “Beethoven problem,” not only using original instruments but also showing Beethoven’s writing in its more-or-less-contemporary context, giving listeners a welcome chance to hear the “Eroica” as a living, breathing, highly influential work, not as a museum piece or one heard too frequently to be fully appreciated.
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