March 15, 2018


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 6; Music for a Ballet of Knights; Wellington’s Victory. Claire Huangci, piano; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.

Beethoven: Variations for Piano, WoO 63-80. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

     For all the familiarity that most listeners have with Beethoven’s music, there are still ways for performers to approach it that provide an element of surprise and some additional insights. Doing so, especially in Beethoven’s best-known pieces, requires thoroughly rethinking the music and finding new ways to look at it – and that is what Philippe Jordan has done in his recording of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Wiener Symphoniker, released on the orchestra’s own label. Beethoven actually worked on multiple symphonies at once, so their numbering is not strictly accurate, but it is certainly true that the Fourth, sometimes dismissed as rather lightweight and a bit of a throwback, was created after the “Eroica” – or at least at the same time. Jordan takes this fully into account in his reading, giving the symphony a level of seriousness and intensity that is frequently lacking in other performances. The lyricism does not get short shrift, but it is not the whole story here: this is an unusually serious version of the Fourth, pensive and even dark in places, its fleet-footed elements thus standing in stronger-than-usual contrast to its almost gloomy ones. The first two movements, in particular, come across here as subtle and intense, after which the rather gruff third movement paves the way for the eventual move into humor and light – a bit like Haydn, but only a bit – in the finale. The interpretation is unusual and revelatory. Jordan’s handling of the Fifth is not quite as outstanding, but still has a great deal to recommend it – including Jordan’s careful adherence to Beethoven’s indicated tempos and his performance of the third movement with the trio appearing twice, while many other performances leave out the second appearance. There is no certainty about exactly what Beethoven wanted here – one of many still-unanswered questions about his symphonies – but the more-extended third movement better fits the carefully constructed edifice that is Jordan’s performance, and produces a better overall balance for the entire work. From the highly dramatic but in-tempo famous opening of the symphony to the broad, martial, celebratory finale with added piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones, Jordan has a vision of the narrative arc through which he wants the music to move – through which he believes Beethoven wanted it to move – and he follows it with care and tremendous attention to detail, thanks to the excellent orchestral playing. These are among the best recent recordings of these iconic symphonies, producing anew the feeling that these are deeply communicative works whose depths, however often plumbed, have not yet been fully explored, and may never be.

     The reconsideration is not quite as extensive in Jordan’s interpretations of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, but the Wiener Symphoniker’s playing is equally good, the attention to detail is as impressive, and the contrast between these works is handled with as much skill as are the surprising resemblances between Nos. 4 and 5. Jordan’s No. 1 is very distinctly Haydnesque, the highlighting of the contrasting piano and forte elements of the first movement and the speed of its fleet first theme introducing a reading that clearly shows Beethoven’s debt to the older composer – giving the lie to Beethoven’s unkind statement that he never learned anything from Haydn. Yet Jordan’s performance shows quite clearly that no one could possibly think Beethoven’s First could have been written by Haydn: the harmonic daring, the writing for winds and brass, the emphatic nature of the many chordal passages, and the general insistence on forward propulsiveness throughout, quite clearly mark the symphony with Beethoven’s still-developing musical propensities. Jordan’s bright and quick approach to the sunny Andante cantabile con moto is especially noteworthy for its emphasis on the con moto indication and the movement’s wry humor. The short introduction to the finale gives Jordan another opportunity for humor – really, for wit – and the movement then spins along in a very Haydnesque manner indeed, its structure and pacing showing just how far Beethoven had already come in this work in building on past masters and growing beyond them. And when it comes to the “Eroica,” Jordan opens with the same emphatic but in-tempo and not-overdone intensity that he brings to the start of the first movement of No. 5. He then lets the opening movement flow and at times seem to meander (but not into the “disorder” that some in Beethoven’s own time perceived). And then, after finding a way to pace the second movement rather quickly while still allowing it plenty of funereal grandeur, Jordan achieves something quite striking in making the finale – too often trivialized in the shadow of the extended first two movements – into the summation and capstone of the symphony. Instead of allowing any falloff of tension and drama after the first two movements, Jordan conducts the remainder of the symphony as a large-scale counterbalance, even though the third and fourth movements together last only as long as does the first movement on its own. The effectiveness of Jordan’s approach will be especially evident to listeners who choose to listen back-to-back to his handlings of the “Eroica” and No. 5: Jordan makes the finale-focused nature of both these intense symphonies clear and meaningful, revealing connections between them that go beyond the ones uncovered by many conductors.

     Other Beethoven works are revelatory simply because they are less-known and show sides of the composer with which listeners are far less likely to be familiar. The fascinating piano version of the Violin Concerto, sometimes identified as Piano Concerto No. 6, is one infrequently heard Beethoven work that deserves greater currency. The orchestral part is the same as in the violin version, but Beethoven made a variety of changes in the solo portion to accommodate the differences between the sound and capabilities of the piano and the violin. Especially notable are the two cadenzas Beethoven created for this work, which are quite clearly piano-centered rather than adaptations of the violin cadenzas. And the first of the piano cadenzas provides a structural benefit that the violin one in the first movement does not: the whole concerto begins with timpani strokes, and Beethoven brings back the timpani during the piano cadenza, creating an unusual sound of two percussion instruments and also reminding the ear of the timpani strokes from the concerto’s opening. The new Klanglogo recording of this concerto, featuring pianist Claire Huangci with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths, is a very fine one, suitably pianistic without being overstated. Huangci and Griffiths share fine rapport and produce a mutually supportive reading that will likely make listeners wonder why this work is not heard more frequently in its piano guise. Unfortunately, the rest of the CD is not up to the quality of the concerto. Griffiths offers a real rarity and a pseudo-rarity here. Music for a Ballet of Knights, WoO 1, is very early and very inconsequential Beethoven, opening with a short but effective march but then offering little that is substantive: of the 12 movements, five are versions of the same “German Song,” a sixth includes that music as a middle section, and the entire work lasts only 11 minutes. Written for Count Waldstein when Beethoven was only 20 years old, the ballet is occasional music without much pretense to importance or much evidence of originality – although it has a certain amount of rather crude verve. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Beethoven produced another work of similar enthusiastic crudity, albeit with much greater skill. This was Wellington’s Victory, a celebration of the outcome of the Battle of Leipzig during the Napoleonic Wars. In the right hands, this music can actually be a good deal of fun: the first part portrays English and French forces, identified by characteristic tunes and portrayed in different keys, battling with considerable ferocity – the music was intended to include actual cannons and muskets among its effects. After the French limp off, their theme transformed into a minor-key march, there is a “Symphony of Victory” that is as bright and upbeat as could be expected or desired. But Griffiths does not seem to take Wellington’s Victory sufficiently seriously. He omits the military elements of the first part, instead using ordinary percussion instruments – notably a bass drum whose sound never approximates that of cannon fire and that quickly becomes wearisome. And the second half of the work, although well-played, lacks the celebratory exuberance that Beethoven surely wanted it to have. The performance is all right, but it does nothing to make a case that Wellington’s Victory deserves to be heard more often – as, in truth, it does, if only for its curiosity value. Still, the concerto performance on this disc is so good that it overcomes the comparative weakness of the other works here, and the weakness of Griffiths’ handling of them.

     No such performance weakness is apparent in a Brilliant Classics release containing all of Beethoven’s early piano variations, WoO 63-80, played by Alessandro Commellato (joined in the four-hand variations, WoO 67 and WoO 74, by Elena Costa). Count Waldstein figures here as well as in Music for a Ballet of Knights: the eight four-hand variations, WoO 67, are on a theme that he wrote. Some other variations are also on themes by specific individuals – for instance, the nine-variation work, WoO 63, that is the first piece of music known to have been written by Beethoven (at the age of 10), is based on a march from the now-forgotten Ernst Christoph Dreßler. Most of these variations, though, are on themes from operas by composers such as Salieri (WoO 73), Paisiello (WoO 69 and WoO 70), Dittersdorf (WoO 66), Peter Winter (WoO 75), and Franz Xaver Süßmayr (WoO 76; this is the Süßmayr who completed Mozart’s Requiem). Other sets use themes from no-longer-remembered ballets or are based on original themes, and two sets are on specifically British tunes: WoO 78 on “God Save the King” and WoO 79 on “Rule Britannia.” There is also one set, WoO 74 for piano four hands, based on Goethe’s Ich denke dein, with the first stanza of the poem sung here (unfortunately rather screechily) by soprano Sonja Angelina Krenn. The variations are presented, for no apparent reason, in exact reverse order, starting with WoO80 and running backward to WoO 63. What this does is have the three-CD set open with WoO 80, the only one of these variation sets that is at all well-known – and it is, indeed, better constructed and of greater interest than most of the other material here. It is not, however, even close to the most substantial of these groups of variations: seven others last longer, the most extensive set of all being WoO 65 on an aria by Vincenzo Righini – that set goes on for more than 23 minutes. All these variations are superficial and deserve to be called salon or parlor music, but all of them have points of interest that provide insight into Beethoven as a young, up-and-coming pianist, and it is a pleasure simply to hear so much little-known Beethoven in performances as fine as these. It is also a pleasure to hear these works performed on correct instruments – not on a modern concert grand piano but on fortepianos from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (or reproductions of the original instruments). Commellato’s choice of specific instruments for particular works is a personal one, and it is always well-considered. There are five different fortepianos heard here, each with its own unique sound, with the earliest having very distinctly harpsichord-like characteristics and the latest (dating to 1823) beginning to possess some of the range and tone of the more-familiar instruments created later in the 19th century. All in all, this is a fascinating foray into less-known Beethoven and into a form that the composer used in his piano music throughout his life, right through to the second and concluding movement of his final piano sonata. These early variations show Beethoven in learning-and-display mode, and are a wonderful way to hear just how far Beethoven advanced piano music in general, and the variation form in particular, as his compositional prowess developed over time.

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