Classical Notes

Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
Teldec 2292-64652-2 (5 CDs, also available separately)

Beethoven symphonic interpretation has become more challenging than ever lately.

Gone are the giants of the past,treble clef graphic who were raised in Beethoven's own cultural traditions and whose bold, personal interpretations were welcomed by audiences and critics alike: Szell's delicacy, Toscanini's tautness, Klemperer's gravity, Furtwangler's mysticism, Walter's lush beauty. Fortunately, all have been preserved on record for the inspiration of our own and future generations.

What's a modern conductor to do? If he hews too closely to the score, he risks boredom and obscurity; after all, how many nearly identical literal readings of a piece does anyone need in a record collection? But if he allows himself to be transported by personal inspiration, he risks charges by the largely conservative core of classical buffs of arrogant and disrespectful mimicry of the past masters.

This seeming deadlock was broken briefly in the last decade by the invigorating historical Beethoven cycles of the Hanover Band, the Academy of Ancient Music and the London Classical Players. All featured original instruments of the time (or modern replicas) played with the performing styles and techniques of the composer's era. But intense overexposure of that approach has now blunted its novelty and its practitioners seem barely distinguishable.

So what's left for an enterprising conductor to do? Nikolaus Harnoncourt has seized upon a hybrid approach: using historical performing principles as a starting point to craft performances relevant to our times. He has succeeded brilliantly.

Harnoncourt's art is firmly rooted in the past. In the 1960s, two decades before the recent surge in its popularity, he pioneered the original instrument movement.Harnoncourt conducts Beethoven Among his lasting achievements are Bach concerti, masses and an integral set of the cantatas for Telefunken that still sound magnificent. More recently, he tackled Mozart and Haydn operas and symphonies. Now, he arrives at the nineteenth century.

Harnoncourt's historical credentials clearly shape his view of Beethoven. The most direct influence of Baroque practice lies in his balancing of the instrumental sonorities. Most performers of music of the classical and romantic eras emphasize the melodic line and treat the inner voices as secondary support. In Baroque music, though, the voices intertwine and are often equal. Harnoncourt's Beethoven treats the melody as merely one of many musical events and proclaims the inner voices in their full glory.

To achieve this, Harnoncourt plays with reduced strings. This is important, since strings generally dominate the sound of the modern orchestra by virtue of their sheer number. Harnoncourt restores the older sonority, even to the extent of burying the violins (and with them the melody) on occasion. The resulting balances seem awkward at first hearing, but they reveal aspects of the music that remain suppressed in virtually every other modern reading. A striking example is the dance-like final movement of the Symphony # 7, which gains almost a disco feel when the melody is submerged beneath the persistent rhythmic accompaniment. The effect is boosted by Harnoncourt's uninflected tempos, consistent with the aesthetic of Beethoven's time. It is indeed ironic that such venerable principles yield such a contemporary feel.

In other respects, though, Harnoncourt's approach is outwardly modern. His dynamics are wide and he uses contemporary instruments (except for the trumpet, the modern version of which has a timbre that is too mellow except when played unacceptably loud). As a result, his orchestra is able to project the power which sounds so essential in this music but which the instruments of 200 years ago simply couldn't produce. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and others all seemed comfortable with the orchestras of their times, but with all due respect to historical purists it seems hard to believe that Beethoven wouldn't have preferred modern instruments to his own. Beethoven, after all, had a reputation for destroying pianos by pounding the keys in a failed effort to wrest volume beyond their fragile means.

The recordings were all made live in the summers of 1990 and 1991, but there are extremely few errors or audience noises to evidence their origin. Only in the long and difficult Symphony # 3 are there noticeable lapses in the ensemble.

Harnoncourt's achievement is to energize Beethoven with the techniques of the past in a way that propels the music into modern times. Back to the future, as it were.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1993 by Peter Gutmann

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