Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9

[Another of Signor Scardanelli’s TAS disappointments. Having perused “Confessions of a Marginal Man,” the reader will recognize the author-in-confinement’s signature intemperance.]

Signor Scardanelli

[March 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:1.]

BEETHOVEN Symphonies 1-9 · Luba Orgonasova (soprano); Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Gilles Cachemaille (bass), The Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révotunnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner (conducting) · Arend Prohmann, Karl-August Naegler (producers), Ulrich Vette (tonmeister) · Deutsche Grammophon Archiv Produktion 439 900-2; 5 compact discs.

Here are peformances of the period-restoration school to which like and unlike endeavors are bound to be compared. We address our impressions to the hypothetical reader for whom musical time travel has thus far proved jejune. In a word (well, two), Byrd lives! These are remarkably lusty readings whose energies and finesse turn in large measure on the knife-edge articulations of Gardiner’s virtuoso ensemble, their meter-long, Francophone handle reflecting a view of the repertoire as bold and daring conceptions – as something rather fresher in spirit (ironically enough) than the bearing walls of the core repertoire. Fancy names are one thing, the experience of listening quite another: revolutionary these symphonies do indeed play, even and miraculously now; one listens for the millionth time as if for the first to a body of works that strikes the listener as a treasury of inestimable stature. Segue to sermonette:

I give you DWEM, the Dead White European Male. He has been, they say, too long in the saddle, this sexist, racist, imperialist pig. It’s not without justification that ours is called the culture of complaint. (If you’ve not read Robert Hughes’ book so titled, I heartily recommend that you do.) Denying, or at best minimizing, the centrality and quality of European culture, which includes, of course, its art music – for present purposes the Austro-Germanic symphony, from Bach’s sons to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Hartmann, Henze, and elsewhere and beyond – as a negative prop to militant feminism, Afro-centrism, multiculturism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, and whatever present or emergent -ism I’ve neglected is rather like pelting Chartres Cathedral with m&m’s.

Forget mankind. By way of Gardiner’s restorative readings, one comes face to face anew with humanity’s Great (Polychromatic) Hope: Beethoven the heaven-storming, Promethian humanist – who would doubtless plotz on his mountaintop were he to learn what our politically correct intelligentsia, as heirs to liberté, égalité, fraternité, have done with their precious bequest. Evidence of a disintegrating center appears, alas, in the relish pipsqueak academics take in savaging Western culture’s core figures in the purely magical belief that in so doing they enlarge themselves and their cranky little briefs. The melting pot, alas, topples; the stew rots on the floor. Speaking of pots, parallels and rot, cannibals ate their enemies not for sustenance but rather to acquire their power. I offer a defunct folkway as allegory. Back in San Gimignano we played a game, if memory serves, called chestnuts: a kid hardened a horse chestnut in vinegar for a week or so. (The trees that grew in San Gimignano included horse chestnuts. Can’t say whether they’ve survived. Don’t get around much any more.) Anyway, the local giovinetti drilled them and passed a shoelace through, which they knotted at the bottom, thus arming themselves for a combat consisting of whacking an opponent’s chestnut, and getting his whacked in turn, until one or another’s chestnut succumbed, a 20 killer, for example, acquiring the vanquished chestnut’s dozen kills, thereby becoming a 32 killer. Quite staggering numbers of kills would of course transfer to parvenu chestnuts, the old champs having simply worn out. Any healthy nine-year-old can at present fell Muhammad Ali. Worse still, Beethoven’s dead, and death, as we know, is a serious impediment to declarations of self-worth. The task is up, inter alia, to Mr Gardiner and his merry band of master players, whose insights, skills, and implementation of scholarly enterprise strip these aural icons of their familiar patina down to the electricity. Gardiner’s OR&R (better than half of whom comprise the elegant and excellent English Baroque Soloists) go well beyond echt sonorities to the heart of the music’s urgency and grace, a depth of penetration I’d not before experienced in the authenticity movement’s approach. The first great discovery, particularly from the Third Symphony on, is of a consummate orchestrator who, in the care of a larger, later, and in a number of essentials, rather different-sounding orchestra, appears at moments the ham-handed hun.

As happens with masterworks, almost as proof indeed that such they be, opportunities for interpretive disparity are as wide as the world. A former TAS colleague didn’t much like the pre-publication Gardiner Eroica Deutsche Grammophon laid on reviewers. I think he’s wrong, but there you are. So let’s rather consider an ambitious project’s sound. DG’s 4-D logo graces all performances save that of the Second Symphony. I’ve a 4-D Deutsche Grammophon sampler that confirms, sad to say, what the discophile knows, or should: Superior recordings have largely to do with good engineering, hardware refinements a distant second. Philips’ Mercury Living Presence sampler tells us, one, that Bob Fine was a gifted teckie and, two, that by today’s standards his tools were crude. One hears distortion, a restricted dynamic and frequency range, and remarkably convincing sounds, with particular regard to soundstage location. These Archiv productions don’t capture dimension as well; they are, however, exemplars of resolution, a quality critical to the perception of a period ensemble’s rather brighter timbral distinctions; one also hears string tuttis, for example, falling on the hard rather than plush side of events. The recordings nicely capture the orchestra’s weight: the low strings in Symphony No. 5’s first movement project a palpable excitement. In the main, the set’s sound is not terribly distant from that of the live experience. (Exquisite localization in an exquisitely dimensioned space is very much a recording thing, as compensation, it has been suggested, for the visual component’s absence. Close your eyes in a hall and your perception of depth especially is likely to diminish.) Is the pre-4-D recording of Symphony No. 2 in any way inferior? A tough call. If the Second reveals a hair’s-breadth less resolution (as perhaps I think I hear it doing), a good case exists for the 4-D system’s merits in capable hands. To further befuddle judgment or deflect its application entirely, the Second’s is the only performance to have been recorded in the Great Hall of London’s Blackheath Concert Halls (in 1991). The venues total five, four in England and one, of the Fifth Symphony, in Barcelona, as a “live” recording. One and Three were likewise done “live” and are likewise free of the usual evidence – coughing, stage fuss, applause. Given the multiplicity of the tonmeister’s assistant engineers and sites, the technical aspect’s high standard is one of the project’s commendable strengths.

Whichever of the symphonies I listen to, I hear Gardiner sculpting phrases for maximum suppleness, color, and form. He’s been called fussy. I don’t think so, not here, anyway. Fussy interpretations could never hold together so well, tending, as they do, to collapse under the weight of overwrought ironing. Certainly, these are juicy performances, within a context of swiftness we’re not accustomed to. The Ninth, for example, transpires in a jot less than sixty minutes. (To repeat the old story, it’s the Ninth’s average playing time that set the CD’s original length of just under 75 minutes.) The open-ended search for the Ninth’s perfect performance may have more than a little to do with this most innovative of Beethoven’s symphonies want of coherence vis-à-vis its predecessors. The Scherzo’s gargantuan unwieldiness and Adagio’s meandering tendencies, relative to the outer movements’ riveting monumentality, arrive in sum at an incompatibility that quite evaporates in the white light of the Dionysian finish, within which we discover a marvelous surprise, the janissary music, alla marcia: Rather than a troop-in-review, Gardiner takes it as a Frenchified lark, a novelty that works. A richly variegated, magically integrated finale’s parts adhere, thanks to a splendid conductor’s overview, an ideal vocal quartet, one of the world’s great choruses, and masterful instrumentalists.

With regard to Gardiner’s method and madness, we’ve more than this Beethoven set to go by. The conductor, his OR&R, English Baroque Soloists, and Monteverdi Choir have been long and busy on the scene. The EBS’s Bach catalog is large. Particularly relevant is their performance, with the Monteverdi Choir and soloists, of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis [Archiv 429 799-2], Gramophone’s Record of the Year for 1991. For once, this chauvinist magazine got it right. Gardiner’s is, I suspect, the best recent performance on disc.

But Beethoven again. A misgiving insinuates itself into any assessment of period-instrument groups. Will they, whatever they play, betray a signature ensemble? Is the “history” we’re hearing as much about interactive chemistry, or worse, a group’s pat style, as a period’s musical stamp? A disc released in ’93, Philips 434 402-2, offers G’s OR&R in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Having come to know these Beethoven performances, one doesn’t hear the OR&R as the same ensemble. It’s 1830, and the orchestra as a “classical” institution is in a condition of evolutionary flux that Berlioz turns to an atmospheric advantage no modern ensemble quite manages to capture. If gooseflesh be the measure, Gardiner’s last-movement reading, Songe d’une nuit de sabbat, plays hellbent for a bizarrerie that’s simply got to be right. Alas, an airless and gritty sonic precludes recommendation. A Fanfare colleague reports the Philips’ sound as good. Doctors, architects, and lawyers must pass license exams in order to practice; professional listeners needn’t. Nor do they seem to perish by attrition. The OR&R and Monteverdi Choir’s performance of the youthful Messe solonnelle is technically better.

Scardanelli, The Tower, Tübingen-on-Hudson