CLASSICALLY FLOURISHING ROMANTIC
Beethoven's nine symphonies cover one of the major cornerstones of symphonic literature along with the likes of Haydn, Brahms and Sibelius. Beethoven was born in turbulent times when the common people's dissatisfaction toward the ruling monarchs in Europe was reaching new heights which finally culminated in the French Revolution in 1789. Against this came Beethoven, who was born into a family of musicians in Bonn in 1770. His father wanted to coin in on the child prodigy market created by Mozart whose father had exploited his genius in a similar way. But Beethoven was no Mozart. He wasn't born a child progidy and his performing skills were nowhere near as natural as they were with Mozart. Still he made rapid progress as a piano virtuoso and an amateur composer. He was even supposed to take some lessons with Mozart in Wien in 1787, but before he could even get started his mother died and he had to return home. Soon after his father was pensioned off from the Electorial Court due to his increasing alcoholism. This basically made Beethoven the head of the family, with him having to support his two brothers, Johann and Carl. When Mozart died in 1791 it was hoped that Beethoven might be able to become his heir and was therefore sent to study with Haydn. However, the older master's musical style didn't really suit Beethoven and he later said that he didn't learn anything from Haydn.
In the late 1790s he toured extensively as a piano virtuoso while at the same time developing his compositional skills. This development is nowhere better represented that in the nine symphonies he wrote between 1800 and 1824. With the world rapidly changing around him it also effected his music which started shifting away from the Classicism of Haydn to the anticipation of the Romantic movement later in the century. Almost every one of his symphonies contains some form of innovation or another. The First is essentially Haydnesque but the off-key introduction already purports the growing desire for individuality. The Second then is much more wild than the First and replaces the third movement Menuetto with a Scherzo, a form that will become a permanent fixture in future symphonies.
The Third transformed the concept of a symphony to become the highest form of music by expanding it to twice the length of a normal symphony and making it a deeply personal utterance rather than a simple piece of entertainment for the idle. He also shifted the importance of the finale from being a simple fast-paced conclusion to a crowning culmination of epic proportions. In the Fourth he made decisive moves to make the timpani a musical instrument instead of providing mere accented highlights during crescendos. He also added much romantic and poetical feel to the work that is especially apparent in the quiet B flat minor introduction. In the Fifth he brought us the concept of the "victory symphony" where we move from a great struggle to a final, grand victory. This approach of beginning in the minor key and ending in an affirmative major would become a basic staple for the Romantics that followed. The Sixth on the other hand offered a very different kind of avenue that was also developed in the Romantic era: programme music. Cast in five movements, Beethoven's scenes from the country created a prototype for the highly pictorial music of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and many others with its depiction of a trio of birds, a village band and a thunderstorm.
The Seventh brought a completely new emphasis on the use of rhythm, something that had never been heard of before at this scale, while the Eighth proved that little is sometimes more with its witty and humor-filled attitude completely off-setting the greater Seventh. And finally there came the Ninth Symphony that not only out-scaled the Eroica, but also introduced human voices in a symphony. The addition of a chorus and soloists in a profoundly instrumental work would be much explored by the Romantics that followed. In essence and deed, Beethoven was one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) influences in the way music evolved through the Classical era to the Romantic. And, of course, his influence also effected many other genres like piano sonatas, chamber music, concertos, etc. An innovator who was not afraid of shaking tradition by the neck and creating something deep from inside the human soul.
NORRINGTON'S PERIOD PERFORMANCES
During the 19th Century Beethoven's music underwent many changes when the Romantics molded his music to suit the more dramatic and poetic style in vogue at the time. Therefore Beethoven was often performed without much attention to the purely musical and technical sides of his music and emphasised the more dramatic aspects of the music. This lend itself to slower speeds, misinterpretations of ideas, and created a tradition that has lasted to this day. In the 1980s however there arose a newfound interest in hearing old music performed by instruments of the period, therefore creating an authentic sound that would be true to the way the composer would have heard it.
Roger Norrington was the first to take Beethoven's symphonies under close scrutiny and performed the first period accounts of all the symphonies between 1987 and 1988 for EMI with The London Classical Players. Norrington's approach was to take Beethoven's symphonies in the manner of the 18th Century by way of reinventing their expressive gestures, their tempos, and the use of the orchestra. The final result was something completely different that was embraced with admiration by others and hated by the rest. The soundworld and general performance was so different that people used to the tradition of the past 200 years were unprepared to these innovations and responded rather coldly. But the ice was broken. Soon period performances of Beethoven's works as well as the works of other composers started cropping up all over. Beethoven's cycle of symphonies have since been reinterpreted by the likes of Gardiner, Mackerras, Zinman and even Norrington himself that have by now surpassed the original Norrington set, but there is a certain historical value to that 1989 set that was the first to take Beethoven in this direction and breaking a tradition that had been in vogue since the composer's death in 1827. In 2001 they were re-released on the Virgin label and are still readily available in a set of five CD at bargain price.
Symphony No.1 in C major, Op.21
The First Symphony is one of the best of the set. The overall Classical feel of the symphony most readily lends the sound of the older instruments appealing and give this work a sense of power that often seems to be missing in modern performances. The first movement has such bubbling good humor that is frankly irresistible as is the charming slow movement which, like most of the other symphonies on these recordings, is taken at a fairly free and flowing speed. The Menuetto has such rustic bouncyness that it foreshadows the scherzos Beethoven would write later in his career and finally the Finale makes some quite exciting passages with the brass and timpani. I have never really paid too much attention to the First Symphony (it is still so rooted in Haydn), but this performance has really made a good case for the more exciting aspects of the work. A very satisfying experience.
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36
Likewise the Second Symphony rises as a highlight in this set. Again taken at a brisk pace it brings a heightened sense of novelty that the people first hearing it might have experienced. The accented drama comes very well off in this powerful performance that fits well with the description of a contemporary critic that the work is "like a dragon that refuses to die." The first movement has great exuberance that is further accentuated by the period instruments. The Larghetto, the only movement in all of the symphonies that can really be called at all "slow", is lyrical and very well pulled off. The Scherzo has about as much scherzo-material in it than the Menuetto of the First, but the same energetic qualities are there making it very enjoyable indeed. The Finale then brings the proceedings down in jumping good humor, a satisfying conclusion that brings further evidence of Beethoven's developing sense of drama in a finale. Overall one of the best Beethoven Seconds I have heard and a guaranteed pleasure at any time.
Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55 "Eroica"
The Eroica comes off much like most other period performances of this work, that is very fast. When tradition has made the Eroica quite slow, Norrington and most of his followers have taken the Eroica closer to the metronome markings in the score. Indeed, the first movement is very urgent, lasting just a little over 15 minutes even with the exposition repeat observed and more than lives up to the tempo marking Allegro con brio (Fast and fiery). But if you're not adjusted to these speeds it may cause some breathlessness. The slow movement on the other hand can divide your view as far as tempo is concerned. Norrington takes the movement at a fairly flowing tempo that does not exactly correspond with the tempo indication of Adagio assai, let alone the style of a Marche funèbre. The funeral march here (like in all subsequent period performances) sounds as if the mourners are in a hurry to get the coffin into the grave, therefore lessening the emotional impact of the whole. Indeed, when taken at an emotional viewpoint the fastness of the tempo makes the music a little hard to get oriented with and particularly the final breaking down of the march music doesn't really convince in its tragic implications. The Scherzo and Finale on the other hand benefit much from the fast speeds like the first movement did, with the former being more energetic than usual as is befitting and the latter brings out a great culmination that ends with two sharp E flat chords, echoing the opening of the first movement. Overall its not a bad performance but at points it can require some getting used to.
Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Op.60
The poetic Fourth Symphony receives a quite decent performance from Norrington with the fast movements coming off sprightly and enjoyably. It is particularly good to have the first movement introduction taken at a brisker pace than normal for the added sense of authenticity. Only the Adagio could have been slightly slower to proprly bring out the poetic quality of the music, but it still comes off beautifully enough. Not one of the strongest in the set but not bad either.
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
The Fifth Symphony is one of the most exciting of the set. The opening movement has to be the fastest I have ever heard, accentuating the compactness of the movement. The exposition alone takes only about 1:20, with the entire movement clocking in at 6:28. It does make the music perhaps a little too frenetic to come off completely satisfactorily, but there is no denying the excitement and menace of the movement. The rest of the symphony also comes off quite well, although there is a certain something that doesn't quite convince in the transition of the Scherzo's C minor to the Finale's C major. The work is played with all repeats included, that is the Scherzo is repeated and the Finale's exposition is also reprised, making it (whether accurate or not to what Beethoven finally wanted) a grand symphony rather than a compact one. Still the effect is rather the opposite.
Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 "Pastoral"
The Pastoral, like just about all the symphonies, runs at a fairly brisk pace. This is particularly effective in the village band third movement and in the thunderstorm fourth movement, the former presenting a true rustic feel of unprofessional players and the latter really brings out the violence of a country storm. The rest of the symphony is also well played and the Finale brings a great sense of thankfulness from the country folk. This version makes for a nice breath of fresh air not apparent in many other Pastorals. There really is nothing more one needs to say.
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92
The Seventh Symphony (my personal favourite among Beethoven's symphonies) receives a rather curious performance when it comes to this set. Whereas most of the other symphonies are quite fresh in inspiration, the Seventh seems to suffer from a lack of energy so important to this Beethoven's most rhythmic symphony. This is particularly noticeable in the Finale, where the tempo is surprisingly relaxed and particularly in the coda the excitement is practically killed off by this lack of energy. It could be that Norrington was still a little unsure of pulling it all out for this difficult work, making it an unfortunately weak link in the set. The wonderful Allegretto is taken at a properly fast speed but there is a strangely thin string timbre apparent throughout the movement and the orchestra also has a number of impurities in their playing that is most distracting. A fair version, but not even close to being the best.
Symphony No.8 in F major, Op.93
Coupled with the Second Symphony, you can't go wrong at having the Eighth follow right after. Beethoven considered the Eighth as one of his personal favourites and it is clear to see why. It is so filled with Beethovenian humor that it is just an incredible pleasure to listen to. With no slow movement present, it is a work that is consistently jolly as well as being Beethoven's shortest symphony (at least the shortest since the First). There is really very little that need be said about this performance other than it is another highlight symphony and works excellently in Norrington's hands. An all-round pleasure.
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125
The Ninth Symphony is the biggest oddball of the group. Perhaps more so than in any other of the symphonies, Norrington has really attempted to break the performance history of the Ninth from the usually slow performances we are used to. Therefore the first movement is taken at a refreshingly brisk pace that doesn't make the music sound cumbersome as it usually does, the Scherzo makes full use of the hard-edged timpani with the Trio taken unusually slowly, and the slow movement flowing ahead more like an Andante than an Adagio. But the true revolution comes with the Finale. Norrington has presented the work closely observing the printed metronome markings, thus making the work sound almost alien to our ears. The opening Presto is taken very fast, "like a stroke of lightning" as some contemporary audience members remarked. This fastness also pervades the "big tune" when it appears for the first time and when the bass soloist makes his entrance, the tempo is very fast. This however is a problem. When Norrington made the recording in the late 1980s, he took all the tempo markings at face value. However, the metronome marking at the bass entrance was a misprint, making it a whole lot faster than it was supposed to be. Norrington himself has admitted to this mistake on closer study and has since recorded the work again more correctly, but the mistake still exists in this recording. And, truth be told, it really does sound pretty bad and quite underwhelming. But this is not the only difference in this Finale. The Turkish march at "Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen" is taken at a much slower pace than normal, bringing to mind the ticking of one of those big clocks like Big Ben. This slow tempo is also maintained as we prepare for the grand appearance of "Freude, schöner Götterfunken", something that is usually played much faster. The coda is also somewhat slower than usual but gathers enough energy for its last flourish of celebratory energy. A flawed, but still rather exciting version, the first of its kind.
To complement the symphonies the set also includes three famous overtures as make-weights: Die geschöpfe des Prometheus, Coriolan, and Egmont. Each is well performed and are a nice make-weight to the symphonies.
To sum up, the First and Second are genuine delights to hear; the Third comes off as powerful albeit a little unemotional; the Fourth is a little ordinary but still fine; the Fifth is exceedingly frenetic and exciting; the Sixth is flowing and glowing; the Seventh is a bit of a disappointment; the Eighth is a true gem; and the Ninth is decent, but obsolete in the face of many other period performances, including Norrington's revised account. This is not a bad set, and it has certain historical value, but it is not as good as with Gardiner or Mackerras. Personally I still think the Naxos cycle with the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Béla Drahos is the best of all with the performances keeping pretty close to Beethoven's specified speeds, while utilizing modern instruments in a chamber-sized orchestra. The Norrington set is not the best in the market, but it was a forerunner in a time when Beethoven was still being played in a more romantic light almost without exception. An eye-opener that spawned interest in performances of this kind.
Price range is around the £14 area on Amazon, though discounts are likely to be had.
© berlioz, 2005 / 2006
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sym No.1 in C, Op.21: I. Adagio Molto - Allegro Con Brio
2 Sym No.1 in C, Op.21: II. Andante Cantabile Con Moto
3 Sym No.1 in C, Op.21: III. Menuetto: Allegro Molto E Vivace
4 Sym No.1 in C, Op.21: IV. Adagio - Allegro Molto E Vivace
5 Sym No.3 in E flat, Op.55 'Eroica': I. Allegro Con Brio
6 Sym No.3 in E flat, Op.55 'Eroica': II. Marcia Funebre. Adagio Assai
7 Sym No.3 in E flat, Op.55 'Eroica': III. Scherzo - Allegro Vivace
8 Sym No.3 in E flat, Op.55 'Eroica': IV. Finale: Allegro Molto - Poco Andante - Presto
9 The Creatures Of Prometheus Ov, Op.43
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Sym No.2 in D, Op.36: I. Adagio Molto - Allegro Con Brio
2 Sym No.2 in D, Op.36: II. Larghetto
3 Sym No.2 in D, Op.36: III. Scherzo (Allegro)
4 Sym No.2 in D, Op.36: IV. Allegro Molto
5 Sym No.8 in F, Op.93: I. Allegro Vivace E Con Brio
6 Sym No.8 in F, Op.93: II. Allegro Scherzando
7 Sym No.8 in F, Op.93: III. Tempo Di Menuetto
8 Sym No.8 in F, Op.93: IV. Allegro Vivace
9 Coriolan Ov, Op.62
10 Egmont Ov, Op.84
Disc #3 Tracklisting
1 Sym No.4 in B flat, Op.60: I. Adagio - Allegro Vivace
2 Sym No.4 in B flat, Op.60: II. Adagio
3 Sym No.4 in B flat, Op.60: III. Allegro Vivace - Trio: Un Poco Meno Allegro
4 Sym No.4 in B flat, Op.60: IV. Allegro Ma Non Troppo
5 Sym No.7 in A, Op.92: I. Poco Sostenuto - Vivace
6 Sym No.7 in A, Op.92: II. Allegretto
7 Sym No.7 in A, Op.92: III. Allegro Vivace - Trio: Un Poco Meno Allegro
8 Sym No.7 in A, Op.92: IV. Allegro Con Brio
Disc #4 Tracklisting
1 Sym No.5 in c, Op.67: I. Allegro Con Brio
2 Sym No.5 in c, Op.67: II. Andante Con Moto
3 Sym No.5 in c, Op.67: III. Allegro
4 Sym No.5 in c, Op.67: IV. Allegro - Presto
5 Sym No.6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral': I. Allegro Non Troppo - Awakening Of Happy Feelings On Arriving...
6 Sym No.6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral': II. Andante Molto Mosso - Scene By The Brook
7 Sym No.6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral': III. Allegro - Merry Gathering Of The Country Folk
8 Sym No.6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral': IV. Allegro - Storm And Tempest
9 Sym No.6 in F, Op.68 'Pastoral': V. Allegretto - Shepherd's Song. Happy And Thankful Feelings...
Disc #5 Tracklisting
1 Sym No.9 in d, Op.125 'Choral': I. Allegro Ma Non Troppo - Yvonne Kenny/Sarah Walker/Patrick Power/Petteri Salomaa/The Schutz Chor Of London
2 Sym No.9 in d, Op.125 'Choral': II. Molto Vivace - Yvonne Kenny/Sarah Walker/Patrick Power/Petteri Salomaa/The Schutz Chor Of London
3 Sym No.9 in d, Op.125 'Choral': III. Adagio Molto E Cantabile - Yvonne Kenny/Sarah Walker/Patrick Power/Petteri Salomaa/The Schutz Chor Of London
4 Sym No.9 in d, Op.125 'Choral': IV. Presto - Allegro - Yvonne Kenny/Sarah Walker/Patrick Power/Petteri Salomaa/The Schutz Chor Of London