Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Theatrical Beethoven

The first forty or so seconds of the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (30 seconds for Toscanini) is a mythic awakening from the dream of the Enlightenment into a raw, powerful new Romantic life. Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic purrs ominously, and then picks you up by the throat and shakes you. Otto Klemperer seems to fit a whole novel - Balzac or Melville - of silence to awesome foreboding that he somehow elicits from the solid British musicians of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein hints at a rising menace, and never really lets it surface with his New Yorkers, but it's there nevertheless. After all, as Rick says to Major Strasser in Casablanca, "There are certain sections of New York that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

The challenge for the devotee of Historically Informed Performance is to do this, or something like this, while sounding something like an orchestra of the 18th century. This is, of course, the sound that Beethoven, deaf for years before, heard in his head while writing the 9th Symphony. By the end of the last century we'd learned that there's no end of expressive potential in that 18th century symphony orchestra, once matters of orchestral balance and string tone and proper recording techniques were mastered. This involved some trial and not inconsiderable error, but it looks like we've come out of the HIP tunnel in better expressive shape than most of us could have hoped for, the odd curmudgeonly critic to the contrary, of course.

Let's face it, though: the 9th Symphony is tough HIP terrain. It's hard to compete with masses of string players with phasers set on "vibrato", brass (with valves!), woodwinds and drums melded together into a single Borg-like organism, and multiple microphones placed close enough to every player so that perfect sound reproduction can get lasered directly into your brain. In a Gramophone review of Roy Goodman's Beethoven Symphony set with the Hanover Band on Nimbus, Stephen Johnson says "In the end, all Beethoven performances—authentic or thoroughly modern—compete in the same arena." He doesn't mention whether that's with or without steroids, though.

With this disc, to be released September 30, 2016, Toronto's Tafelmusik now finishes the first North American period-instrument Beethoven Symphony cycle. In what seems to be a standard and successful model for North American orchestras, this is a live recording (made during four performances in February), released as own-label (Tafelmusik Media), and funded in part through a successful crowd-funding campaign. So how does it match up artistically?

Rather than going all-in HIP, there's some finessing going on here in some of the decisions by Bruno Weill and the production/engineering team.  The string sound is softened and the winds and brass integrated and balanced by the warm acoustic of Koerner Hall and microphone placement. Weill brings more rubato and less speed than you'd expect in a more doctrinaire HIP performance. The expressive possibilities of all of this are heightened by the real advantages Tafelmusik brings to bear: the high musical standards of the instrumentalists, the vocal soloists, and especially the fine chorus.

When I listened to the mid-20th century masters conduct the beginning of their 9th Symphonies I heard echoes from Beethoven's future: Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. Bruno Weill and his forces bring a thrilling drama to their first 45 seconds, but here I thought of the most theatrical moments of Mozart and especially Handel. The 9th Symphony is Beethoven's most theatrical work; much more so than Fidelio. Through the entire recording I found myself reacting to this dynamic, and most especially in the final movement, a kind of optimistic mirror of the final act of Don Giovanni. Tafelmusik's goal in their Beethoven project was to present the music "as though the music had been composed yesterday." This fresh version succeeds in this to a higher degree than any HIP presentation I've heard.

While we wait for the Tafelmusik release, here is Klemperer making everyone's hair stand on end:

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