Zijn Symfonieën

What does Beethoven performance sound like today?

Lists are funny things. We all make them (even only in our minds) and we like nothing better than disagreeing with them. ‘Why not make a list of the finest Beethoven symphony recordings?’, was a recent suggestion here at Gramophone as we prepared a small Beethoven Fest on our website. The idea appealed, of course, but, as I thought about it, it’d be very easy to make such a list without the inclusion of a single living conductor – the cycle would, no doubt, be full of good things (Erich or Carlos Kleiber’s Fifth, Karl Böhm’s Sixth, Arturo Toscanini’s Seventh or Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 or Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Lucerne Ninth immediately jump to mind). But classical music is a living, breathing thing, giving renewed joy and exhilaration to every generation … so, I stepped up to the challenge with a few provisos – it must be a cycle from the 21st century. No conductor can appear more than once. And I would base it on recordings available on Apple Music’s streaming library. That last restraint did rob me of a quartet of performances I’d otherwise have pounced upon (Sir Simon Rattle in his live Berlin cycle for his deliciously Haydnesque No 2; Philippe Jordan’s Opéra de Paris cycle for No 4; definitely Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO for No 5 and Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for No 8). But there were some fine alternatives for my list, and how different Beethoven performance is today than 50 years ago.

To start, my cycle I’m following Philip Clark’s Collection recommendation in October 2013 for Riccardo Chailly’s Leipzig Gewandhaus performance of No 1 – a great orchestra stepping up to the challenge of a radically new approach that fuses period manners with traditional instruments: the result is a thrilling new take on Beethoven’s first symphonic outing.

For the Second Symphony, I’m crossing the Atlantic for a performance that doesn’t attempt anything radical or new but simply comes across as a genial, well-judged account of a work that always surprises with its scale and ambition, and Michael Tilson Thomas’s long tenure at the helm of the fine San Francisco orchestra makes for music-making of unforced ease and charm. For the Eroica (No 3) I’m going right back to the start of the century and Claudio Abbado’s 2001 Rome performance (originally released on video and then put out with an earlier Ninth to create a new cycle). It’s tightly-argued, beautifully played and stands as a worthy memorial to this great conductor.

Period instruments for No 4 – Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Vienna Concentus Musicus Fourth has terrific vitality (the conductor was 85 at the time) and it’s a real sadness that ill health and then death robbed us of his last thoughts on the nine, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. And what a joy to hear an orchestra playing its heart out for the man with whom they’d been making music for half a century. From Austria to Switzerland for the Fifth, and Giovanni Antonini brings period manners, if not timbres, to his Kammerorchester Basel account of the Fifth. This is a performance that is striking for its rhythmic vitality and its beautiful sense of pacing, something that really strikes home when the finale bursts through the mists in that miraculous bridge passage between movements.

For the Pastoral (No 6), we’re back Stateside and Osmo Vänskä’s lovely (and quite swift) walk through the countryside in the company of the fine Minnesota Orchestra (I’m still torn between this version and Iván Fischer’s for Channel Classics). With divided violins and beautiful detail from the winds and brass this is an enormously impressive performance. The Seventh, though, in the hands of Sir John Eliot Gardiner – and also recorded in the US (in concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall) – is a high-octane and utterly thrilling ride. Adrenalin courses through this performance as conductor and players give us one of the most exciting modern readings. The ORR are on truly glorious form here.

Live at the Barbican in London, Bernard Haitink’s Indian Summer with the LSO gives us an Eighth of wonderful style and elegance. Full-bodied yet light on its feet, this is a charmer from first to last, and there is some exquisite solo playing from this great orchestra.

To end the cycle, I’ve chosen Frans Brüggen’s second recording of the Ninth (if I were allowed to delve back into the 1990s, his Philips Eroica from his first cycle would definitely have been on the list). His Orchestra of the 18th Century plays superbly and he, with great humanity, paces this giant symphony with a wonderful sureness of touch. The hard drum sticks make the numerous timpani interjections really count, and everyone plays with a palpable sense of occasion.

Needless to say, you’ll have your own ideas for a modern Beethoven cycle, so let the conversation begin…

4188ws3p9mlSymphony No 1

‘Harmonically, it’s a bit more stable than Haydn, a bit more Romantic, and in some ways more mischievous even, but it’s still a lot “safer” than what Mahler or Elgar did in their first symphonies.’

Nine Symphonies, nine of the world’s leading Beethoven conductors will each explore a Beethoven symphony. We begin with Sir Roger Norrington on Symphony No 1…

When Beethoven wrote his Symphony No 1, he was young and at the height of his powers as both a pianist and a composer of chamber music, but he had also lived more than half his life. This symphony couldn’t have been written by Mozart, that’s for sure, but what about Haydn? I guess you’d always think another hand was at work. Harmonically, it’s a bit more stable than Haydn, a bit more Romantic, and in some ways more mischievous even, but it’s still a lot ‘safer’ than what Mahler or Elgardid in their first symphonies. Beethoven uses a standard, late-Haydn orchestra, full-sized, with clarinets but nothing radical or distinctive, such as contrabassoons, piccolos or trombones. Maybe he thought he’d carry on writing in this style, until deafness made him rethink his future.

The piece is dedicated to Baron van Swieten, prefect of the Imperial Library, Vienna, who’d caused a tremendous amount of music to be written, including Haydn’s The Creation and The Seasons and six symphonies by CPE Bach, whom Beethoven worshipped. There is a direct lineage from CPE to Beethoven, via Haydn.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a performance of a Beethoven symphony to hear if people are following the rules, the ‘road map’. I heard Mariss Jansons recently; even these top guys are taking note of what’s going on down in the early music ‘hobbit hole’. It’s very nice when people are generous like that. I resist use of the word ‘interpretation’. We must strive to get it right. Mostly people follow the metronome marks now, but they certainly didn’t before. The metronome was a new invention in Beethoven’s time, and we used to be taught (on absolutely no evidence) that his metronome was faulty. Beethoven would have seen a metronome moving, even if he couldn’t hear it, so his markings are both incredibly illuminating and liberating.

People can be shocked by our work – but it’s the speed at which horses gallop. The answer so often lies in dividing the bars into the correct number of beats. Know the rules: the quaver is never the unit of measure in Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. It’s only part of the note.

Even before the Jonathan Del Mar editions (Bärenreiter) it was possible to get a perfectly good performance if you knew how to read the code – getting the speeds, note lengths and phrasing right. You don’t need a ‘concept’. There was once a tradition of ‘just playing’ this music, but two strands emerged – Toscanini versus Furtwängler. I wasn’t trying to be different; I was trying to get the music right – and it’s exciting when that becomes mainstream.

We thought no one had done it before, but, as I subsequently discovered, René Leibowitz was using the metronome markings back in the 1950s. He was a pioneer like Pierre Boulez at Bayreuth. It’s wonderful when something ‘crazy’ becomes the norm – especially when it sounds so good.

The first movement starts in the wrong key, not arriving in C for around 20 bars. It was meant to startle people. Beethoven was a bit of a bear in the salons of Vienna, and there is a famous story of an occasion when he was asked to play something: he sat down at the piano, thought for a moment, put his arms down right across the keyboard, then stalked out. He never quite stopped doing that.

The Beethoven symphonies don’t have genuinely ‘slow’ movements. Classical works generally don’t. I remember playing Symphony No 2 under a famous German conductor who said, ‘You have to suffer to play Beethoven slow movements.’ The slow movement in the First Symphony can sometimes sound ponderous, but it’s marked Andante cantabile con moto, so the emphasis must be on singing.

The third movement is marked Menuetto, but look at the metronome marking. Maybe this was a joke? To a German, a menuetto would have been something quite stately, but Beethoven here is suggesting something more like an allegretto or even presto; and there are precedents, in Mozart and the late-Haydn string quartets.

There is a very Haydnesque-joke-opening to the finale. It sounds as if it is going to be very gloomy and tragic, then it runs away and becomes totally brilliant. Wonderful stuff. People think of Beethoven as being dramatic, exciting, wild – but, when you listen, the harmonies and the orchestration are so incredibly beautiful all the time. Suffering is completely out of place, except perhaps in the Third Symphony.

Wit is the subject matter of the Classical period, so the metronome markings come as no surprise to those of us who know the Baroque. This is like sitting at a sparkling dinner table, listening to a group of very intelligent people. It’s a marvellous idea. The idea of the dance is central and note length is crucial, so Beethoven was very, very careful about marking both staccato and non-staccato notes.

Beethoven never stopped being a Classical composer. He was a breeches man, not a trousers man. He’s not an early Wagner; if anything, he’s a late Haydn. Always he had that late-18th-century grace. He stumbled upon Romanticism. When he composed this symphony, he had a foot in each of two centuries. He lays down his colours: ‘This is what I can do with a symphony…but in a couple of years I’ll show you what I can really do.’

no_2._51c55gzwgblSymphony No 2

‘This is a fabulous, Classical symphony and, I think, a brilliant, virtuoso piece – the kind of piece he had to write in order to move on. The use of development is quite extraordinary.’

Continuing our series of great Beethoven conductors introducing the nine symphonies is David Zinman on the Second…

The Second Symphony sets up some concepts the composer had already begun to think about in his early string quartets, in particular the Op 18 ones. His chamber music at this time – the piano sonatas, for instance, as well as the string quartets – was much more advanced than his symphonic work. He was breaking new ground all the time. This work is not as revolutionary as the Third Symphony, but it is nonetheless very far away from No 1. One of the strongest features is his repeated use of the rhythmic motif that opens the piece: ‘da daaaaah’ – a kind of Hauptstimme in rhythmic terms, an idea that makes pronounced reappearances in every movement of the work. This obsessive Doppelschlag idea runs through the piece and there are also a number of subito pianos and other sharp effects that must have been unfamiliar at the time. That doesn’t put it into the same class as the Eroica, which is much more about the composer’s inner life than this piece is.

‘This is a fabulous, Classical symphony and, I think, a brilliant, virtuoso piece’

The long first movement reminds us that composers are dealing more with compositional ideas – the sheer essentials of constructing a piece – than with emotional ones. This is a fabulous, Classical symphony and, I think, a brilliant, virtuoso piece – the kind of piece he had to write in order to move on. The use of development is quite extraordinary. It’s not a humorous piece in the Haydn sense, but there are certainly humorous effects, for instance in the Scherzo, which is a very unusual movement in all kinds of ways. It is a long piece, with a particularly long first movement, in which the use of the development section is very radical indeed.

This was one of the first Beethoven symphonies in which I tried to make the composer’s metronome markings work. The Allegro con brio in the first movement is marked 100, and people told me it wasn’t possible to play it that fast, but of course it is. The key is to think of the general pulse. If you get the big pulse right, the little pulses take care of themselves and the details really will come out. It’s all in the phrasing and the shaping. If you approach Beethoven’s metronome markings on the basis that he wrote in four, you will be running into a wall. It’s the tempos that make the piece work, that give it its character. The same is true of the quartets. If you change the tempos, you fundamentally change the character of the piece. If you respect Beethoven’s tempos, within a shade or two, you will capture the character of the piece correctly and its structure will also make sense.

I also like to use natural horns. There’s a wonderful section in this first movement where the horns have their own tune, sometimes open, sometimes closed. The effect is so striking, if you get it right.

The slow movement is really not slow at all. It’s more of a Haydnesque romanza. With its metronome marking of quaver at 92, this movement was played too slowly for years. It can be played almost as a minuet, but, once again, characteristically of Beethoven, it isn’t really a ‘slow’ movement, despite its Larghetto marking. The Scherzo, with a marking of 100, sounds perfect when played as Beethoven intended. The finale is certainly very fast (152 minims to the minute) and, again, people told me it would be technically impossible to honour the markings.

‘As he grew older, Beethoven became angrier and more curmudgeonly, more absorbed with his inner life’

In both the first movement and the final movement, Beethoven saves his energy for the coda. The coda of the opening movement should be one of the most brilliant and energetic endings possible. The finale ends with virtuosic brilliance too. All the ammunition is stored up for this. As he grew older, Beethoven became angrier and more curmudgeonly, more absorbed with his inner life. This piece was completed at around the time he first admitted he was losing his hearing and he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, but I still feel it’s strongly connected to his early works. Music did change completely with his Third Symphony, which opened up a new world, but this piece represents a bridge, an essential, indispensable bridge between the two worlds. It is a beginning but also a continuation.

In a sense, each Beethoven symphony is a partial antidote to the one that went before. I think the Second is more connected to the Fourth and, in turn, to the Sixth and the Eighth. A similar connection exists between the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies. The Second Symphony was criticised in Beethoven’s lifetime – perhaps its temper was a little bit too obsessive for the tastes of the time. This style of composition influenced Schumann far more than it did Schubert, and it was part and parcel of what Beethoven was and is. This is a far angrier work than the First Symphony had been. Each of his symphonies was a world in itself, but they should not be regarded in isolation: they are always related to the other stuff he was writing at the same time.

no_3._51uruimtmilSymphony No 3

‘Although you can already hear the special Beethoven spirit in the Second, it was the Third that brought a revolutionary change. It marked a complete change of direction for the symphonic repertoire.’

Continuing our series of great conductors introducing Beethoven’s symphonies is Mariss Jansons on Symphony No 3, ‘Eroica’

Of course it is difficult to say which Beethoven symphony is my most beloved – all these symphonies are wonderful. But if you really press me to choose one, it would be the Third Symphony that sits even deeper than the others in my world. It must have been part of my conducting life for at least 40 years. I didn’t want to mark my interpretation in some special or historic way when I recorded the piece in Tokyo in 2012, but all the same it was a time when I was very much connected to Beethoven.

I believe the Third Symphony represented a big step forward for Classical music, because in the First and Second Symphonies, yes, you feel it’s Beethoven, but it’s very connected to Mozart, to Haydn. Although you can already hear what I would call the special Beethoven spirit in the Second Symphony, it was the Third Symphony that brought a revolutionary change. It marked a complete change of direction for the symphonic repertoire. I refer both to the harmonic structure and to the design of the symphony. This was a revolution in every conceivable way. You could argue that a similar scherzo had already been written in the Second Symphony, but it was in this piece that Beethoven had a very monumental idea.

The second movement contains incredibly profound music, and the variations in the last movement represent a big step forward. The second movement is a funeral march, but above all it’s a march. In this march, it is essential to recognise that each beat is a crotchet, not a quaver, because if you treat each quaver as an individual step, as one beat, then you will end up taking the music incredibly slowly. You must also be careful to avoid making the music sound agitated, so you must take the music in two.

‘Sometimes composers use a mass of percussion and wind, but the content and atmosphere they produce are not as strong as this’

Perhaps this symphony is a little bit ‘Romantic’, say, in the third movement, because the horns give a kind of representation of nature, but I would not say it is the first Romantic symphony as such. For me it is Classical, but with a very, very big idea at its heart and enormous musical language. For example, in his finale, when Beethoven expresses the big culmination of the second theme using just three horns, double winds and strings, it feels as though he embraces the whole world, Mahler-style. It is unbelievable how this man could, with such limited means, achieve this spirit. It is the same orchestra that he’d used before, but with just one extra horn. What genius to introduce and fulfil big, profound and cosmic musical ideas with such limited resources. Sometimes composers use a mass of percussion and wind, but the content and atmosphere they produce are not as strong as this.

There are accidentals and chromatic notes scattered within the piece, but the first movement is clearly in E flat major and the second is in C minor, which is closely related. The third movement is again in E flat, so there is no very dramatic change in tonality. In this respect, the piece is very, very Classical. Even between his First and Second Symphonies, there is a great difference. The symphony that followed this one, No 4 in B flat, is perhaps not so dramatic a symphony, but in each work he said something new in musical terms.

Even by the time of his Second Symphony, Beethoven had written his Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he stated that he did not wish to live any more. I have read it many times and always there are tears in my eyes, yet at the same time he wrote such unbelievable music, full of light and optimism and even humour. He was a very highly developed spirit, a man above our world, with enormous spiritual energy. Of course, he wanted to dedicate the piece to a great man, so perhaps this greatness of feeling and ideas in the musical language was there because he wanted to express great, revolutionary ideas.

Although this is pure music, it does go beyond the traditional limits that were very common in Beethoven’s time. It goes much wider. It is a gigantic piece. It is one of the greatest symphonies any human being has created. The music expresses so much that there are not enough words to express what I feel when I conduct this symphony. It is so great and so profound.

We can assume and imagine, but we can never know for sure, how this symphony was performed in the composer’s time, because the contemporary accounts and markings from those who were with Beethoven are very difficult to judge. As far as the metronome markings are concerned, some continue to say that they are right and others say that they’re not. We know from the letters to Czerny that when Beethoven himself conducted, it was not easy to maintain ensemble because he introduced very many rubatos. So too many conflicting instructions and pieces of evidence make it hard to come up with any definitive guide to performance. All I can say is that we try to follow what is written in the score, but I don’t like dogmatic decisions based on assumptions about the past. In performance, even though this music goes through my inner world, it’s not a question of what I want. Together, we just want to express the wishes and the music of the composer. Where is the truth?

no_4._31nyc8jwhxlSymphony No 4

‘This is a great piece of music, and even if it had not been written by Beethoven as part of the cycle, I am sure it would have its place in programmes – without help from the other symphonies.’

Continuing our series of great conductors introducing the Beethoven symphonies, Osmo Vänskä presents the Fourth Symphony

Of all the nine symphonies, for me it is No 4 that is looking back a little bit to the earlier, Viennese, Classical style. It is more connected to the first two symphonies than to the Eroica. That’s how it speaks to me. I have always thought that the Eroica is the first big step to the Romantic era, the Fourth comes back – and we know what happened with the Fifth! I have often heard people talk of the ‘big’ Beethoven symphonies – Nos 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9; and the ‘smaller’ ones – Nos 1, 2, 4 and 8. That’s all about form. If we are speaking just about music, then I believe these so-called smaller symphonies have the same amount of music in their symphonic bodies. Perhaps they are more like chamber music, but they therefore serve as a reminder of what a great composer of chamber music Beethoven was: less is not less.

What the conductor has to decide with all the symphonies is what the tempo should be. It is so often said that Beethoven’s markings are impossibly fast and something was wrong with his metronome, but when I have performed and recorded the symphonies I have used my own personal system, based on no great idea or theory. First I try to take the tempos as they are written. If I cannot make them work, I take them down by 10 per cent. In most cases, this has been working very well for me. Sometimes the metronome markings do seem to me to be too fast: there is time to play the notes, but not to breathe. In my recording of this symphony, the first three movements are perhaps 10 per cent behind the metronome markings, but the finale is very close to Beethoven’s marking.

The structure of Symphony No 4 makes it closer to the Classical style. The orchestra is down to one flute and there is a slow introduction to the opening movement, though not to the final movement. This is a great piece of music, and even if it had not been written by Beethoven as part of such a cycle of works, I am sure it would have its place in programmes – without help from the other symphonies.

When my recording was made in May 2004, I had already conducted the new Del Mar/Bärenreiter editions with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The scores had not been printed yet, but we obtained a list of the changes; it was a great thing for us – an opportunity to learn something that was more original. Then we started to do the recordings, which I think may have been the first to use these new editions.

‘The phrases should always be connected to rhythm and dance, even in the slower movements’

When BIS asked me to do some recordings, my first reaction was to ask why? This cycle had been recorded so much, so why did we need more? The question mark was huge and I discussed the matter with many friends. How could we do a cycle that would have its own place among so many others? My only interest was in going back to the score, ignoring all those previous efforts and seeking to be as true to the composer as possible. Fortunately, we had a good producer with a good ear, which is a great experience for everybody and a masterclass in itself. Possibly the most important feature of these recordings, for me, was the fact that the orchestra was performing better after every CD. It was a great school for ensemble-working and for sound; and a reminder that the way to play this music is to have more dancing. The phrases should always be connected to rhythm and dance, even in the slower movements.

The Beethoven symphonies are like nine children in the same family. All are individual and all are great, but with different characters. Some get more attention than others, but they still come from the same family. In my personal history there have not been so many performances of Symphony No 4. I have conducted it perhaps 20 times, but orchestras are always asking to do Nos 3, 5, 6 and 7. The music is great, however; especially in the last movement, where the wind solos are always a pleasure to listen to, in particular those for clarinet. The dynamic range is huge. This is very much connected to old music too, with the brass, the timpani and the horns doing really powerful things, but always in short bursts only, so they don’t overdominate. I’m grateful to those of my colleagues who have contributed to our musical endeavours in moving away from the ‘Romantic’ tradition.

Although I played all these works when I was an orchestral musician, it is the score that matters to me, not those performances or earlier recordings. The score is more important to me than any ‘tradition’. Toscanini wanted a very dramatic effect, not just beauty; and he never compromised anything. I like that idea very much. Once, in Minneapolis and also at Carnegie Hall, I paired Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with Sibelius’s Fifth; and then Sibelius’s Fourth with Beethoven’s Fifth. This was not the decision of any musicologist – it was real life, practical life, where that combination worked very well and the Fourths were just the shy guys from two great families.

no_5._71oswz4eytl._sl1500_Symphony No 5

‘The challenge is to make sure that those three notes sound off the beat, so there’s quite a technique involved in establishing the motto of the symphony.

Beethoven’s Fifth is, says the English conductor, a revolutionary symphony akin to a call to battle

You don’t get anything more iconic than this symphony, especially its opening bars; and I don’t need to elaborate on all the different interpretations assigned to those bars, whether it’s ‘Fate knocking on the door’ or the ‘V for Victory’ Morse Code signal in the Second World War. I’m not sure how helpful any of that is. What does help, however, is to know a little bit about the political views and sympathies of Beethoven at the time of its composition. He went through various permutations of left-wingery and right-wingery, but at this point in his life he was really under the spell of the French Revolution, which appealed to his imagination and his sense of frustration. He was born in Bonn but now he lived in ultra-conservative Vienna, where any political message had to be encrypted. He was a great admirer of Luigi Cherubini, a composer of Italian origin who lived in France; and the famous theme that opens this symphony is derived from Cherubini’s revolutionary Hymne du Panthéon of 1794. Its rhythms and even the melodic outline, to some extent, lurk in the background of this symphony. Chenier’s words for that piece were overtly revolutionary – ‘We swear, sword in hand, to die for the Republic and for the rights of man’ – and it was a heck of a thing for a German composer to encode, in a symphony without words. If this had come out into the open in a city as incredibly reactionary as Vienna, he would have been incarcerated, there’s no doubt about it.

The extraordinary thing is what he does with that theme, because it’s so unbelievably brief. It also starts on a cushion of a quaver rest, not on a downbeat. As a conductor, the challenge is to make sure that those three notes – the repeated notes – sound off the beat, so there’s quite a technique involved in establishing the motto of the entire symphony. The theme is all-embracing and Beethoven uses it in extraordinarily concise and compact ways. I think it helps to know the words of the original Cherubini Hymne, where the second notes carry all the emphasis. I try to get the musicians to express that with their bows and their embouchures. There is an inexorable drive to this movement, an élan terrible, a propulsive energy akin
to a call to battle.

The second movement is so unbelievably gentle and trouble-free in comparison. It has a delicious lilt to it in the melody that begins in the violas and cellos – a lissom, fragile quality which is so beautiful. It’s tricky to pull off, because you have these dotted rhythms which still have to register to the ear of the listener even though they are legato. So you need a vertical energy that bounces the rhythms away from the horizontal, combined with the legato flow of the horizontal. This movement is the perfect riposte to those who think Beethoven is all just blood and thunder. Then the movement explodes into something majestic and almost militaristic in the brass – with a rousing energy. The series of variations that follows is very rich in fantasy and sheer accomplishment in the compositional process. Then a darkness falls, as the cellos provide an echo of the first movement, and then there’s that marvellous moment when he speeds up. The più molto section near the end feels almost like a creature of some sort that is suddenly uncaged and allowed into the open air.

The third movement has no marking. It’s sui generis. Beethoven here is claiming the right to be original, to be eccentric, to break away from the rules: this is a long way away from a Haydn minuet, for example. The opening is just a preparation for this tremendously assertive triple rhythm, which starts in the horns. Then he does something really brilliant. He writes a sort of a romp as a trio section, starting in the bass-line, almost throwing the gauntlet down. It feels so rhetorical, you sense there must be a text behind it. This theme feels not abstract but ‘word-generated’, but I have never been able to find a source for it. When he returns to the principal theme after the trio, there is a squeaky-door type of sonority in the strings and the clarinet has the main theme. It’s frog-like in its witty, strange, eerie way; and serves as a preparation for one of the most astonishing passages in the whole of Beethoven.

The transition into the finale begins without a break, with an A-flat pedal and the timpani playing the median, not the tonic. It’s suppressed. The tension mounts inexorably. This is like a furnace burning up and always puts me in mind of the end of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. There is a triumphal shine and sonority – an éclat triumphal – as we go into C major. It’s one of the most exciting moments in the whole of symphonic literature. He brings in three trombones, the piccolo and the contrabassoon, so you have an association with Turkish military bands. It all feels Napoleonic in its fervour. Imperceptibly, there comes another political motto, a reference to Rouget de Lisle’s Hymne Dithyrambique, specifically the phrase ‘Chantons la liberté’. It emerges gradually in the bass-line, passing to the trombones and the bassoons, and then to the violins. Then the whole orchestra is singing a hymn to liberty. Of course, being Beethoven, he doesn’t stop there. He calls a halt to proceedings, goes back to the theme of the previous movement and does the whole thing again, this time with even more eruptive force, so you get a da capo that isn’t really a da capo. It’s epic; it’s rousing; and it’s awe-inspiring in the best sense of the term.


Symphony No 6

‘I have had the opportunity to perform full cycles of the Beethoven symphonies several times and it’s the Sixth Symphony that stands out as an exception’

For this conductor, the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony represents the individual’s liberation through nature

I have had the opportunity to perform full cycles of the Beethoven symphonies several times in the past few years and, when you look at the full group, it’s the Sixth Symphony that stands out as an exception. It is literally an excursion: someone who usually lives in a large city takes the time to go into the countryside. It makes the piece extremely difficult in many aspects. We are very fortunate that Beethoven gave titles to the movements so, for instance, we know that the third movement is about the people on the land and folklore, and therefore it should feel rustic; and the final movement is about gratitude after a storm. These clear indications are unlike any other Beethoven symphony. How good it would be to have similar insights into, say, the Fourth, Fifth or Seventh Symphonies! Another, even more major aspect that makes the piece so special is that it is a relief from everyday life, an expedition and escape into the countryside or the woods.

The first movement sets the style, with continuous repetition of a very pleasant motif. The second movement then contains complicated repetitions of something very similar, which is most unusual from a compositional point of view. Beethoven started this repetitive technique in the Third and Fourth symphonies, especially in the Fourth, where he repeats the same musical material again and again, in different keys and different forms, but it’s still a repetition. Many people believe it was the American minimalists who invented this, but no, it was Beethoven. In this symphony it receives a meaning for the first time, especially in those first two movements. We learn that it is not man but nature that creates this ostinato. When I perform it, I always feel that, were we to do it in a normal, conventional manner, we might miss something. It feels to me that the composer is saying, ‘Let’s do something else this time!’

Both in live performances and in my recording of the work, I have separated up the wind players, sprinkling them amongst the strings. The idea originally came from the second movement, but I have used it throughout the piece. This way, the wind soloists are all surrounded by Beethoven’s nature music but, most importantly, they are able to listen to their colleagues in the string sections, and hear their phrasing constantly. Both symbolically and practically, this adds to the sense of a change of scene. This approach sometimes gets criticised, for instance when we had a tree placed on the platform of the Royal Festival Hall and arranged the players around it. I did this to help underline the point that this is not an ordinary symphony. Most of Beethoven’s works have the dual theme of tragedy and jubilation; and he was, of course, very preoccupied with ideas of freedom and liberation. The end of the Fifth Symphony is akin to the end of Fidelio, but this is a visionary, green symphony. It represents a different type of liberation, from beginning to end: a liberation by and through nature. The final happiness is a bit pantheistic, influenced perhaps by the philosophy of Spinoza.

Beethoven stepped out of the Classical tradition between his Second and Third Symphonies, but there is a relationship here with the ‘pastoral’ musical forms of the 18th century, a century that was just coming to its close. The Ninth Symphony is about the continuation of the French Revolution; and Beethoven found a way of putting into music what the crowd felt, the sense of freedom that came with storming the Bastille and throwing away the aristocracy and the feudal system. The aspiration of being freed involved overturning the social order. That was freedom in the city; this symphony is about the very different freedom we can experience by leaving the city altogether. The Ninth Symphony literally did change the world by being so grand, so jubilant: it steps out of the boundaries of music. In the Sixth Symphony Beethoven explores a simpler kind of freedom, one involving total harmonic happiness. The Pastoral Symphony happens inside us. There is an internal, mental exercise at work, as the simplicity of nature creates strong feelings – and Beethoven was interested in those feelings that nature awakens in us.

At the beginning of the finale, as the shepherds express their ‘happy and grateful feelings after the storm’, the song begins with a solo clarinet and then a solo horn, creating a sense of individuality. I like to continue that when the first violin line initially appears with the famous melody of the finale, with the concertmaster creating a kind of ‘naked melody’, with the remainder of the strings joining in gradually. If the full group plays from the first note, of course that can work too, but sometimes one person can say more than a group of people can. Whereas Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is about the liberation of the crowd, the Pastoral is more about the liberation of the individual. And this is a liberation that comes about through the strength and beauty of nature.

no_7._41o7eiza1slSymphony No 7

‘Beethoven is not programmatic, but his music is always distinctive and recognisable; and always, somehow, he succeeds in examining some different part of us and our nature.’

San Francisco’s conductor on the symphony that is defined by its extraordinary rhythmic vitality

With all these symphonies, it’s worth reflecting upon the occasion for which they were written, in this instance, one of Beethoven’s ‘academies’. Beethoven’s previous attempt at an academy-style grand premiere – comprising the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies – was not a great success, but he was a clever promoter of his own music and preferred the idea of a public concert to an evening in an aristocratic ballroom. He wanted to give the public something amazing and knew how to create a furore. In the same programme as the Seventh, Wellington’s Victory gave the composer his most successful premiere, but the symphony, too, caused quite a stir and its second movement had to be encored.

The Seventh has more up-tempo music in it than any other Beethoven symphony, written for the smallest orchestra he had used in a while, without trombones and with only two horns. The opening positively proclaims that an extraordinary amount of this work will be in the key of A major. There is a certain tread, an underlying, procession-like pulse, to this first movement. It’s almost minimalist. The transition – the opening tune of the Allegro – is presented quietly, as a flute solo, with a rather bucolic accompaniment and a vaguely equestrian feel. It is also quite obsessive about one particular rhythmic motif: a dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver, followed by a quaver. The themes of the exposition are elided one over another; the normal stages of a sonata are not covered. In other Beethoven symphonies, the structure is usually quite clear: the first theme ends here and the second begins here. There might be a little transition, but it’s obvious where one theme ends and the next begins. Here, the themes are overlapped. In the development section, a slicing and dicing occurs with tiny bits of the main motif, in shifting keys and extremely different orchestrations. Ultimately, though, it all centres on a single harmonic place – using a ‘pedal point’, as Bachand especially Handel both do so effectively. Having wrapped you up completely in the excitement of all this, he comes to a sudden halt. There’s an oboe solo, then we make our way to the recapitulation. There is a droning, chromatic bass-line, with a little tune superimposed by the fiddles, with a motif of a perfect fourth, a charming arabesque. It starts gently, becomes more capricious and then, as the listeners drop their guard, it turns quite obsessional.

‘I think this movement appeals because it is simple and expressive, like a perfect scene in an opera’

In the second movement we shift into A minor. The winds proclaim the harmony with a mono-motivic quality that makes a profound impression. This is like a march and the controversy is whether it should be played Allegretto or Andante con moto. It is still quite common for this to be played at a rather monumental tempo, with a strong accent at the beginning of each bar, but it’s quite clear from source materials that this is not what the composer intended. An early copyist made this mistake and we can see for ourselves Beethoven’s furious reaction. There are three very specific types of articulation set out, which describe a two-bar phrase. This music draws attention by means of understatement, including the use of echo phrases. We head through the string section, there is an almost organ-like, radiant moment in the winds, then a little fugue on the main motif. It ends just as it began. Things don’t get much more simple or perfect. I think this movement appeals because it is simple and expressive, like a perfect scene in an opera.

In the Scherzo in F major there is a slight element of hilarity, a quality of laughter. Chains of falling scales jump back, even higher; and all kinds of little games are being played. This movement is designed to confound you and surprise you, in a very nice way. The trio is a kind of pastoral drinking song. Everything in this symphony is very orchestral, but this is the most self-consciously virtuoso movement. The big decision is how to treat all the ‘hairpins’.

The finale has the highest energy of all. Beethoven uses a sforzando marking, almost mimicking a certain style of peasant fiddle playing. The main theme has obsessional repeats. It’s march-like, military and up-tempo. Two elements are interchanged – orchestration and some extreme excursions of key, even into C major. There is a big contrast between the extreme treble and the extreme bass. Even more than the others, this movement is designed, I believe, to demonstrate sheer physicality. The development section has fugitive keys and moments of delicacy, but then we return to the big fiddle tune, punctuated by extremely loud, periodic trumpet and drums fanfares. Again, there is obsessive, chromatic droning in the bass-line, as the violins and violas exchange, at a very extreme dynamic, the fragments of the fiddle tune. The overwhelming vitality draws an obvious parallel with the end of the opening movement. In his improvising days, which were pretty much over by this time, Beethoven would sometimes stupefy people, playing for an hour or more with incredible energy. I think, here, he is using the orchestra to create the same effect. Beethoven is not programmatic, but his music is always distinctive and recognisable; and always, somehow, he succeeds in examining some different part of us and our nature.

no_8._51frayyzcalSymphony No 8

‘It is completely wrong to try and play this piece in the style of the Ninth. I have realised that to apologise in any way for the sudden change of character and quirkiness of this piece would diminish it.’

This maestro believes the Eighth still has the power to confuse musicians and academics alike

It’s a puzzle, isn’t it, this symphony? When we think of Beethoven, we always think of music with great depth and profundity. So is it really possible that, after his Seventh Symphony and before his Ninth – those great, epic works – such a genius could write a ‘little Classical symphony’? It looks and sounds like some kind of a joke and that’s exactly what I think it is. It’s the joke of a great genius. It is Beethoven, after all, but you cannot treat it like those other works, because he is taking an unexpected step in an unexpected direction. It is completely wrong to try and play this piece in the style of the Ninth. I have realised that to apologise in any way for the sudden change of character and quirkiness of this piece would diminish it. There are still so-called Beethoven ‘specialists’ who are trying to find profound, inner meaning in this symphony. So far as the tonality of the piece is concerned, it shares a key signature with the Pastoral Symphony, but, if there is any profound connection between the two works, I cannot find it.

In symphonies such as the Seventh and the Ninth, there can be a certain leeway to hide behind certain Romantic and expansive gestures. Not so with the Eighth. This is a wonderful little gem, but you do encounter in it technical and musical challenges. It’s not a piece that works unless everyone is convinced about the common interpretation. The direction must be agreed. You need an orchestra that possesses extreme virtuosity, which is also convinced about a shared approach and interpretation. Otherwise the piece will appear clumsy, out of breath, endlessly speedy – or just messy. It’s a great challenge and, in my relationship with this symphony, I feel my journey is never complete. Along with Schumann’s Symphony No 3, I find this symphony to be one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire to start. I always ask the musicians to be ready to play when I am still backstage, so we can begin the instant I arrive on the podium. It’s a practical thing. It’s essential to capture as much energy as possible in that first phrase.

‘He was deaf, but he was not stupid. He knew how to work a metronome’

If you study Beethoven’s metronome markings, you learn to treat ‘adagio’ in a less literal, more conceptual, context. In fact, the key to this piece as a whole has been to put trust in Beethoven’s metronome markings. He was deaf, but he was not stupid. He knew how to work a metronome. There are so many interesting and important details and it requires remarkable agility to capture the speed, the nuances and the colours. It then follows that you cannot play this piece with a large symphony orchestra. Even with a smaller group it is difficult, which is why I will conduct this work only with orchestras with whom I have an established relationship. It’s not enough for them to ‘meet me halfway’. If the musicians are unwilling – or, more likely, unable – to play it with the necessary dexterity, the piece simply won’t work. They need a chamber music attitude, and that means adequate rehearsal time is essential too. To achieve the necessary lightness and precision, a shift in mentality is needed. If you focus just on beauty and slow the piece down in the style of music of the mid-20th century, you might gain certain, beautiful moments, but you will lose the piece. This is not about making a beautiful sound, but neither is it a matter of achieving cold precision.

I discovered the type of Beethoven in which I am now involved through Sir Roger Norrington, whom I regard as one of the great musical revolutionaries. None of us are in music because we want to change anything. It is simply that a lot of traditions don’t make sense. For me, the interesting and important process is not setting out to convince other people of anything: it is making the piece work for you, yourself. You must build a coherent form. I grew up in a conductor’s family; and my introduction to the symphonies of Beethoven came from recordings by Bruno Walter, Klemperer and Furtwängler. I first heard this music as incredibly Brahmsian, Romantic and beautiful. Performances by the old masters all treat the slower movements in particular with the ears and mind of someone who has already heard Wagner. There was a historic misunderstanding. The kind of slow movement we tend to expect from someone after Wagner simply didn’t exist in Beethoven’s time. If you listen to Bruckner, under the real Bruckner conductors such as Wand, Jochum or Harnoncourt, those slower movements too make more sense when they are not ritualised. When I first played a recording by Roger Norrington, at the beginning I thought there was something wrong with my machine. I was literally speechless. At first this approach seemed to me absolutely wrong, but at the same time exhilarating. Then I learned about ‘Historically Informed Performance’ and I am glad to say, we are very ‘HIP’ now!

no-9.-91qxfhhzdsl._sl1500_Symphony No 9

‘I still remember like it was yesterday the feeling almost of being guilty, to have had the courage to get close to such a piece as the Ninth Symphony’

The Italian conductor believes that, in his final symphony, Beethoven reached beyond humanity


My connection with this symphony goes back to my time at the Milan Conservatory, but I never dared to conduct such a masterpiece until 1990, when I was the Music Director at the Musicale Communale in Bologna. I started conducting Beethoven with the First Symphony when I was not even 20 years old, but I postponed the Eroica, the Fifth and the Ninth for as long as I could. The ones that gave me courage to start were the Fourth and the Eighth. I still remember like it was yesterday the feeling almost of being guilty, to have had the courage to get close to such a piece as the Ninth – and, at the same time, the joy of being inflamed by the power of that music. Unforgettable. Since then I have conducted the piece regularly. First with the Verdi orchestra in Turin in the late 1990s I imported the tradition (which started in Leipzig) to play the symphony at the end of every year. Now it is the Beethoven symphony I have conducted the most. Then my destiny of life brought me to Leipzig where that tradition started under Arthur Nikisch in 1918, continuing even during the war years. The Leipzig connection is strong. Schiller was living in Leipzig when he composed the text ‘An die Freude’. You can even visit a museum now and see the corner where he sat and wrote. The Gewandhaus Orchestra was the first to premiere the entire cycle. I am proud of the way in which the orchestra showed flexibility and a willingness to change gear in terms of pacing the Ninth. I have always sought to respect the aesthetics and the roots of the past, never to ignore or neglect them, but still to find a new frame of interpretation.

I could not even think to push myself into the adventure of recording the Beethoven symphonies without being familiar with Arturo Toscanini’s approach – for me, he was the first modern interpreter. If you compare him to, say, Willem Mengelberg, Toscanini is in a totally different universe. Then there is the unforgettable experience of hearing Sir John Eliot Gardiner, a confirmation of how the Toscanini tradition of the late 1920s could, in this new century, have its own independent and proper life, as a need, as a must. Gardiner proved that this change of gear was necessary and I try to follow that line, but in my own, different way. He did it with a smaller orchestra and original instruments; we did it with a larger ensemble, but with many elements in common, in terms of transparency, articulation, extreme care for the dynamic range and respect for the metronome – whose markings were considered, for perhaps a century, to be crazy.

The Ninth Symphony was the principal victim of the ‘old school’ and there certainly are markings which really do provoke discussion: I think of one in the Scherzo, one in the last movement. In the first and third movements matters are pretty clear, but, of course, you have to change radically your approach to those movements in terms of tempo. It must all make sense, within the unitary vision of the piece. The second movement has a trio, where the metronome markings really force you to think and to make your own decisions. The same is true of several spots in the finale. The liberty taken by renowned Beethoven conductors, not only in terms of tempo choice but also in transitions between moments in the finale for instance, would disguise the clarity and the rigour that Beethoven sought to impose on the conductor.

‘I see this work not just in its own right, but also as the conclusion of a major opus’

I see this work not just in its own right, but also as the conclusion of a major opus. Like with Mahler, I consider ‘Beethoven’s Nine’ as being like one huge span of time, from the beginning of the first work to the end of the last. The Ninth, being the conclusion, needed the extra element of the vocal presence, which made so much sense and somehow provoked even critics at the time, being at first too modern as an idea – one wouldn’t have associated the word sinfonia with a vocal element. If you check what followed, such as the Lobgesang of Mendelssohn or Mahler’s Second Symphony, you can see the effect of what Beethoven provoked. He prompted the births of new masterpieces. Given the stage he had reached in his life, I believe he felt that this should be something beyond human beings. He certainly achieved that, pushing the poor sopranos with the mad tessitura in the finale, which is so high and exposed. That is what makes this piece, every time you perform it, transformative for the musician and for the public.

The D minor opening movement is probably the most tragic opening movement of a symphony. I have a feeling that this represents another long journey from darkness to light. I always finish that first movement feeling completely shaken up by the tragedy and drama. You need a few moments to establish inner serenity before you switch to the joy of theScherzo. Such a contrast, one against the other, is almost Mahlerian. Obviously the greatness of the cantabile melody of the third movement is one of the truest examples of the so-called ‘endless melody’, along with the slow movement of the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn and in the Second Symphony of Schumann, as well as in symphonies byBrahms and Mahler. This music does not search for an end; it searches instead for an endless development. It is like a labyrinth that never finishes.

In a way I cannot wait to start the fourth movement. I have always approached that attacca, but the timpani have to change their tuning very quickly between those movements, so the agreement is that, before I give the upbeat, which is so dramatic with that ‘out of tune armoury’, the timpanist has to give me a nod, as quickly as possible, to let me know he’s ready. I don’t think it is right to give silence after the slow movement. There are conductors who wait, but really I cannot. That meditative, spiritual mood needs to be broken up. It is so long and so highly developed, with its reprise and variations, that I do need to break through. I prefer the listener to think back to it once the entire symphony is over. Beethoven wants to move on – ‘Nicht diese Töne!’. You feel the pain and violence, almost physically, of that opening chord. It’s a very crude dissonance. Then the celli and basses start their long monologue. It’s like the Second Symphony of Mahler. Both rationally and irrationally, they take charge.

When Mendelssohn was Gewandhaus Kapellmeister, he conducted the Beethoven symphonies year after year. Robert Schumann, a great friend of Mendelssohn, was a leading music critic in the city at the time. The critics generally raved about Mendelssohn as a conductor, but Schumann in particular was always critical of his choice of tempos in Beethoven, criticising him for being too fast. This criticism, to my mind, is the proof that Mendelssohn was one of the earliest advocates of what we now think of as both ‘modern’ and ‘authentic’ performing practice in these works.

Het leven & de muziek van Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) op Compact Discs, DVD's en Boeken

%d bloggers liken dit: