Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hit and Miss – Beethoven: The Symphonies w/ the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Franz Bruggen, conductor

A certain rite of passage is writ large for conductor and orchestra when it comes to Beethoven’s nine symphonies, their commercial interests notwithstanding. What was once a serious musical statement has now become a novelty. Since the advent of recorded sound, there are dozens of Beethoven Symphonic cycles, including such prestigious conductors like Herbert von Karajan (4 versions), Bernard Haitink (3) Arturo Toscanini (2) and more recently Emmanuel Krivine's in 2011, the latter on so-called, period instruments dating back to Beethoven’s era.

For Frans Bruggen (b. 1934) the Dutch-born musician and conductor, whose recent set was released last year on the Glossa label, he had the desire to re-create the sound of Beethoven’s music. When he formed the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century in 1981, he sought to reproduce something close to the original instrumentation. As listed in the All Music Guide, “All its members play instruments either built during the Baroque or Classical eras, or on modern-built instruments that are replicas of authentic period instruments.” The orchestra was originally set up to perform a few times a year due to the international make-up of its members.

In the early 80s, the period instrument concept was the new wave of classical music. Suddenly it wasn’t just a modern orchestra playing Baroque and 18th Century music; it was an orchestra looking to re-create sounds that once filled the concert halls of Vienna, London and Berlin, 200 years ago. Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century made a safe start with their early recordings on the Philips label, featuring compositions by Mozart, Haydn and selected works by J.S. Bach. Meanwhile, similar period-instrument ensembles released several Beethoven symphonic cycles: Monica Hugget and the Hanover Band (1982), Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (1986) and John Eliot Gardner and the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra (1993).

Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century first released the complete symphonies of Beethoven in 1994. In spite of the competition, it made the musical world wake up and listen anew. Bruggen’s careful research into the instrument tuning; tempo markings and the composer’s intentions were critically acclaimed. Suddenly the battle between the modern orchestras and period orchestras was on. It wasn’t so much about the differences in orchestration, as it was the shapes, colours and emotional content of Beethoven’s music that was revealed to listeners. I’m happy to report that this new complete collection of Beethoven’s Symphonies has quite possibly surpassed Bruggen’s recording 18 years earlier, and timing has a lot to do with it.

In 2011, in a dedicated effort to present the Beethoven Symphonies as a whole, the orchestra was booked in Rotterdam to perform a Beethoven cycle like no other: all nine symphonies in ten days from October 6 to 16th. Individually the symphonies aren’t that long, except for SY 9, which is usually over an hour. So it is possible to play 2 per night depending on the length of the program, which is exactly what they did. This new collection, released last October, captured those performances and for the most part, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century delivers the goods. But with every Beethoven "cycle" some hit and some miss.

I tried to recreate that Rotterdam experience by listening to the entire symphonies within 2 weeks. These are my impressions in numerical order:

SY 1

Beethoven’s first symphony is my personal favourite. Its secretive opening with hints of Haydn and the traditional classical period always grab me. And while that auspicious beginning works for a while here, the tempo is just too slow for the work to ever get off the ground. The performance is just too leaden for me.

SY 2

This is a bold performance right from the start. As Beethoven's ideas become more forthright and direct, SY 2 best exemplifies, to my ear, his ultimate direction to the Ninth. I love Bruggen's tempo in the first movement because it captures the composer's direct, musical intention. Even with the stops, it succeeds very nicely in spite of some articulation issues between the violins and cellos. The second movement fairs much better for the orchestra at a tempo marked Larghetto (broadly). It's such a straightforward symphony: motifs easily and quickly established with a degree of variation. So Bruggen conducts it that way creating an accessible work with few embellishments. It's an excellent performance.

conductor Frans Bruggen
SY 3

In the first movement of SY 3, (Eroica) the slower tempo actually works against the music and motion of the piece. The first movement of SY 3, running at 19 minutes, is marked allegro con brio [fast tempo with spirit], but it sounds too heavy and almost collapses under the weight of the beat. In other words, it's too slow and I admit to becoming impatient all through it. The rest of the performance is better, but inconsistent. Beethoven wasn't shy about his work. He knew it required the listener to pay attention and to be patient with the variations in harmony and the musical surprises that lay ahead. Unfortunately, like the first symphony, the weighty performance of SY 3 under Bruggen dulls the senses rather than awakening them.

SY 4

A much more articulated performance, Bruggen settles for a familiar tempo as performed by larger, modern orchestras. But the dynamics are much richer with this smaller orchestra, especially in the first movement. Bruggen risks being too broad, but it works extremely well nonetheless. It's a crisp performance from start to finish.

Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century

SY 5

The Symphony 5 lacks the impact of a larger ensemble but its empathetic performance has more dynamic range than a larger orchestra could handle. In other words, while a larger band might have the numbers to produce a bigger, wider sound, it suffers from fewer colours compared to the 1963 version (Berlin Philharmonic) under Herbert von Karajan for instance. Bruggen's orchestra is smaller (56 musicians) so the strings sound lighter in the first movement but the tempo is good and the orchestra plays well in the quieter passages. By the time we get to the 2nd movement, we're drawn into the subtlety of the work. It's so carefully performed that you notice the sweeter textures of Beethoven's ideas. By the time you get to the triumphant final movement you get the sense that the orchestra is being reined in by the conductor before it gets away from him. But Bruggen seems to let the orchestra stretch by the final few bars like a long-distance runner breaking for the finish line with 100 meters to go. It's not the best performance of this collection, but considering the nature of the cycle, the Bruggen approach with fewer repeats and an attention to details, works very well.

Bruggen conducts

SY 6

The Pastoral always sounds light and airy in every interpretation I've heard, this version is no exception. After all it was Beethoven's intention to capture the great outdoors in this work. What strikes me with this recording is the musical sophistication of the work. Since too many instruments in any one section bind a larger orchestra, the music is allowed to breathe. I heard a more distinct orchestration featuring woodwinds and flutes in this recording than I would with a larger orchestra, microphone placement notwithstanding. It's a joy to hear the clarinet, piccolo and oboe state their voices amongst the strings cascading gently from one moment to the next. It's an exquisite performance in spite of the slower tempo of the second movement. But like the other symphonies, the orchestra sounds fully committed to Bruggen's design.

SY 7

Taken at a slower tempo, Symphony 7 truly works in favour of the musicians. Its firm yet delicate motifs are perfectly suited to the pace and delivery of the notes. The orchestra sounds especially good here, carefully moving through the music with grace, precision and passion. The woodwinds sound rounded and the strings haven't the rough sound some orchestras particularly in North America seem to prefer. The crescendi builds slowly and carefully under Bruggen's hand as only a conductor so intimately involved in the score could lead us.

Symphony 7 is the strongest, best sounding work in the collection as a result of Bruggen's attention to detail. It's a beautiful mix of earth and sky, dark and light cascading over the ears in easy fashion.

SY 8

This performance is completely different from most I've heard in the past. It has more dynamic characteristics that draw you into the music. The orchestra seems to play with a deeper concentration by finishing phrases quickly and lightly. Consequently you get a more textural response from the strings and an earthier performance overall. There's nothing dainty about this performance: it's rough, rugged and full of heart even at the expense of a less defined flute / woodwind section in the first movement. By the 4th movement though, the edgy-ness of the orchestra softens considerably, but not due to fatigue. Clearly Bruggen wants to contrast the last movement with the first in this short Symphony by Beethoven. He succeeds but the orchestra sounds unsure of itself at times.

SY 9

Intricate in its construction, adorned by its triumphant final chorus, Symphony 9 is played with great earnestness and beauty. Running at just over an hour, Bruggen reduces the repeats and brings us a performance with great humanity. His tempos work perfectly here and as a result the orchestra responds with a clear and focused tone. The grace of the 3rd movement leading into the finale draws you in with the spiritual assurance that all will be well today and in the afterlife. Alas the sound seems less defined here as the tympani battle it out with the brass section, losing out to the cellos and first violins. Nevertheless, I can't get over how well tuned this orchestra is; nary a sour note in the group especially piccolo which has a tendency to be sharp in most of the versions I've heard.

But this orchestra is different. Everything about their sound is clear, the choir and soloists seem as united in their delivery as the orchestra. It's an earthy performance on many levels: Beethoven's humanity coming to life. The singers sound endearing, not over-powering their parts fully supported by the choir, Laurens Collegium & Laurens Cantorij, Rotterdam. It's a marvelous, economical performance from start to finish. This is music to be “experienced” not just “heard” and Bruggen’s intentions often succeed. Consequently, one gets over the novelty of the instrumentation by enjoying the unfiltered quality of the music itself.

While not perfect, I highly recommend this Beethoven cycle because of its clarity of purpose and its remarkable sound. The orchestra’s 56 members play beautifully at times: unified and dignified beyond compare. This is not an “over-rehearsed” band going through the motions to please a paying customer. Bruggen and his players are trying to capture the human essence of Beethoven and his times and they achieve it majestically.

- John Corcelli is a music critic and musician with the Festival Winds Orchestra in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. I had been trying to decide between purchasing the 1994 and the 2011 Bruggen/Beethoven Symphony recordings. You say "I’m happy to report that this new complete collection of Beethoven’s Symphonies has quite possibly surpassed Bruggen’s recording 18 years earlier, and timing has a lot to do with it." Although I find your review well-writen, inciteful and useful, you don't make clear what you mean about "timing". Anyway, I'm optng for purchasing Bruggen's second go-around with these works.