Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Beethoven Symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1990 (Teldec/Warner Classics) – mostly very fine, generally tough, but just occasionally below the high ideals he set himself. This Sony issue, featuring the iconic, path-breaking, period-instrument band he co-founded with his wife Alice in 1953, was intended to have seen the start of another cycle. Harnoncourt’s retirement last December and his death this March make this a singular release.
Virtually identical in timing to the COE version, the Concentus Musicus Fourth – gentler, wiser, stronger than previously – gels the best. Underrated thought it still is, this has always been the most perfect of works, a classically taut, cyclically referenced, rhythmically driven design showing that “less could be as much, perhaps more”, an organic unity impressing “for its feeling of godlike play among delicately poised forces” (Lewis Lockwood).
Harnoncourt forges an account oscillating between the mortal and the spiritual, steering us on a journey from Creation darkness and Chaos to blazing Light. When those sunrise dominants and tonics ring out fortissimo, warning and silencing the malignant G-flat sprites that dart among the pages, it is an intoxicating, cathartic experience. This is a reading that thinks in long sounds, long lines and holistic blends. The quasi-tenuto/portamento realisation of the first movement's bassoon staccatos at bar 108 et al – contrary to how the passage is usually articulated (the short attack of Norrington, Dausgaard and Herreweghe, for three, could not be more opposite) – is an obvious illustration. Another is the trumpet-and-drum alliance of the Adagio, which opts for courteous homogeneity rather than the strident battaile symbolism favoured by, say, Eschenbach (Herreweghe, too, to an extent).
Rooted in the tradition of Austrian philosophers, musicians and writers with whom Harnoncourt identified, the booklet essay, from an interview he gave in June 2015, is illuminating, challenging, penetrating, dense. Provocatively, it likes to turn things upside down, to unsettle the status quo, to make one re-consider. In going back to sources, “re-examining everything”, he reaches the conclusion that “the Fifth is arguably the one non-symphony [of the genre]. It is a symphony that starts off with no theme at all [nor even, one might add, a key: are we in C minor, in E flat major?]. What can develop from such a beginning? What can this be? Let's have no more talk of fate knocking on the door. It is clear to me that, in this symphony, it is not a question of someone beating on the door from the outside, but of a door being released from the inside.”
He takes it to be “Beethoven's only political symphony” – assemblies of sound that leave a room to go onto “a large balcony” and become, with the added instruments of the Finale, “outdoor music”. In arriving at an interpretation, considerable emphasis is placed on the importance of pauses and punctuation, the “doctrine of caesuras” and musical rhetoric. “If every note is stressed the same, nothing emerges from it, strictly in time” is not the goal: the true jazz musician, he reminds, understands this (hence, he adds, the best reason for classical singers to “study Sinatra”).
Twenty-five years ago Harnoncourt's Fifth marched a rugged road, strong on motivic drama and elemental climax. He gave us all repeats, advocated the original ABABA structure of the third movement (neatly on-the-beat graces in the closing pizzicato), and soared to a triumphal, rapier-edged Finale.
There's plenty of vitality in the Concentus version, the same repeats, the same ABABA 'scherzo' – but I prefer it less, puzzled by decisions that wear eccentrically and end up bordering on the heavy-handed and disruptive. The diminuendo tails to the long notes of the first movement's germinal cell seem unduly contrived and energy-sapping. Likewise, the hiatuses before the exposition repeat and development come over as hesitations rather than cultured phrase-offs.
”A prayer in multiple variations”, the Andante con moto second-movement was for Harnoncourt music “expressed in a language that includes commas and caesuras and that has highs and lows”. You could say that about anything – but the result works eloquently enough, the low Cs romantically nuanced.
Spurious pauses and stretched rests, bearing no resemblance to what's in the score, take centre-stage in the third movement's cello/double-bass 'trios', creating halting edge-of-the-precipice effects that lose what theatricality/humour they might initially have through excessive replication.
The Finale, natural horns and trumpets blaring throatily, is a cavalry charge, belligerent and rough-tongued – Beethoven the “haughty beauty”. Until, that is, the closing chords when we're suddenly thrown back into pause mode, the process abruptly braking, and breaking, the rampant thrust of the moment. Stumbling at the last fence, Harnoncourt leaves us with a peroration less conclusive than quirky, the most famous cadence of the 19th-century sent dangerously off-piste.
Produced by the seasoned Martin Sauer, the recording made at concerts is warmly detailed, without being as immediate or physical as the COE set. Modest ensemble notwithstanding, Concentus Musicus Wien, Alice Harnoncourt on first desk, makes a big sound. Timpani are mellow and integrated: considering the role the composer allocated them, I'd have preferred harder sticks and more definition.