Frans Brüggen has a different concept of Beethoven to Sawallisch, not least in the number of strings needed. Some players had an unexpected night off. While one imagines that Sawallisch would have required the full band, Brüggen did with just five double basses (three in the concerto) with the rest of the strings in proportion. This though included a ratio of 12:10 for the antiphonal first and second violins, which was to the detriment of the latter: with the seconds instruments facing to the choir seats, and being fewer in number, the exchanges between these sections at the end of the symphony went for nothing.
Otherwise, after a surprisingly spacious slow introduction, one that Klemperer would have been in sympathy with (although Brüggen didnt empathise with his monumentality), the rest of the symphony was up to the speed that one associates with a musician who is historically aware. Yet, Brüggen never forced or pressured the music; it found its own buoyancy and one could fully understand Wagners comment that Beethoven 7 is the apotheosis of the dance. With the Philharmonias chameleon-like ability to adapt, and its sure-footed sense of ensemble, Brüggens self-effacing podium manner, which consists of but a few hand gestures, found the orchestra responding with commitment and exactness.
While one might have anticipated Brüggens end results, there were quite a few surprises along the way, the slow introduction being one, the time taken with the Allegretto (9 minutes) being another. The unrushed Scherzo was under the Presto marking and allowed a slightly slower Trio to be integrated without ever sounding rhetorical. The Finale was propulsive yet retained the attractive lightness of touch that had been a notable feature throughout this engrossing performance. The jury remains out on the extra timpani notes that Andrew Smith provided for the lead-back bars for the last movements exposition repeat. A new part found in an attic?
Other musings concern the authentic convention of non-vibrato strings that can sound like a donkey braying; there was a whole zoo of them at one point of recitative exchanges in the symphonys Finale. While preferable to the seal-imitating coughs that punctuated the evening, one does wonder if the orchestras of Beethovens time would have been so punctilious or so ensemble-minded on these expressive devices. Equally so on bulging notes, on single-note crescendos, the sort that open Coriolan and which here swapped drama for something unconvincingly effete. Although the pallor of non-vibrato strings can be attractively austere, especially at moments of quietude, is this what Beethoven intended?
The Triple Concerto is rather maligned. Not great Beethoven but a pleasing confection of tunes, and rather more than that in the interlude that is the slow movement. The orchestra tends not to get much of a look-in, and it seemed even-more a backdrop here, although the ear alerted to several instances of woodwind commentary that tend to go for nothing. Here was a seeming non-meeting of minds damped-down orchestra and modern piano trio, both solo string players heavy on vibrato that actually worked pretty well. Zimmermann was efficient and slightly penetrating in tone, Haefliger was breezy and tactful (and scored a point by taking Beethovens pedal markings seriously in the final bars), and Schiff, his instrument takes the limelight, made up in commitment what he sometimes lacked in intonation his musicianship shone through.
While Sawallisch was greatly missed, Brüggens non-didactic but very specific response to the music made for engrossing listening a fresh and lively take on very familiar music.
- Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Sir Charles Mackerras conduct the Philharmonias Beethoven programmes on December 5 and 8 (the latter at 3 p.m.), with Murray Perahia the soloist in both