If Harnoncourt isnt traditional, he is conscious of tradition and doesnt turn his back on it. Rather, he returns to scores to see what is really written therein and doesnt follow a conducting line along which the definitiveness of the printed page may well have been eroded. In terms of the music, this was a popular concert; it was also one to stimulate, and enlarge ones interpretative parameters. With just 10 first violins, six cellos and four double basses, the COE has an ideally translucent sound for Dvoraks dances, a size and balance akin to a village band, and a superior replacement to same to complement Dvoraks sophisticated re-working of Czech musical folklore. Its rare to hear one or other of these Slavonic sets complete in the concert-hall; its even rarer to hear them studded with as much instrumental-incident as here.
These Slavonic Dances bustled with life and flexible tempi, Harnoncourt shaping contrasting episodes with plenty of affection. It was the way he teased out particulars of orchestration, and made them pertinent, that kept one absorbed - something new in the wind, lots of brass notes making their aural debut, each dance seemingly bigger in scope than when rendered more routinely.
Harnoncourt has recently recorded Dvorak 7-9 (including a revelatory New World Symphony) and one hopes - Op.72 performed last year - that a CD of all the Dances isnt far away. For all his analysis of the music, what was presented at this concert was spontaneous, fiery, touching and inherently musical - Harnoncourts new-minted bar-by-bar inflexions, colour and seasoning proving an ideal musical tonic to perk-up the senses.
Harnoncourts Beethoven is more familiar, the symphonies are recorded, and Ive heard him conduct the Pastoral twice before in London (an inspired Philharmonia performance in the RFH and a somewhat matter-of-fact, repeat-less Barbican attempt with the Vienna Symphony, the orchestra he played cello in for many years).
Repeats intact, the RFH again proved to be a successful venue for Harnoncourts gentle and relaxed way with the Pastoral (and how truthful was the RFHs much-maligned acoustic in its unrestricted clarity of detail and tonal naturalness). I find it fascinating that a conductor who accepts Beethovens fast metronome markings as plausible elsewhere can override them when there is a musical reason for doing so. Thus we arrived in the country in good spirits, relaxed, with ample time to view the landscape. Harnoncourts moderate momentum for the opening movement gives the ideal space for Beethovens narration to be its suggestive self; non-vibrato strings heightening the expression, this leisurely stroll, with softly-spoken instrumental dialogue en route, always maintains a sense of direction and purpose.
If the brook had a welcome flow and the peasants were sincerely thankful after the storm, the tempest itself made its full impact with cannon-shot timpani, piccolo and valve-less trumpets in vivid relief; the good folks merry-making before the heavens opened had been the epitome of lilt and energy incarnate.
The Pastoral is among those Beethoven symphonies that are not a constant in my listening. However when performed with the subtlety and lyricism with which Harnoncourt invests this music - and a playing strength that is absolutely ideal - then what emerges is music suffused with the poetry of life itself, music with remarkable scene-setting and emotional credentials, tone-painting of the highest quality. Intellectually, I realise the Pastorals stature, but with Harnoncourt my heart and mind are persuaded it is one of musics miracles. A wonderful evening
Related and recommended Harnoncourt recordings on TELDEC:
Beethoven - played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
- Symphonies 1-9 - 2292-46452-2 (5 CDs)
- Symphony No.6 (with No.8) - 9031-75709-2
- Symphonies 1-9, Violin Concerto & Romances (Gidon Kremer), Overtures, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (complete) and Missa Solemnis - 3984-28144-2 (10 CDs)
- Symphony No.7 & The Wild Dove - 3984-21278-2
- Symphony No.8 & The Noon Witch - 3984-24487-2
- Symphony No.9 "From the New World" & The Water Goblin - 3984-25254-2