Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Carolin Masur (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Neill (tenor)
Matti Salminen (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
LPO Beethoven Symphony Cycle - Part four
Friday, December 07, 2001 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
The accustomed series-theme of repeats and orchestra-layout first. As expected, Norrington observed every repeat. This might have included twice-through on the return of No.8s Menuetto but to be honest I had drifted away more anon but certainly included the second repeat of the 9ths scherzo, one of the most important in any Beethoven symphony. There was a time when conductors such as Michael Gielen and Colin Davis took to also repeating the first section come the da capo; that phase seems to have passed, certainly Norrington didnt.
This brings to mind editions and new-found sources of Beethovens intentions. The recent Barenreiter publications (courtesy of Jonathan Del Mar) were to be used by Kurt Masur for this LPO cycle. While I understand that both Bruggen and Norrington did so, Andre Previn stuck with Breitkopf, while Vernon Handley, I suggest, also remained with his usual text at the pre-concert talk on 1 December we were advised to listen out for some new brass and timpani details in No.5s first movement; I dont think anyone told Handley (or checked he had not snipped them out)!
In any case, most conductors will cut and paste from one reference to another; and by interpreting dangerous word! will not necessarily stick to the scores assumed intentions. And, it seems, theres another Beethoven symphony edition waiting in the wings for printing. Oh, if you have David Zinmans Arte Nova recordings, the first using Barenreiter (as claimed), you should know that many unexpected details do not emanate from Del Mars scholarship but are of Zinmans creation!
Before I forget, Norrington conductor number four and with a fourth idea on how an orchestra should be positioned had antiphonal violins (of course, and rightly), cellos left-centre, and double basses in a line across the back of the platform, six for No.8, eight for No.9. That reminds of vibrato. Or the lack of it. It was used occasionally here. We know now that vibrato was considered to be decorative in Beethovens time and used as a highlight; more of this colour from Norrington would have enlivened a rather austere string-sound The Turkish percussion in the Chorals finale (somewhat rowdy) was antiphonal to the right-placed timpani (still distracting with hand-stopped notes).
Back to editions. New sources, ever-more enlightened notation of Beethovens stratagems its certainly interesting. Beethoven was continually changing his mind: one learns more about music, the possibilities that lay within in it, through listening to as many interpreters as possible.
Thus, is Roger Norrington an interpreter or a purveyor? What would be his view on this music if he were not following a back-to-basics agenda? Does an authentic approach mean approximating what might have been and nothing more? Is such an approach ultimately a history lesson? Why deny music its performance-growth and contemporary relevance effectively requiring listeners to forget all previous encounters of diverse and revealing insights and return us to an era we do not live in, yet with ears and faculty more experienced than Beethovens peers?
OK, somebodys got to do it such practise does have import and Roger Norringtons very good at it. He loves musics cut and thrust, he gets a resounding response from his players the LPO played magnificently throughout and he believes in what hes doing; his enthusiasm is infectious. Nevertheless, Beethoven 8 was made immaterial! Fast, clipped, with little sense of characterisation, expression in parameters; the notes were in place dazzlingly so in the ultra-fleet finale but what did it all mean? Starting from scratch, one would want to look behind the notes. Sorry, thats already been done: a slower tempo and more pointed woodwinds will reveal the joke of the second movement a skit on the (then) new metronome. The third is nostalgic in being a minuet rather than a scherzo ... in years to come well perceive Beethovens affection! I have. I gravitated!
The Choral certainly had its moments. The tempestuous and visionary first movement is well suited to Norringtons approach; some more expansive gestures would have been welcome though, as would more acknowledgement of punctuation. The scherzo was disconcertingly normal, certainly in tempo, and I liked the easeful trio yet other conductors find a bond between the first two movements Klemperer, Leppard and then theres the continuity between scherzo and trio. Celibidache (EMI) claims hes right in his tempo-match a constant speed of 116 but with different note values (this is pure maths, not basic tempo) if so, Norrington was wrong. In itself, thats not important, but shouldnt he be unassailable, a curator of original intent?
The Adagio molto e cantabile certainly sung its course, the Adagio-Andante contrasts tellingly delineated. A shame that eschewing an attacca to the finale lost tension ones not marked, but years of research have proved this to be a highly dramatic piece of timing. The finales lower-string recitatives lose oratory if thrown away; they did here but they really meant something at this years Last Night of the Proms from Leonard Slatkin Beethoven capturing the mood which was what in 1824?
In the finale, the LP Choir was great, unanimity and commitment informing every syllable; the vocal quartet was inconsistent Salminens awkward and colourless opening summons for not these sounds curiously ironic. Carolin Masur (Kurts daughter) struggled to be heard, which was nothing to do with having the four singers as part of the choir, a wise piece of placement by Norrington. Otherwise, Norrington was slower or faster than usual. Ah, Beethovens metronome markings well, the machine could have been faulty, or he didnt know how to use it properly, or, like a lot of composers, would have revised his intentions after a performance of course, Beethoven, sadly, was denied this experience. A static feel enveloped the last movement, although the coda arrived sooner than expected.
This was a thought-provoking culmination to the LPOs Beethoven cycle. If I could hear just one performance again, it would be Tod Handleys of No.5 (and Andre Previns exquisitely judged slow movement of No.4 is safely in the memory).Click on the links below to read reviews of the concerts in this series