Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Recorded 8 & 9 July 2008 (Symphony 5) and 3-5 July 2009 in Kultur und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL 88697648162
Duration: 70 minutes
A long-standing convention frequently finds conductors slowing the tempo for the two chords that comprise bars 20 and 21 of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. To impose such emphasis upon the music at this point is a natural enough example of musical phrasing but it has a profound effect upon the impact of the movement because this device tricks the ear into accepting that a musical ‘paragraph’ ends at this point and the result is that these opening bars sound like a prelude.
Conductors are of course entitled to bring their interpretative ideas to a masterwork but this particular device has outstayed its welcome. There is nothing in the score to indicate a slowing of tempo and since the second of the two chords is marked with a fermata it is surely all the more important not to lose momentum at this point. On the release of Erich Kleiber’s 1954 recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, we were at last permitted to hear Beethoven’s true intention. This was a revelatory performance – swift in tempo giving a furious and intense character to the movement. Above all it was kept strictly in tempo and by avoiding that melodramatic leaning on bars 20 and 21 the opening sequence was integrated into the rest of this wild musical drama. Nowadays many musicians who adopt a swift tempo tend also to follow Kleiber’s example in unifying the music by not relaxing at this critical point, although there are exceptions – even Carlos Kleiber, who takes an almost identical tempo to that of his father, very slightly slows those two chords each time they appear.
With Giovanni Antonini’s Beethoven 5 we have a ‘historically informed’ approach – a performance adhering closely to Beethoven’s metronome markings and very near in tempo to David Zinman’s excellent version, yet in the first movement Antonini does indeed adopt the old-fashioned relaxation of tempo that I mentioned. This means that because of the very fast basic speed, the section seems to be separated from what follows even more markedly than usual, but thereafter the essential sense of impatience is effectively sustained. The similarity with Zinman is considerable but with Antonini the small orchestra (approximately the size of the London Mozart Players) has a homogeneous sound whereas Zinman tends to let the individual timbres of each instrument strike through the textures more positively. Full marks for the Basel oboe soloist (Matthias Arter) who is ideally expressive in that instrument’s soliloquy, yet the contemplative nature of this episode is not allowed to hinder the forward progress of the music.
A flowing Andante con moto is always an advantage in this work and Antonini’s approach tends to weld the sections together. Dynamic contrasts are not stressed although there are touches of dramatic emphasis such as a hint of crescendo-diminuendo in drum rolls and some surprisingly clipped phrasing in the central minor-key section that catches the ear. Beethoven’s unexpected increase of pace near the close is skilfully dealt with. The scherzo is presented very much as a prelude to the triumphant finale – the element of the dance underlies it in a suitable way and the string phrasing is smooth rather than aggressive – the drama is left to the woodwinds. No repeat here. Antonini does not restore that long da capo, which Beethoven chose to remove (Zinman does replace it) and opinion has remained divided for years, leaning in general towards omission rather than replacement. The composer’s later thought leading to him to make the omission does lend credence to the views of those who feel that the finale repeat should also be left out on the very reasonable theory that it gives consistency to structural balance. I suspect that Beethoven might not have approved. Antonini does make the repeat of the finale’s exposition and it is a little more powerful than on the first time through. Towards the end of the symphony, Beethoven writes examples of progressively more affirmative chords. The conductor is precise about these, clarifying the inner voices even when brass and timpani make their forceful entries.
That is a very musical approach, although turning to Erich Kleiber’s recording, it seemed that there, each focal full-orchestra chord was louder than the last and it was entirely suitable that the brass was permitted increasingly to feature as the music became stronger. Kleiber’s is a recording approaching its sixth decade and yet the balance still sounds staggeringly good. Antonini is not unaware of the daring nature of the orchestration however – in particular the marvellous part for piccolo is beautifully done.
Speed is again a matter for comment in the performance of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony – tempos are once more close to those of Zinman and to Beethoven’s metronome. I realise it is a matter of taste but I am never really comfortable with a swift pace in the first movement. Zinman managed a touch more relaxation but somehow the traditional idea of breadth always seems more convincing – Böhm and Monteux take this view and were superb (or was it their combination with the Vienna Philharmonic that helped)? For all this, Antonini takes a consistent view and it is largely one of jollity. His swiftly flowing ‘Scene by the Brook’ is phrased with elegance – no undue sense of pressure here. Much spirit of the dance informs the ‘Peasant’s Merrymaking’ – good, bouncing bass chords and neat final emphases at ends of phrases. It could be argued that the playing is almost too polished to represent Beethoven’s caricature of clumsy, unskilled musicians and it is interesting that Antonini’s penchant for legato string phrasing is also found in this movement. In the trio the homogeneous nature of the orchestral sound is not helpful – the delightful upward flourishes for flute are scarcely audible and the dramatically intrusive trumpets at the end of the section cannot be heard either. There is good detail in the double basses when the storm gets going however and there is imaginative use of timpani – recorded more convincingly here than elsewhere on this release. I can understand that for some listeners it is not unreasonable to want to relax in a romantic unhurried atmosphere for when hearing the finale but years ago Furtwängler convinced me that urgent forward-moving joyfulness suits this music. Antonini also moves firmly forward, carefully balancing the many wind solos but tending to stress string melodies despite the modest numbers of the instruments.
Strong rhythm and firm pulse seems to be the essence of these two performances. I am used to hearing greater separation and more inner detail, but I am sure the blended style is the conductor’s intention and that the recording gives a decent representation of his intended sound. The amount of resonance in the hall seems ideal. These are generally admirable versions in a crowded field full of memorable performances by great conductors. More recorded Beethoven is planned for Antonini and I look forward to it.