Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Slavonic Dances, Op.46
Symphony No.6 “Pastoral”

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 November, 2000
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It appears that Harnoncourt has been ruffling a few feathers recently. His remit to search scores’ nooks and crannies to find things that few other conductors look for (or notice) appears to annoy some listeners who simply want to lay back and hear something familiar. Good for him! What is distracting (or confusing) for some is aural illumination for others. One of the great things about being musically aware is that you are alive to new angles that imaginative and searching musicians find for you; it all adds to discovering more about music that is all too easily taken for granted. My musical experience would be infinitely the poorer without, say, Celibidache. For different reasons (textual rather than acoustical) Harnoncourt also finds new perspectives.

If Harnoncourt isn’t traditional, he is conscious of tradition and doesn’t turn his back on it. Rather, he returns to scores to see what is really written therein and doesn’t 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 one’s interpretative parameters. With just 10 first violins, six cellos and four double basses, the COE has an ideally translucent sound for Dvorak’s dances, a size and balance akin to a village band, and a superior replacement to same to complement Dvorak’s sophisticated re-working of Czech musical folklore. It’s rare to hear one or other of these Slavonic sets complete in the concert-hall; it’s 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 isn’t far away. For all his analysis of the music, what was presented at this concert was spontaneous, fiery, touching and inherently musical – Harnoncourt’s new-minted bar-by-bar inflexions, colour and seasoning proving an ideal musical tonic to perk-up the senses.

Harnoncourt’s Beethoven is more familiar, the symphonies are recorded, and I’ve 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 Harnoncourt’s gentle and relaxed way with the Pastoral (and how truthful was the RFH’s much-maligned acoustic in its unrestricted clarity of detail and tonal naturalness). I find it fascinating that a conductor who accepts Beethoven’s 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. Harnoncourt’s moderate momentum for the opening movement gives the ideal space for Beethoven’s 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 Pastoral’s stature, but with Harnoncourt my heart and mind are persuaded it is one of music’s miracles. A wonderful evening

Related and recommended Harnoncourt recordings on TELDEC:

Beethovenplayed 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)
Dvorakplayed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

  • 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
For Alan Pickering’s opinion, click here

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