LPO Beethoven Symphony Cycle – Part four

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 December, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

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.8’s ’Menuetto’ but to be honest I had drifted away – more anon – but certainly included the second repeat of the 9th’s 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 didn’t.

This brings to mind editions and new-found sources of Beethoven’s 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.5’s first movement; I don’t 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 score’s assumed intentions. And, it seems, there’s another Beethoven symphony edition waiting in the wings for printing. Oh, if you have David Zinman’s Arte Nova recordings, the first using Barenreiter (as claimed), you should know that many unexpected details do not emanate from Del Mar’s scholarship but are of Zinman’s 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 Beethoven’s 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 Choral’s 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 Beethoven’s stratagems – it’s 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 Beethoven’s peers?

OK, somebody’s got to do it – such practise does have import – and Roger Norrington’s very good at it. He loves music’s cut and thrust, he gets a resounding response from his players – the LPO played magnificently throughout – and he believes in what he’s 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, that’s 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 we’ll perceive Beethoven’s affection! I have. I gravitated!

The Choral certainly had its moments. The tempestuous and visionary first movement is well suited to Norrington’s 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 there’s the continuity between scherzo and trio. Celibidache (EMI) claims he’s 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, that’s not important, but shouldn’t 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 – one’s not marked, but years of research have proved this to be a highly dramatic piece of timing. The finale’s lower-string recitatives lose oratory if thrown away; they did here – but they really meant something at this year’s ’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 – Salminen’s awkward and colourless opening summons for “not these sounds” curiously ironic. Carolin Masur (Kurt’s 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, Beethoven’s metronome markings – well, the machine could have been faulty, or he didn’t 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 LPO’s Beethoven cycle. If I could hear just one performance again, it would be ’Tod’ Handley’s of No.5 (and Andre Previn’s 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

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