LPO Beethoven Symphony Cycle – Part one

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Frans Brüggen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A long concert such as this really reminds how limited the RFH’s legroom is! Three Beethoven symphonies given in sauna conditions: could the heating be turned down please? This four-concert series is one of those keenly anticipated occasions when one can ’come home’ to perhaps the most significant symphony cycle of all. It was to have been a one-conductor traversal – with the LPO’s Chief, Kurt Masur – but health problems necessitated his withdrawal.

For this cycle, we now have four ways of looking at Beethoven – Handley, Previn and Norrington. To begin, Frans Brüggen, who returns to original intent, not always convincing to contemporary ears – but that can be said of the entire ’authentic’ movement – but always of interest and thought-provoking. Here was an Eroica funeral march lasting under 12 minutes – it felt ’right’; it also sounded rather jaunty and emotionally implosive. Is it relevant for us today?

Brüggen’s measured, even gentle way with Symphony No.1 was absorbing, his considered articulation a particular pleasure. Yet this classical, rather sober approach suppressed Beethoven’s ’attitude’ – hardly a new kid bursting onto the scene. The scherzo was appropriately driven, so too that of the Second – not so much a minuet in disguise but a scherzo unmasked. Da capo repeats, usually observed by authentic-conscious interpreters, were eschewed, except the printed but questionable first section of No.1; and editorial decisions seemed shelved come the Eroica’s first movement coda – a ’shadow’ of Hans von Bülow’s inflated re-write seemed to contest with Beethoven’s original bars. Similarly, the First’s ultimate chord was curious – slightly effete with a dominant oboe ’squeak’. Brüggen’s direction suggested the chord’s weight was exact – hardly a Beethovenian resolution, as might be nominally thought.

The first of the two intervals was regrettable – really we needed to plummet straight into No.2: from classical good manners to something more combustible. The first movement, after a delicately traced introduction, was suitably uninhibited – albeit with lyrical fire on the back burner – and the bruising brass discords of the coda were tame. Non-vibrato strings throughout the evening limited the colour-quotient available, and metronomic insistence does all too easily remind that Beethoven was a minimalist composer – the Second’s slow movement palled despite dynamic light and shade and a swift tempo. Dialogue between antiphonal violins was not particularly telling – a ratio of 12:9 is an imbalance anyway; the ’seconds’ were lost until the Eroica when they numbered 13, to 16 firsts, and carried rather better.

Brüggen doesn’t seem to perceive No.2 as a stepping stone from the elegant First to dam-bursting Third; the D major was cast in a similar mould to the C major – only its propulsion differentiated it, and then the finale was too fast to fully appreciate its phrasal shape.

Having established himself as a neat and elegant interpreter of the first two symphonies, woodwind lines always clear, timpani crisp and incisive (a tad too much at times, with occasional after-burn; also audible hand-stopping of notes was distracting), Brüggen was more interventionist in the ’Eroica’. Employing full strings with no bolstering of double woodwind, Brüggen introduced some unexpected ritardandos in the first movement and a curious accelerando in the finale’s variations; the coda raced to the finishing-post, sacrificing clarity and detail. The first movement repeat was in place. Such observance in the first two symphonies is important – which Brüggen did – but I’m inclined to think the Eroica’s repeat superfluous given the scope of the development section.

The LPO was in excellent form, unanimous and characterful, taking the long evening in its collective stride. The First Symphony, temperament aside, was a joy; the Eroica’s funeral march fascinating. Otherwise, mixed feelings – there’s no doubt that Brüggen illuminates Beethoven’s text persuasively, but the music’s heft and contemporary significance didn’t always present itself, although the history lesson was valuable. One never stops learning.

Click on the links below to read reviews of the concerts in this series

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