Listening to these recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, plus the overtures to “Creatures of Prometheus,” “Coriolanus,” and “Egmont,” I find myself right back in the middle of the “tradition versus innovation” argument. This is particularly entertaining, given that the subject in this case is Beethoven, whose metronome markings have been a subject of controversy since he wrote them down. British conductor Roger Norrington is an adherent of the “historically informed” school of performance. His recording of the complete symphonies and assorted overtures gives us an “original instruments” version in which Norrington has adhered as closely as possible to the conventions of early nineteenth-century performance. The recordings are accompanied by highly informative historical and technical comments in English, French and German.It’s rather staggering to spend a day listening to Beethoven. (And you thought reviewers had it easy!) These recordings, however, have been more than entertaining — they’ve also given me some insights into Beethoven’s music that I don’t think I would ever have found any other way. Keep in mind that this music was written during the Napoleonic era, when the conventions of musical creation and performance were much different than they are now, and that, like everyone else, I come to Beethoven through the symphony orchestra as it exists today — which is to say, post-Brahms, post-Wagner, post-Mahler. We’re talking of an ensemble that can number up to a hundred performers, and certainly will not be much under sixty, with a sound that has been conditioned by the demands of High Romanticism for over a hundred years.
One thing that’s striking right from the start: the feel of the music is lighter than I’ve been used to. There are subtleties here that I’ve never spotted before, and an amazing clarity to the sound. That all goes together, somehow, and I think it must be due at least in part to the use of instruments built on the standards of Beethoven’s day – the violins seem less hard in tone, the woodwinds somewhat more airy, the brass not quite so overpowering.
Take, for example, the opening of the Symphony No. 4: after a suitably brooding beginning, Norrington establishes a strong momentum — actually he does more than that: the music seems to vault along at pace that, while overt in the crescendi, becomes almost subliminal in the quieter passages, but it’s still there. He does the same thing in the fourth movement of the Symphony No. 7 (my all-time favorite Beethoven), a piece of music that relies more than most on momentum. It’s noted as “allegro con brio,” and “brio” it is, high spirits, energy, sort of “Sturm und Drang-lite,” and that momentum is now a driving force that pulls the orchestra, the audience, and sometimes I think the universe as well to the overwhelming finale. (Oddly enough, given all the arguments about tempo, I find that Norrington’s treatment of this movement is slower than my preferred versions, those by Herbert von Karajan and William Steinberg. It’s about energy and running at the limit: Norrington’s version is almost too well-behaved and, I think, loses some impact because of it. Steinberg’s version, heard long ago on a radio broadcast, is breathtaking, the horns in that last, desperate fanfare just on the verge of breaking, the whole orchestra right on the edge of losing it, but never quite. It’s amazing – just the sort of thing a twenty-something with more hormones than brains wants from Beethoven.)
This is characteristic of these performances as a whole: lightness, energy, clarity, but Norrington has a good ear for the nuances, for the necessity of building these shapes in sound the way Beethoven built them. Given that Beethoven’s writing seems to happen in fits and starts, that he built his melodies out of bits and pieces seemingly picked up along the way, this is critical, and Norrington has it cold.
I can’t do this without some comment on the great Symphony No. 9. Here’s another one that, from the very beginning, seems to have a sense of excitement to it, and if Beethoven is about anything, he’s about excitement. I have to credit Norrington: this one soars, it sings, it leaves you breathless. And that’s just the first movement. There is that same clarity, that same transparency, and Norrington has found the weight that this symphony demands. This is serious stuff here, and Norrington plays it straight from beginning to end — there are passages in the “Ode to Joy” where you just want to melt. The Ninth is, without doubt, Beethoven’s greatest work, and one of the greatest in the history of Western music, and, remarkably, was composed in one stretch of creative intensity — not Beethoven’s usual manner at all. Norrington has tapped into that, creating an insightful rendering that captures the passion Beethoven invested in his work.
Which leads me to the essence of the whole collection: intelligence in the service of passion. Norrington has brought a great deal of intelligence to his interpretations and managed to keep the symphonies alive while doing it, catching that intensity that is one of the main reasons we listen to Beethoven. Can’t ask for much more.
(EMI Records, 1989)