The American musicologist Susan McClary once got herself in a bit of trouble for characterizing the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth as exploding 'in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.' In the end she withdrew this remark – perhaps because it trivialises rape – but the disconcerting violence that she draws attention to is undeniable. Klaus Tennstedt confronts this feature head on in this recently released recording of a live performance of the symphony given with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1992.
If you accept McClary's contention that this movement embodies the hegemonic brutality of the white European male in the age of empire, then the near unparalleled aggression here makes for some uncomfortable listening. It is probable that Tennstedt was working with the explanation found in most concert programmes and CD liners that it depicts the primordial energy of the void. And indeed, the primitivism of the climax, exemplified most by the ferocity of brass and timpani, rivals any performance of the Rite of Spring I have ever heard.
This is not to say that this movement is at any point out of control. Over the whole symphony Tennstedt shows a masterly grasp of the architectonic design. From the very opening we know that this going to be a magisterial statement, but he just manages to steer away from self-important grandiosity. What is most impressive, however, is the way he steadily builds up the tension towards the notorious climax and is then able to sustain the intensity from that point right until the end of the movement.
Apart from one little outburst from our zealous timpanist who seems not to have realized that the first movement is over, the mood is kept refreshingly light in the scherzo, allowing some repose before the deep emotional involvement of the Adagio. The theme and variations is one of those late-period slow movements – the Hammerklavier has another mesmerising example – where we are lead from melancholy and nostalgia, through a profound but inexplicable yearning, to a contented bliss in which all sense of time disappears. The playing here is serenely beautiful. But, as we draw towards the moments of ecstatic self-forgetting, at least three audience members decide that it's the perfect time to give their throat a thoroughly good clean out. One of the perils of live recording to be sure, but not any less disappointing for that.
All of the soloists, especially Lucia Popp, do a creditable job of overcoming the dead acoustic of the pre-refurbishment Royal Festival Hall. There is occasionally the feeling, however, that they are having to overstretch their voices. The choir seems to find it very difficult to make itself heard above the orchestra; the female half in particular is breathy and lacking in weight. I suspect the venue can be blamed for this too.
But these are only minor gripes. What we have here is an unashamedly old-fashioned approach to Beethoven: a large modern orchestra with a charismatic conductor willing to cultivate a massive orchestral tone and employ tempo in order to heighten the emotional effect, and who is determined and able to impose his own epic vision on the whole. When this approach succeeds – as it does here – the result can be breathtaking.
This did not prevent one critic complaining that an earlier performance of the Ninth under Tennstedt's baton came 'from the wrong end of the nineteenth century.' This is indicative of a general cultural trend, in which Susan McClary's remarks may also be situated, that views with suspicion anything that smacks of romanticism. Indeed, the migration of so called 'authentic performance' into the mainstream betrays the sanitized aesthetic sensibility of modern audiences rather than proving any fascination with how the music of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century would have actually sounded. If it really were authenticity we craved, we would also have authentic romantic performances of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Elgar. We don't because we would find the results insufferably sentimental.
I find it unlikely that the second disc being reviewed here – Beethoven's Seventh and Eighth played by the justly feted Canadian original instrument group Tafelmusik – manages to 'recapture the way that performances of the symphonies might have sounded in the 1810s', to quote from the promotional literature. Apart from the obvious point that authenticity is in any case a chimera, many of the standard practices of the original instrument movement are demonstrably inauthentic. Take tempo: conductor Bruno Weil's near metronomic rigidity is standard practice in the original music universe. However, it is unlikely that Chopin's rubato or Wagner's fluid approach to the pulse would have just magically appeared in the few decades after Beethoven's death. Furthermore, the Viennese masters often wrote ritardandi and accelerandi into their music suggesting that more subtle gradation would have been common, even when it wasn't specified in the score.
The requirement to maintain a strict tempo at all costs has some unfortunate consequences. In the first movement of the Eighth, there are fortissimo tutti passages followed immediately by piano winds, but the first beat of the quiet phrase is consumed by the continuing reverberation of the low strings. But, more often than not, the orchestra's agility and enthusiasm means they are able to turn this artificial restriction into an advantage. Both finales are exhilarating. In the Eighth, one cannot fail to be impressed as the whole orchestra is manoeuvred effortlessly around some alarmingly tight bends without the slightest reduction in speed. And the peasant dance rhythms of the Seventh achieve a manic doggedness bordering on insanity.
One indisputable advantage of using original instruments is the resulting transparency of texture. The players make much of the fact that the most insignificant details of Beethoven's orchestration – second violin and viola filler, for example – can be heard clearly. They are aware of their exposure and ensure that their contribution counts. We can also hear those important elements of the score that are apt to become submerged in modern-instrument performances. In the first movement of the Eighth, development section, Beethoven piles repetitions of the opening five-note fragment to create an air of inescapable claustrophobia. The motif, always clear in upper violins, is also played contrapuntally in the cellos and basses, but is often inaudible. Here it can be distinctly heard, further intensifying the oppressive mood, so that the final re-emergence into the sunny F major of the recapitulation is even more of a joyous relief.
Ultimately then, although I may personally advocate a more flexible approach to tempo in Beethoven, I can only judge the musicality of the results. It seems that having closed off one avenue of expression completely the band have responded by going all out to compensate in the others. If you want Beethoven on original instruments, you won't find much more exciting versions of the Seventh and Eighth than these.
By Marc Brooks
CD Reviews: Beethoven symphonies from Vänskä and Boyd (BIS/Avie)
CD Review: The Artemis Quartet play Beethoven Op.16 No.4 & Op. 59 No.2 (Virgin)
CD Review: Beethoven Cello Sonatas from Müller-Schott and Hewitt (Hyperion)
CD Reviews: Beethoven Piano Concertos from Kissin and Pletnev (EMI/DG)