Power is the moral principle of those who excel others, and it is also mine. - Ludwig van Beethoven, 1798
AS Carlos Kleiber leads the Vienna Philharmonic on his Deutsche Grammophon recording (DG 415861-2) into the opening measures of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, there is an immediate sense of power. Kleiber's interpretation has a rhythmic magnetism that just won't let go, keeping the listener hooked and increasingly astonished as that most famous of musical motifs is stated, to then evolve and return afresh in ever new permutations up until the work's end. A vital pulse animates each bar, projecting the symphony as a living, breathing whole.
This is a quality common to many of the famous traditional recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. It is something often lacking in the two new sets on original instruments recently completed by the London Classical Players under Roger Norrington (EMI CDS7-49852-2) and the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood (London Records 425696-2).
Both conductors claim they are returning to the composer's original intentions, said to have been obscured by the traditions of relaxed tempos and lush orchestral playing that have dominated the approaches of major symphony orchestra late into the 20th century.
Clarity in orchestral voices
Original instruments are used by both Norrington and Hogwood, producing a leaner, more resilient string sound than their modern counterparts and bringing greater clarity to the orchestral voices.
Both conductors claim to pay particular attention to the often fast tempo markings on Beethoven's scores, going against the tradition of bending tempos to suit each individual conductor's interpretative leanings. ``Our historical method,'' says Norrington in a program note, ``is to see what the metronome marks tell us about the piece, not decide they must be wrong because they don't fit 20th-century `tradition.'''
Most interesting, given these claims, are the remarkable differences between the two new ``authentic'' symphonic cycles. Both do take a generally brisk pace, but Hogwood frequently strays far from marked tempos. Listening tests conducted with a metronome showed that Norrington also fails to consistently observe marked tempos when the going gets too tough to maintain a coherent sense of ensemble.
Overall, Hogwood's recordings are more dramatic than Norrington's and relatively more successful in the stormier symphonies. Norrington's readings are more refined and work better in the sunnier works. But the overriding conclusion formed from listening to both sets is that the compelling emotions and sense of both structure and drive that make the greatest of traditional performances outstanding are largely absent here.
Norrington's reading of the Fifth Symphony provides a prime illustration. Taken at a smart pace, it nonetheless sounds flimsy because it lacks rhythmic structure. The famous motif is quickly lost in a reading which may attempt to be true to the technical characteristics of the score, but which lacks a dramatic conception of the work as a whole. Most strikingly, the iron-grip discipline of Kleiber's Vienna players is replaced by a pleasant but insipid sound, only loosely controlled. A further problem - not of Norrington's making but a consequence of distant miking by EMI's engineers - is a dull recorded sound, which mars many of the other performances in the set, too.
Hogwood starts with the advantage of closer miking, which produces a more detailed and fresher sound. He builds on this by paying greater attention to the rhythmic form of the work, at times sacrificing marked tempos to maintain coherence. This said, and despite some beautiful wind playing and resplendent raspy brass sounds, Hogwood's Fifth is a plain one, lacking the arresting grip or musical invention of Kleiber's.
Much the same holds for the ``authentic'' recordings of the Seventh Symphony. The London Classical Players' musicmaking is sonically attractive, with colorful-sounding winds particularly enjoyable. But the work comes out shapeless and lacks the tension of concentration of many traditional recordings.
In contrast, Leonard Bernstein's account with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419434-2) bristles with electricity, to give one example, while the highly individualistic version from Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic (EMI CDM 7698712) - perhaps the most exciting of all - demonstrates the type of tight discipline which allows Beecham's extraordinary creativity to shine through.
A Seventh with fire
Hogwood attacks the Seventh with fire, and eclipses Norrington in his understanding of pulse and rhythm of this work. The brass sounds splendid; the climax of the allegro con brio is thrilling. But, where depth of expression counts - especially in the slow movement - Hogwood is bland when compared to the great masters.
The ``Funeral March'' of the ``Eroica'' perhaps generates the most controversy of either set. Norrington notes the fast metronome marking on the score, and turns one of the greatest of tragic compositions into a number for the dance floor. The playing by the Classical Players is certainly vigorous and polished but emotionally empty.
Hogwood takes the movement well below the marked tempo and does establish a mood of seriousness. His account is so straightforward and bookish, however, that it loses interest with repeated hearings. Otto Klemperer's performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI CDM 7633562) is extremely slow, but displays a gravity and inner tension that give it coherence and greatness on a human scale. Both authentic readings sound small by comparison.
Hogwood puts plenty of punch into the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A strong quartet of solo singers, a chorus with bite, and an orchestra of 81 players (as compared to Norrington's 65) come together to produce an exhilarating sound. Norrington has problems in this movement. His bass, Petteri Salomaa, is weak, and the overall sound is muddied. While at some points the music races ahead chaotically, Norrington's insistence on taking the alla marcia slowly (Beethoven's marking is dotted quarter-note = 84; Norrington actually goes at dotted quarter-note = 103, which is still slow), makes it incoherent and altogether unmarchlike.
Neither Norrington nor Hogwood provides a satisfactory first movement of the Ninth Symphony. Hogwood's greater power comes across as crudity; his rhythms are weak compared, for example, to those of Karl B"ohm (with the Vienna Philharmonic: DG 413721-2). B"ohm goes more slowly, but his performance is propelled by a sense of flow and continuous rhythmic development of tensions absent from either ``authentic'' disc.
Both authenticists produce successful readings of the second movement, however - Hogwood's exciting, Norrington's smoother and with some beautiful wind playing. Both fail in the slow third movement. While Norrington draws the movement with an attractive surface beauty, highlighting many details with evocative coloration, the movement sounds hurried and its emotional content, trivialized. Hogwood's speedy account also sounds out of place here.
For a modern recording, not on authentic instruments, but using small-scale forces and more consistently successful than either Norrington's or Hogwood's, Michael Tilson Thomas' Ninth with the English Chamber Orchestra (CBS MDK 44646) is recommended. The recording achieves a dramatic buildup in the first three movements, which both authenticists fail to achieve; and its fourth movement is incisive and altogether exhilarating.
High-speed freeway mania
Both Norrington and Hogwood rush through the Pastorale Symphony. With the exception of an idyllic account of the second movement by Norrington, both conductors replace Beethoven's spirit of rural contemplation with high-speed freeway mania. The fragrance of B"ohm's traditional version with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 413721-2) is highly preferable.
In the lighter, less demanding Beethoven symphonies, works which at least partly look back to the classical tradition, Norrington seems to feel more comfortable. His recording of the Second and Eighth Symphonies (EMI CDC 747698-2) is the most highly recommended disc of either set. His ebullient yet nuanced Second is altogether outstanding. It is deftly played, its intertwining tonal colors a source of constant pleasure. And it provides the one instance where conventional accounts are quite simply outshone.
A delightful Fourth
Norrington's version of the Eighth is also excellent, despite some let-up in tension in the finale. Hogwood is more aggressive in both symphonies, and fails to find the character with which Norrington inflects them.
Norrington also excels Hogwood in a delightful Fourth Symphony. The details of the slow movement are brought out more pointedly and with more originality than Hogwood can muster, while Norrington's third movement flows along with a vivacious, almost conspiratorial wit, and the impishly playful turns of the finale bring the work to a joyous conclusion.
To end with the First Symphony, Norrington sounds unsettled in the slow movement and ponderous in the third movement.
Hogwood brings a greater freshness to his work in a recording which is quite acceptable, if lacking in the verve Leonard Bernstein, for example, brings to his performance with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419434-2).
Both the Norrington and Hogwood sets show evidence of putting scholarship over creativity and interpretation, yet the scholarship is not irrefutably reliable. Time and again these are recordings that show a failure to understand and structure the symphonies as coherent wholes, to bring out their rhythmic and emotional frameworks, and to establish a pulse which keeps the listener's feet tapping from beginning to end.
The painting-by-numbers approach adopted by the authenticists leads to a fragmentation of the power of Beethoven's greatest works, producing a whole that is no greater than the sum of its parts. While Norrington's performances of the Second, Fourth and Eighth symphonies are delightful and worth purchasing, the most profound of the Beethoven symphonies are best appreciated from recordings by those who have probed and illuminated that profundity - who have conducted performances of the music, not just of the notes.