Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Beethoven Experts

Frankfurter Rundschau
January 6, 2011
The Thielemann Recordings

By Holger Noltze

For seven symphonies they have been more or less in agreement; then Joachim Kaiser, sitting opposite Christian Thielemann, heaves a sigh of relief in the middle of the discussion of the Eighth. "How lucky that we disagree for once!" The harmony between critic and conductor – both in possession of a good deal of knowledge about Beethoven – can be seen in nine documentaries which are included with Thielemann's recording of all nine symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and suffer from the very fact that the gentlemen are so much in agreement. No wonder, since, for the most part, they are exchanging platitudes, never without a tone of the greatest importance.

Almost interminably, they discuss why it is good to perform the works in numerical order, why the Second is a little greater than the First (which is also great, however). The Eighth is extraordinary, but perhaps not quite as extraordinary as the Seventh. That Beethoven sometimes has no distinctive themes, but the important thing is what he does with them. That "the crisis always comes during the development," and, most important, that Beethoven always knows exactly what he is doing.

Thielemann, the practitioner, goes so far as to speculate that there is a symphonic master plan of sorts, which is why he thinks about the finale of the Ninth Symphony even before raising his baton for the first movement of the First (the first movement is always the most important!).

Here, at the latest, the viewer would have liked to raise objections; for example, that such notions of totality, entirety, and multiplicity in unity are primarily yearnings of later generations, who wanted to make sense of the outrageousness. In particular, that, from a stance based on past reflection, it is easy to overlook what makes the nine symphonies so unique – the fact that each one goes all out and defines the genre a little differently every time, even freeing it a bit, until the precarious vocal finale of the Ninth. These Beethoven authorities seem to have lost the idea of riskiness, because they believe they have too firm a hold on him.

Exciting Comparative Passages

That is unfortunate, because the two surely know more about the subject than they tell us. It is certainly true that one should not think too much when making music, as Thielemann points out three times; later, however, it is highly recommended and can bring many things to light.

More exciting are the clips of comparative passages, without commentary – for the most part, recordings by Karajan and Bernstein but unfortunately much too rarely from Paavo Järvi's recording with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie, because the real competition in the struggle for interpretational supremacy is based in a school auditorium in Bremen. Järvi shows how energy fields are created in Beethoven's music from thousands of individual pieces of information. He is dynamic and transparent, at times electrifying, where Thielemann and the Viennese sound dark, heavy, and always a little musty.

Such a desire for darkness is blind to the spirit of the Eighth; for example, the sudden interruption during the first movement, as though a clock is overwound, is not surprising here. There is too little astonishment in this new Vienna Beethoven cycle.

Perhaps we see too much of the conductor in the video. It is revealing, however, in the Fourth Symphony, for example, how Thielemann stands there with his legs apart like a Roman charioteer, the way he looks around briefly after the end of the movement with an indulgent smile of triumph...

What matters is the musical result, however. The tempo changes are much too predictable and obtrusive at times – the exaggerated, abrupt slowing down or becoming softer, the breath before the climax, as though what was already in boldface had to be underlined. For example, during the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, he takes an all too obvious run up to the restatement of the principal theme. A big "Aha!" sounds but is merely banal. A small miracle then follows the trivial affirmative, and one is almost annoyed because it shows what might have been possible. The Allegretto of the Seventh works marvelously, especially the soaring fugato passage with its wonderful restraint. The Scherzo sparkles as though it were a fairy dance by Mendelssohn.

The Melancholy is Convincing

The likable thing about Thielemann's Beethoven endeavor, on the other hand, is that the result of this Prussian-Viennese encounter is often not triumphant spouting at all but melancholy. The solo clarinet, oboe, and flute begin their lonely discourse on beauty and futility, then the sensational Vienna horns come in and shine directly into our hearts. Perhaps that is why the serene landscape painting of the "Pastoral" turns out to be the highlight of the cycle.

The "Adagio molto e cantabile" of the Ninth actually sings, because Thielemann remains true to his maxim that doing nothing is sometimes the best thing. He knows how to spin an expansive line, and he is not afraid of pathos. He can wait. He knows how to charge the blows at the opening of the Coriolan Overture with tragedy, drama, and despair, so that it goes right through you. If only Thielemann were not so sure of himself as a Beethoven conductor! Or rather, if only he would not act that way! Perhaps more doubts are lurking behind the blasé gesticulating than he dares to show, at least up to now.

Opinions are bound to differ on the most recent orchestral maneuvers with the core classical repertoire – both Thielemann's pathos experiments and Järvi's illumination of the scores. That is good news. Beethoven's symphonies contain a message for today. We can hear them again and benefit from arguing about their interpretation – but not in the chatty tone of the Beethoven experts.

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