December 21, 2010
Beethoven's Symphonies: A Comparison of Paavo Järvi's Bonn Cycle and Christian Thielemann's Vienna Version
By Bernhard Hartmann
It is a bit like the battle between David and Goliath when The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Vienna Philharmonic compete with each other to present Beethoven's nine symphonies. On the one side, the slender, wiry Paavo Järvi waves the baton, on the other, the enormously massive Christian Thielemann is at the podium. Here, Bonn's Beethovenhalle, illuminated by a different color during each symphony, provides the backdrop for performance and recording, there, the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein. Both cycles have now been released as a DVD box set.
Of course, it is not only external characteristics such as these that make them different, but they match the musical experience. When Paavo Järvi became artistic director of The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in 2004, he encountered an ensemble which was very close to his idea of a Beethoven sound. Through careful use of period instruments and reduced forces, they were perfectly attuned to the original sound of Beethoven's day. At least as important, however, is the boundless enthusiasm of those involved. When the camera pans across the orchestra, it is written on every face: "This is our project!"
Järvi and the self-governing ensemble, which has been orchestra in residence at the Beethovenfest for several years, allowed their Beethoven to grow and develop in countless concerts around the globe and with a highly acclaimed CD cycle released by Sony, which was completed with the Ninth Symphony in 2009. The precision with which they play during the Bonn concerts, recorded live in the Beethovenhalle last year, is absolutely spontaneous and electrifying on the screen and home loudspeakers – for example, the breathlessly virtuosic finale of the Fourth Symphony.
Järvi's tempos are in line with Beethoven's own original metronome markings – an approach that is somewhat controversial, especially among champions of the Romantic tradition. During a master class in Bonn only a few days ago, his colleague Kurt Masur said that Beethoven's own metronome was probably faulty and the tempo should always be set approximately 20 percent slower. Järvi has also commented on the subject. "Although Beethoven was deaf, he wasn't stupid," says the Estonian conductor. He considers the, at times, radical tempos in perfect agreement with Beethoven's overall artistic intention, which is never part of the mainstream.
Christian Thielemann coolly disregards traditional markings, using the tempo indications Beethoven wrote out in the scores and the character of the music as he perceives it, and each time reconsiders what Allegro or Adagio mean in a given context. Inspiration is an important word for him. As the listener can hear in the Fifth Symphony, this does not have to mean that his tempos are always slower than Järvi's, but Thielemann carefully sees to it that he never pushes the musicians to the limits. This orchestra wants to sound beautiful at all times, and he allows them to do that.
Both DVD cycles offer a wealth of supplementary material. The Bonn cycle includes a documentary film by director Christian Berger that follows the orchestra and conductor during their rehearsals in Bremen and Bonn. The camera is also nearby when they relax at the Rhine or when a violist visits violin maker Peter Greiner in Bonn to ask for help. During the film, the musicians and conductor talk at length about their exciting project.
In the DVD edition of the Vienna Philharmonic, only the conductor and leading Munich critic Joachim Kaiser speak. They devote a good hour to each of the symphonies. It is particularly entertaining, and we learn a great deal about Kaiser's Beethoven and Thielemann's Beethoven. They understand and interpret the symphonies from the perspective of a very Romantic tradition, for example, when they scrutinize the music looking for ideas which later turn up again in Wagner, Mahler, or Pfitzner.
In the end, Järvi's Beethoven is more exciting and seems more authentic. It is no accident that many critics hear the Beethoven of the 21st century in his cycle. In music as well, David is not completely without a chance against Goliath.
The Beethoven Cycles
The DVD cycle by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann was released in three installments, each comprising three symphonies, on the C major label.
The DVD cycle by The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Paavo Järvi was released as a complete box set by Sony.