Paavo Järvi’s Reasons for Recording the Beethoven Symphonies

March 1, 2008

Fanfare magazine

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 8 [Hybrid SACDAudio CD; Hybrid SACDSony ClassicsBuy now from Amazon
One might suppose that the world doesn’t need another Beethoven symphony cycle. There’s no shortage of truly splendid series on CD, from, say, the 1939 Toscanini/NBC cycle recently reissued by Music & Arts to the currently in-progress Vänskä/Minneapolis set on BIS. Yet, in an era when major labels are stingy with classical new releases, Sony/BMG has launched a Beethoven cycle with Paavo Järvi and the German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen. As you’ll see in my review of the first installment, which follows this feature, Järvi’s already promises to stand among the finest Beethoven symphony performances on disc. Still, we’re talking about more than 70 years of recorded competition out there. Late last year, I called Järvi and asked him why he believed his Beethoven cycle would have a place in the market.
“First,” he answered, “if one could only read Beethoven in one ‘right’ way, there would be no point in exploring him further. Obviously, that’s not the case. Beyond that, for me the Beethoven symphony cycle had a very natural motivation: I found the right partner for the cycle. With any music, or with any creative endeavor, the most difficult and key thing is to find the right partner. In this particular case, after having performed Beethoven’s symphonies for two years (including a rapturously received cycle on tour in Japan), we understand each other and agree with what we want to do together, so it’s very much a collective team effort. If anything, the Beethoven symphonies are the ones you don’t want to compromise with. Some people wait all their lives to record them because they don’t want to compromise. But I found this was the right place, the right people, and the right time in my life.”
Until Järvi began recording with it four years ago, hardly anybody in North America realized that there was a worthy chamber orchestra—let alone a world-class one—in Bremen. The German Chamber Philharmonic was founded in 1980, and based itself in Bremen starting in 1992. It’s a self-governed, democratic ensemble in which the musicians themselves assume the financial risks and make all the managerial decisions. Järvi became the orchestra’s artistic director in 1994 (concurrently with his post in Cincinnati; he has also directed the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2006). Järvi refers to himself as artistic advisor : “I’m part of the team, but not the administrator I would be in America. Some of the people who listen to our CDs might recognize the intense involvement of the musicians. This is not just from an obvious commitment to the music they play; this orchestra is theirs ; they have direct ownership, and it is very much their baby. This kind of mentality encourages and brings out something that is unique. I really feel they have a sense of ownership that I have seen in very few other orchestras in the world. It started from youth orchestra roots, like the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra; the players decided to play together after their time in the youth orchestra was finished. Similarly, the ‘graduates’ of this youth orchestra formed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the Ensemble Modern. So the energy and involvement that you hear with these orchestras has a great youth orchestra link. They have the vitality of a youth orchestra, an incredible enthusiasm and love of what they do, and a sense of ownership, which is not usual for an orchestra these days.”
Asked about the possible differences between preparing a Beethoven symphony with the German Chamber Philharmonic and a larger American orchestra, Järvi began to answer the question but quickly veered off into more general stylistic concerns. “First of all,” he said, “it’s a matter of collective anticipation, and how that affects the style of playing. There are so many ways of doing it. People have grown up with this music, and it’s difficult to find one way of doing things because there were different styles in the different places and the different times people grew up. Over the last 15 to 20 years, with historically informed performance practices and period instruments and different editions being published—because of all this, the gap between the traditional and the ‘new’ way of looking at these pieces has widened even further. I would not say that one is correct and one is not correct. To me, the person who knew much more about Beethoven’s symphonies than anyone else is still Furtwängler, one of my biggest idols musically. People often confuse matters of style with matters of substance. The style can never take precedence over the substance. There are certain issues that amplify and clarify the text if there’s a uniform understanding of how to play stylistically, but it’s also a question of agreement and complete unity. If you look at the performances of Harnoncourt and Gardiner, they are supposedly coming from the same side of an argument, but they have completely different beliefs of what is right and what is wrong.”
Both Järvi and the Bremen musicians are cognizant of certain period-performance practices relating to the Beethoven symphonies, and for these recordings they are employing the Bärenreiter New Urtext edition. “On careful listening you can hear some of the differences in this edition,” Järvi said, “but the larger picture remains the same. The differences in the edition only help to clarify some textual issues, some articulation issues. But even with the new editions there are big questions, and one must make decisions about those questions. But this is nothing new; attention to that very fine detail is evident through performance history, and in some ways this is part of the problem. In some cases, we don’t know exactly what was actually written by Beethoven and what is assumed to be correct according to editors. The other thing is, if you look at a lot of these new editions you realize that a lot of the things they do are not so new. Often, the exact same markings are also written in the editions that are traditionally used; it’s just that we take those markings more seriously now. For example, I’m completely convinced that every metronome marking in Beethoven’s symphonies is correct. It’s a convenient issue to debate because it is sometimes easier to say that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty rather than actually try to play at this tempo and try to see the real reasons why Beethoven chose this tempo. The reason that the tempos are uncomfortably fast now is that we play the symphonies with an orchestra that is twice as big as Beethoven had. But if you have 35 people like Beethoven had, if you put an orchestra of the right size on stage, the tempo seems to be natural. That’s an advantage we have with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie.”
How does Järvi balance fidelity to the text with the desire or necessity for an individual interpretation? “I think interpretation starts from the text,” he said. “Everything we do in this recording comes from the text first. It’s in there. That’s the starting point. After a while, it becomes yours, it becomes very familiar, something you’ve tried out in different circumstances, at home, on concert tours, you’ve had a chance to doubt your decisions and rethink your decisions. After a while you have kind of slowly earned the ownership, and it becomes very individual, because it’s your personal experience with the piece. But the starting point has to be the text; even then, the text can only give you so much, and you have to make certain decisions. Stravinsky said, ‘Don’t interpret my music, just play the notes.’ But listen to his recordings, and he does different things in different performances. So one must form an opinion, which comes number one from the text, and then from the experience of playing the piece over and over and seeing what works practically.”
One can’t really record the Beethoven cycle without taking a position in the old discussion about whether the symphonies are primarily Classical or Romantic works. “It’s an interesting question because they do fall in between the obvious ideas about stylistic eras,” Järvi said. “At the core, they are Classical. The “Eroica” was revolutionary and shocking during the time of its premiere and still is today, but if one follows the instructions and looks at the metronome markings and takes what he writes seriously, it has a much more Classical feel to it. Having said so, it does work in an expansive, Romanticized way. That could be very gratifying, but I’m not sure that’s what Beethoven had in mind. But who said we are not allowed to use our own imagination and see how the piece develops? I’m much less interested in what’s right and what’s wrong as time goes by and more interested in what kind of experience and human condition does this piece describe? I’d rather start exactly from Beethoven’s markings and say, ‘Look, that’s pushing it a bit.’ Better to do that than put an interpretation as the beginning of your journey. I don’t think that one should assume we know anything about Beethoven’s symphonies just because they are so familiar. Many things are hidden in them. The Beethoven symphonies are still developing, because the music lives in a different environment now. The Beethoven symphonies are not the same to a person who just survived the Second World War as they are to a person who is living in 2007. The environment is different and people are different and people hear things differently. The big pieces are always in constant development. You cannot understand these works in the same way as Bernstein in his time or Mahler in his time. They are something else now; we approach them from the point of view of people living today. That’s why metronome and other markings are so important. With the environment changing, the one thing you really have to go back to is what the composer writes, not what your teacher says or what’s in some recording you heard. It’s healthy to clean up some of the dust.”
According to Järvi, the “Eroica” is one of Beethoven’s greatest challenges from an interpretive standpoint. “The Third Symphony requires Classical clarity,” he said. “On the other hand, it has a very strong story, and to be able to convey that kind of Romantic aspect of a Classical symphony without making it seem ponderous and pompous and heavy, and at the same time not making it seem light and overly easy—it’s difficult to balance, leaning toward the Classical symphony and yet having that forward-looking Romantic expression. Often I have gone too far one way or the other.”
One of the selling points of this series, aside from the performance quality, is its high-resolution Super Audio Compact Disc format. “Honestly, I have not been a big audiophile myself,” said this conductor who has made several fine audiophile recordings for Telarc and PentaTone before this RCA series. “But after hearing enough SACDs and making them in Europe and Cincinnati, I am completely convinced that it allows you to hear things in a way that other formats won’t allow you. There’s a richer, much more realistic definition to the sound. When I was editing the first Beethoven symphonies in Holland, all of a sudden they turned off the SACD and we listened as a normal person would, say in my car, and going back was almost impossible. It felt antiquated.”
What pleases Järvi even more than the sonics is the response to the performances from German reviewers, who saw fit to award the first disc the German Record Critics Prize. “I am very happy that they were so kind to this release,” he said. “With a Beethoven symphony cycle, in Germany they can be quite picky about what’s authentic and what’s not. Their response has been very gratifying, because this cycle to me is a snapshot of my relationship with that orchestra.”
BEETHOVEN Symphonies: No. 3, “Eroica”; No. 8 • Paavo Järvi, cond; German CP, Bremen • RCA 713066 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 69:32)
The most important Beethoven symphony cycles on SACD are DG’s two-channel reissue of the early-1960s Karajan set, which I reviewed in Fanfare 27: 5 (“Karajan’s first DG Beethoven cycle has been a standard by which others are judged for 40 years, and this new SACD remastering ensures that it will remain so for the next generation”); Haitink on LSO Live (received orgasmically in England, more mutedly on this side of the pond); and Vänskä on BIS (not yet complete, but so far it’s a stunning achievement). Now here comes Paavo Järvi with his Bremen chamber orchestra, and his first installment blows Haitink out of the water and fully rises to the high standards of Vänskä’s identical coupling of the Third and Eighth symphonies, which I reviewed in 30:2.
The main difference between Järvi and Vänskä has to do not with interpretive choices so much as the inevitable contrasts in texture between Järvi’s small orchestra and Vänskä’s large one (the Minnesota Orchestra). Even so, Järvi’s strings are definitely up front, and despite their comparatively small numbers they do dominate the tuttis, although the winds have plenty of presence in their solo and ensemble passages.
Järvi’s “Eroica” is full of punch and brio and fine detail. Just listen to the pulse of the stuttering passage about half a minute into the first movement, the carefully crafted articulation and dynamic control, the supple phrasing, with a strong bass line throughout. The quality of playing of the orchestra is superb. The violins are nimble; all the strings largely eschew vibrato, to suspenseful effect in the first movements and with eerie results in the funeral march. The Scherzo is rollicking but never out of control, and the final movement is notable for the clarity of the various voices.
Järvi launches the Eighth swiftly, but he also keeps the music light, graceful, and almost dancelike while applying full force to the knockabout passages. The whole symphony goes by in this manner, and the final movement’s scurrying material is played remarkably quickly, and remarkably cleanly. Here, Järvi is clearly superior to the less witty Vänskä.
Compared to Vänskä, Järvi’s signature has fewer flourishes but is no less bold. Järvi’s attention to precision and detail, and his intelligent forcefulness, alongside a reluctance to over-personalize the interpretation, call to mind Szell/Cleveland in the “Eroica” (also available in an SACD reincarnation, two-channel only).
Regarding the sonics, there’s a sense of space behind the orchestra, rather than in front of it, giving the ensemble a particular resonance without making it seem distant.
If you’re looking for a single Beethoven cycle in surround sound, should you invest in Vänskä or Järvi? Judging from this first installment, Järvi’s traversal has much in common with Vänskä’s, although the latter conductor tends to italicize his points just a bit more. Each of these in-progress cycles is superb, and your choice may come down to whether you want your Beethoven to sound full or lean.


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