Analekta’s recent release of Beethoven’s Op. 67 and Op. 68 adds another view of the pair of masterworks that have enthralled audiences and challenged conductors and players since their premières in 1808. Happy to report that these performances have much to admire, but also demonstrate that the “definitive” version still remains unrecorded.
Tafelmusik Orchestra, armed with period instruments and supported by John D.S. Adams’ magical engineering skills, provides conductor Bruno Weil with a first-rate instrument on which to craft his vision of these sublime scores. At its best (in the Finale of the C Minor and the speaker-shaking outbursts in the Pastoral’s storm) he delivers a rock-and-sock ‘em punch that is notable for a truly lean string tone and brass balance (particularly between trumpets and trombones) that astonishes in its clarity and timbre. But the musical “traps” that, seemingly harmlessly, lurk on every page either slip by unnoticed or get the better of the maestro despite his noble ministrations.
Dynamics, rhythm and tempo are the keys to success with most music, but particularly in the classic period where ferreting out the composer’s subtext can lift a reading from adequate to magnificent.
Given the small numbers of the band (especially when compared with much larger ensembles that fill the catalogue with “Lush ‘R’ Us” versions), it was hugely disappointing to have to wait until the calm between the thunderbolts (the disc begins with Symphony No. 6) to have a true, shiver-inducing pianissimo. Oddly, on a number of occasions, the long, lingering diminuendos began before the climax rather than a millisecond following the destination of the phrase’s target. Still, the peasants’ sfzorzandi will knock your overalls off. What both works require is a well-crafted dynamic plan that sculpts the whole, rather than individual movements.
The subtleties of Beethoven’s rhythm were also hit-and-miss. Dotted notes too-often lost their duple character and were allowed to morph into their lazier triple cousins. Quarters followed by a pair of eighths were frequently uneven divisions of the equivalent amount of time. Much of those vagaries can be traced back to the tempi. In general, the fast movements went by at clips that challenged the players just to get the notes out, with little opportunity for the shape and finesse that is so often demanded. The opening of the Pastoral is “Allegro” but “ma non troppo” needs to be heeded as well. Consequently, the movement’s many lifts into the heavens became quick refuelling stops. Yet all was forgiven when Weil found the magic “By the brook” and served up many of the disc’s finest moments, marred only by dropping some slurs in the oboe/flute conversation and a late-inning fortepiano that threatened to give the coming tempest away.
The so-called “fate knocking at the door” of Symphony No. 5 was most certainly a triplet and not three eighths. Conductors and musicians alike have wrestled with this devilish problem for eons. Perhaps, if the fermata was somehow acknowledged … In the “Scherzo” (notable for the lower strings who ate up the Trio with incredible gusto and skill) the famous repeated-note cry of the French horns got out of the wrong side of the bed and dislocated the pulse from the dotted half; the ensuing reply from the woodwinds and strings soon put the weight back on the right syllable and settled the argument—stranger than truth!
It must be said that the period instruments add a welcome variety of hues and shades to the music, even if that results in a wayward F from the brief oboe cadenza and an anemic super-G from the flute. Nonetheless, the series should continue—Beethoven’s symphonies still have much to say and even more from which we can all learn. JWR