Earning the Right to Be Routine
by Bernard D. Sherman

An essay on Beethoven Ninth performances by

Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901687)
Arturo Toscanini (RCA 60256-2-RG [1952], and Music and Arts CD-3007 [1938])
Sir Roger Norrington
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Frans Brueggen
Christopher Hogwood
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Sir Charles Mackerras
George Szell

Reprinted by permission from The New York Times August 29, 1999 (slightly revised for this Web site)

 

CD buyers today can choose from over 80 Beethoven Ninths. The release of one more, then, is not exactly a major event, as, say, Arturo Toscanini's recording was 50 years ago. And the bloated catalog isn't the only obstacle to recognition. The increasing dominance of pop culture, the graying of the classical audience, and the beatings administered to European art music by the culture wars all undermine the iconic status of the Ninth.

But 12 years ago, when Sir Roger Norrington recorded the Ninth on period-style instruments, people talked. Norrington aimed for a "historically informed performance" (a HIP, as Sir Roger liked to joke), and sought, he said, to "take Beethoven off his pedestal." No doubt he aimed for some buzz, too. He got it: a review in Time, raves and denunciations in classical fan magazines, and chart-topping sales. The instruments were a novelty, and the performance was full of new ideas, infuriating though many listeners found them.

By the mid-90's, five other conductors had recorded period-instrument Ninths. Now, the Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has joined the club (Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901687). The impressive singing and playing should silence any remaining complaints about early-music amateurism. (The few flat notes from the soprano could just as easily happen in a modern-instrument performance, and the singing is mostly admirable.) But this account -- respectable but unremarkable -- suggests that 12 years of historical experimentation have brought on a privilege of maturity: HIP performances now have just as much right as their mainstream counterparts to be, well, nothing special.

Period-instrument performers were once held to higher standards of insight, or at least novelty, than their mainstream colleagues. When they gave a boring Mozart performance, it was taken as evidence that their whole enterprise was misguided. Perhaps the HIP are no longer expected to be more interesting than the mainstream.

Of course, being HIP used to bestow a compensating advantage: it would win performers unearned attention and praise. That, too, has passed. Period instruments once guaranteed by themselves that a performance of the Ninth would be interesting, but they have lost their novelty. Even a few modern-instrument Beethoven interpreters, like Sir Charles Mackerras and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, find advantages in spicing up their modern sound with historical brass and timpani. After all, the timpani of Beethoven's time sound more intense and explosive than modern timpani, which blend more with the orchestra.

It's surprising, then, that the timpani are weak points in Herreweghe's otherwise excellent orchestra. Their tinniness undermines the cataclysmic power of the first-movement recapitulation. Critics have argued heatedly over the sound and fury of its opening (what exactly does it signify?); but here the fury is sabotaged by the sound.

Beethoven's metronome marks, some of which are astonishingly fast, have also lost their novelty after 12 years, although Herreweghe's CD jacket makes a big point of them -- as if Sir Roger Norrington had not done the same, or for that matter, such modern-instrument conductors as Hermann Scherchen and René Leibowitz long before him. Current modern-instrument maestros like Mackerras, Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, and David Zinman also take these markings into account. So did Toscanini, even in the 1920's.

Beethoven appears to have set some store by these markings, but over the last 12 years, dozens of critics have explained why metronome marks are more problematic than early-music enthusiasts used to acknowledge. Composers, to begin with, often take their own music slower (and sometimes faster) than the speeds they imagined when setting numbers to the page. Changes of mood can lead anyone (including a composer) to different tempos at different times. Besides, what sounds right inside the composer's head often needs adjustment to work with physical instruments in real acoustical spaces. Beethoven could never make such adjustments with this symphony: he was functionally deaf when he wrote it.

Such deviations between what composers say and what they do may reflect something about tempo: it seems a less defining element of a musical work than patterns of pitch, rhythm or harmony. Change the opening movement of, say, the Beethoven Fifth to a major key, and you have something everyone will recognize as fundamentally different from the original. But play it slower than the metronome mark, and nobody will deny that it is the same piece. Insisting that there is something essential about following a metronome mark imposes a meaningless limit on performance. It's like saying that your identity changes when your pulse rate goes through its usual ups and downs.

Herreweghe comes closer than other conductors to the metronome marks, even if he does make reasonable compromises. His Adagio, though fast, is still 15 percent below the metronome speed. Yet in treating metronome marks as ballpark figures rather than exact quantities, he is no different from other HIP conductors like Sir Roger, or from modern-instrument maestros like Sir Charles, Harnoncourt and Abbado in their Ninths. Sensible though most of Mr. Herreweghe's choices are, this feature is nothing to write home about.

Not that all of his tempo choices are as convincing. There are a few tricky markings in this work, and Mr. Herreweghe stumbles over one of them. Beethoven segues into the second-movement Trio with the Italian instruction "stringendo," which means that the tempo should accelerate; but then he gives the Trio the same metronome mark as the preceding Scherzo. Should one speed up the tempo or keep it the same?

Several solutions have been offered to explain the contradiction, and Herreweghe and John Eliot Gardiner adhere to a particularly unconvincing one. They maintain the speed not of the bar but of the quarter note. Both conductors manage perhaps 340 quarter notes per minute, which is about the fastest tempo human players can actually achieve here. The results sound silly. The virtuosity of the players is impressive, but as David Levy, the author of an excellent book on the Ninth, said by E-mail, the effect sounds "like a musical toy-box that's been wound too tight."

Levy argues in his book that the Trio is actually full of pastoral references, none of which are evident in these two performances. Sir Roger Norrington's recording, which takes the Trio's slow metronome mark at face value, gives a sense of what Levy has in mind. Sir Roger's Trio shows the value of considering the metronome marks: they can suggest interesting new possibilities. It is unlikely he would have chosen the slow tempo based on his own intuition, but the results shed light on the meaning of the piece. By contrast, Herreweghe's Trio shows the downside of considering metronome marks: they can lead to unworkable excesses.

Choosing a workable tempo is one thing; more important is what one does with the tempo as the music progresses. As in his recent recording of the Brahms Requiem, Herreweghe is uncommonly strict in adhering to his initial tempos. Period-instrument conductors are often criticized for the strictness of their tempos, but Herreweghe can make Norrington, Gardiner, Frans Brüggen and Christopher Hogwood seem flexible by comparison. Herreweghe even ignores one instance of tempo variation that is explicitly indicated in the score. Beethoven asks, both with the metronome and with his Italian tempo words, that the second theme of the slow movement be a little faster than the first, but Herreweghe is so committed to a sense of unwavering motion that he keeps the tempo unchanged.

And after the finale's "Turkish march" variation flies into a furious double fugue, without any new tempo indication, no other HIP maestro can resist the Dionysian impulse to speed up. But Herreweghe resists it with apparent ease. True, he starts the Turkish march at a controversially fast tempo (based on a reading similar to that in his Trio), leaving little room to speed up. Yet Gardiner starts the march even faster, and still cannot resist accelerating.

Herreweghe does not like to accelerate, nor does he like to linger. The second thematic group of the first movement is more lyrical than the thunderous principal theme, and most conductors convey the contrast partly by modifying their tempo a little. Even the supposedly Classical George Szell expands his tempo, and so to a lesser extent do Norrington, Brüggen, and Gardiner. But Herreweghe comes close to making his tempo sound steady.

Does such strictness of tempo bring us closer to Beethoven's sensibilities? In favor of strict Beethoven, it has been argued that the under-rehearsed orchestras of his day could manage little unmarked tempo inflection, including in the Ninth. That symphony's premiere pitted a partly amateur orchestra against a difficult and radically novel piece with only two full rehearsals; the group struggled, by all accounts, just to start and end together without disaster. Thus, the argument goes, the historically inclined should perform Beethoven symphonies in a direct style with little tempo inflection.

On the other hand, it was the challenge of doing justice to Beethoven, especially the Ninth, that contributed most to the rise of the interpretive conductor; for no work is period practice so irrelevant. Besides, Beethoven once remarked that metronome marks applied only to the first bars, after which "feeling has its own tempo." And in orchestral rehearsal, according to a contemporary, Beethoven "was very meticulous with regard to expression, the more delicate shadings, an equable distribution of light and shade, and an effective tempo rubato...." Beethoven's follower (and self-appointed spokesman) Anton Schindler argued that while circumstances limited the tempo fluctuation typical in Viennese performance in Beethoven's time, the composer would have sought much more if he had had adequate rehearsal time. Schindler's veracity has been questioned, but the evidence suggests that even if Beethoven did not get responsive orchestras in his day, he would have relished them.

Moreover, what Beethoven and his contemporaries would have relished might ultimately be beside the point. The conductor Joshua Rifkin has noted that while the audience at the premiere was hearing a work like the Ninth for the first time, we have heard it a thousand times. We need more interpretation than the first audience did. A relatively uninflected read-through of a great work will do for a first hearing; but after a listener knows such a piece intimately, only a probing interpretation will satisfy - just the kind of interpretation that would have been difficult in the composer's own era.

The value of such interpretation can be seen in the work of the conductor most prominently associated with a fast, strict approach to Beethoven: Toscanini, whose Beethoven seemed revolutionary in the 1920's and 30's, compared with the Wagnerian style of many conductors of the era. Herreweghe seems at first glance to be following in the Italian maestro's footsteps. But in fact, in the first-movement exposition, Toscanini's 1952 recording of the Ninth has a tempo range twice as great as Herreweghe's, and shows far more interesting inflections of phrasing and tempo.* *His 1938 recording, which I have heard since publishing this article, is arguably even finer, and is in equally good sound on Music and Arts 3007

Beethoven gave this movement a strikingly fast metronome mark, which seems to contradict the tempo words that modify his basic indication of "Allegro" (fast): namely, "non troppo" (not too much) and "Un poco maestoso" (a little majestic). Performances that approach the metronome mark -- and Mr. Herreweghe and Gardiner come closest -- often lack even a little majesty or weight. But Toscanini, who is almost as fast, conveys the indicated qualities through inflection. Specifically, he expands his tempo not for the second thematic group but for the first one. He seems to have believed, with good reason, that the phrase "a little majestic" applies specifically to the principal theme. (Inflection of another sort is part of the problem with Herreweghe's opening bars. They convey not cosmic mystery so much as nervous twitching, partly because he cuts the quarter notes short, perhaps because of a dubious belief about historical practice.)

As for the second thematic group, Toscanini, uniquely, speeds up a bit. But he does so only after the undulating transitional passage, marked "dolce" (sweet), is over. The delay lets his livelier tempo point up the new key, B flat, which is arrived at only after the transition. Similarly, Toscanini accelerates slightly a few minutes later, at the triumphant passage (outlining a major chord) that ends the exposition, effectively signaling a point of arrival. Such inflections explain why Toscanini's Beethoven remains so commanding after all these decades, and why Herreweghe's first movement seems bland by comparison. The smoothness of Herreweghe's performance marks it as the work of a professional as reliable as any mainstream peer. Yet that very smoothness seems out of keeping with this monumental work and its strivings.

Exceptional Ninths are rare, but they still emerge on occasion. The 1991 recording of Sir Charles Mackerras, mixing historical information with modern orchestras, stands up well among the finest Ninths of the recording archives. But merely adequate Ninths are more common, regardless of the type of instruments used.

Even when exceptional Ninths come along nowadays, they are no longer cultural events. Sir Charles's recording has never even been released in the United States, and its owner, EMI, a company spokesperson said, has no plans to rectify that situation. The days are past when Beethoven was seen as the center of musical life or when the virtuoso conductor was the lion of the musical world. Herreweghe's recording does not have what it takes to reverse the trend; but even Sir Charles's had no effect.

If the Ninth is losing a bit of its cultural status, the decline might be a paradoxical comfort for Mr. Herreweghe and his admirers. That he does not lead a memorable Ninth here reflects not at all on his accomplishments in other music, including the "early" music he has often recorded. It would be risky to draw a moral from all this, but it may suggest, as do so many other developments, that Mr. Herreweghe and his HIP colleagues have arrived.

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