PERFORMER: CO of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-13140-2
So familiar are Beethoven’s overtures in the concert hall that we tend to forget their (mainly) theatrical origins: of the eight assembled on the Harnoncourt disc, four were written for his only opera, Fidelio, three were inspired by plays and one was composed for a ballet.
In essence, then, these are dramatic pieces, full of vivid contrasts, and Harnoncourt’s cleanly articulated, style-sensitive performances present them well. The spare, dark-hued textures and obsessive tension of Coriolan (the only piece here not recorded live), the careful observation of dynamic markings in the unhurried Fidelio, the delineation of the broader, more ambitious processes of Leonore No. 2, all bespeak an interpreter more concerned with discovering what is in the music than in forcing it to serve the ends of orchestral virtuosity. The recording is marginally over-resonant, leading to a lack of clarity in the overall sound picture.
Curiously, Harnoncourt’s Prometheus Overture doesn’t finish with the brusque chords of the concert ending, but segues straight into the stormy Introduction to the ballet proper. In his account of the complete ballet (staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1801), Frans Brüggen naturally does the same. Once again the score relates to a theatrical action, but only brief scenarios and a few stage directions in Beethoven’s sketches survive to tell us how. Though often attractive, Prometheus demonstrates the young composer’s ability to fulfil a commission with thorough professionalism, rather than confirming the outstanding originality of the marginally earlier First Symphony.
Once again captured live, Brüggen’s approach is more generalised, less rich in local perceptions, than Harnoncourt’s, while the impact of the period-instrument orchestra has been muted by the acoustic.