WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
CATALOGUE NO: 442 156-2 DDD
‘Correctness’, writes Alfred Brendel, ‘tells us: this is how it has to be!… Boldness presents us with a surprising and overwhelming realisation: what we had thought impossible becomes true!’ Such principles inform Frans Briiggen’s questing, iconoclastic and revelatory Beethoven cycle, recorded between 1984 and 1992. Briiggen seems less pedantic in matters of textual fidelity than either Gardiner or Norrington, yet more assertive than Hogwood, revealing affinities with Harnoncourt’s heroic musical dramaturgy. This enthrallingly logical, authentic traversal offers superbly engineered performances of patrician insight and substance. Briiggen’s players employ gut strings, period woodwind, natural brass and hide-headed timpani (and bass drum in the Ninth Symphony) struck with hard sticks. First and second violins are seated antiphonally, the established practice in Beethoven’s Vienna. Individual performances are calculated to astonish: leonine, alert and discursive, each is propelled with a determination reflecting the ferocity of Beethoven’s creative vision. Tempi are brisk, though seldom controversial; expectations of a radical tempo for the Trio of the Scherzo in No. 7, for example, will be disappointed. Weber considered Beethoven ‘ripe for the madhouse’ after hearing this symphony, a maelstrom whose violence seems fearfully modernistic in Briiggen’s hands. The Eroica, its defiant, inflammatory rhetoric all the more telling for divided violins and an eschewal of von Billow’s unseemly trumpet emendations, is superb. Like Nos 1,2, 5,7 and 8, the Third was recorded live. Small lapses of ensemble and intonation seem trifling, given the galvanic authority of the whole experience. That audacious horn trio in the Scherzo, doubly challenging on valveless instruments, is played with jaw-dropping ease.
Briiggen’s ebullient accounts of Nos 1 and 2 are as venturesome as the rule-breaking dominant seventh chord which launches the First. The Fourth, its nebulous chromatic introduction seemingly incapable of spawning any emotional upswing, demonstrates another virtue of this set – every dramatic contrast is maximised, as with the cathartic arrival of the vigorous Allegro vivace first subject. The same pertains in fuller measure to the triumphant finale of the Fifth Symphony; argued, forged, and finally won amid consuming fervour.
The Pastoral, that most obviously programmatic of Beethoven symphonies, sounds a lone note of disappointment: pictorial realism is underplayed. Few would link the Eighth with the innovative aspirations of Nos 7 and 9, yet the momentum and power of Briiggen’s reading here suggests otherwise. But if popular misconceptions remain to be shattered, the most testing encounter awaits, in the extended musical, philosophical and humanistic pronouncements of the Choral Symphony. Briiggen succeeds, as far as anyone can, perhaps, in evincing the spirit, if not the precise letter of the Ninth, in this monumental and ultimately heavenstorming reading. Highly recommended, particularly to those seeking a valid alternative commentary. Michael Jameson