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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bargain Basement Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven in 1805. Painting by Joseph Willibrord Mähler.
Collection of the Historisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
In the mid-1990s, at the close of the CD boom, a flurry of complete cycles of Beethoven recordings were released, featuring smaller orchestras and so-called "original" instruments mimicking the technology of the 18th century.

Two of those are considered here.

The contenders:
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies
Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 1994, 5 CDs)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec/Warner Brothers, Download)

These recordings feature John Eliot Gardiner's 60-piece Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, a group assembled specifically to perform 18th and 19th century music with instruments that were contemperaneous to when these compositions were written.
The booklet cover for John Eliot Gardiner's Beethoven cycle.
© 1994 Universal Classics/DG Archiv 
Gardiner's players use authentic strings, which have a slightly rougher tone than modern instruments. The wind section features wooden transverse flutes, and finger-hole bassoons. Oboes and clarinets are shaped a little differently, and lack the complex key systems of modern instruments. Finally, a period orchestra uses copper kettledrums with goatskin heads, played with hard wooden drumsticks. The brass players use "natural" horns, where pitch is changed by removing a section of pipe (called a "crook") and replacing it with another.

The other difference between these recordings and "modern" sets by Herbert von Karajan or Claudio Abbado is the use of "metronome markings", the original tempo numbers specified by Beethoven on the scores of his later symphonies. Using these marks sometimes means that the works (particularly the Seventh and Eighth) hurtle along at a merry pace. The last movement of the Ninth is so fast that it's almost as long as the entire First Symphony.

The Teldec cycle was conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Austrian period performance specialist and cellist who was a pioneer of the period instrument movement of the '70s and '80s. The set is different. Harnoncourt chose to blend instrumental styles, placing modern strings and winds next to 18th century brass and percussion. This is a contrivance, but it makes for a blend of sounds that makes this cycle unique.
The reissue cover for Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Beethoven cycle.
Harnoncourt's choice of tempo is sometimes idiosyncratic, and generally slower than Gardiner, by an average of about three minutes. (The "Eroica" is three minutes slower. In the Fifth, there is almost five minutes difference. Harnoncourt's opening movement of the Sixth Symphony (the Pastorale) clocks in at 13'22" with all of the repeats intact.

Gardiner's performance takes 11'13", and his whole performance is three and a half minutes faster than Harnoncourt's. The Ninth is even more radical in Gardiner's hands. But again, the difference totals three minutes, with the English conductor finishing first.

The Gardiner set is currently available as a 5-disc box, with the discs in envelopes for about $20. That's a hell of a discount, considering that the set retailed for about $60 when it was first released. The Harnoncourt is available on Amazon as a digital download: with the whole set for just $15.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats