There is a long tradition of Beethoven symphony performances and recordings by the Berlin Philharmonic, which begins with Artur Nikitsch making the first recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in 1913. Nikitsch and the orchestra performed all the symphonies live many times over, but in those early days of recording technology, only the Fifth was ever recorded. Then came Wilhelm Furtwängler. Although widely admired for his Beethoven performances, Furtwängler never recorded a complete Beethoven cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. That honour went to Herbert von Karajan, who recorded all the symphonies with the orchestra in 1962. A second complete cycle was recorded in 1971, and a third in 1982-3 — all for Deutsche Grammophon. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic also recorded two cycles for video over the years. Claudio Abbado, Karajan’s successor, made his own Beethoven cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000. Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic recorded a Beethoven cycle for EMI in 2002 (7243 5 57445. 5 CDs).
Now, finally, after thirteen years at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, 61-year old Sir Simon Rattle and his orchestra have produced their own Beethoven cycle. These performances, which have been given special packaging in a large hard-cover box and have been coupled with documentaries on both the orchestra and the music, represent an important milestone for both the orchestra and its conductor.
The Berlin Philharmonic players choose their own chief conductors, and they have made some wise choices. Furtwängler was a living legend at the time he passed away in 1954, not to mention a hard act to follow. His successor, Herbert von Karajan was not only up to the task but brought the orchestra greater fame and income than it had ever known. Although Karajan’s last years with the Berlin Philharmonic were problematic and rife with medical problems, it was nonetheless difficult for any conductor to fill his shoes. That said, Claudio Abbado, who lacked Karajan’s charisma, possessed an effective, quiet authority, and broadened the orchestra’s repertoire. Illness forced Abbado to step down after only a decade as chief conductor, and the orchestra chose Sir Simon Rattle, then seen as the most dynamic of all the younger conductors, as his replacement. Rattle broadened the repertoire still further and was full of ideas about how to bring a great symphony orchestra into the 21st century.
For any conductor embarking on a Beethoven cycle today, perhaps the most important first step is selecting the right edition of the score. As it happens, German classical music publishing house Bärenreiter published a new edition in 1996-2000 based on years of work by British musicologist Jonathan Del Mar. Abbado used this edition for his 2000 recorded cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, and Rattle used it for his 2002 cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic. In this new cycle, Rattle again uses this edition, and the booklet in this box set includes an essay by Del Mar explaining some of the most important corrections he made.
Understanding how to perform Beethoven is an unending process. In this new recording Rattle, not completely satisfied with the Bärenreiter edition, incorporated a suggestion made by conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. Over a lifetime of experience, Mackerras came to the conclusion that the bass line in the Seventh Symphony never quite sounded the way he thought Beethoven intended it to sound. To strengthen and clarify the bass line, Mackerras added not one but two contrabassoons. This instrument is capable of playing notes an octave below the bassoon and so can exactly duplicate what the double basses are playing. Apparently, Beethoven had added this instrument in a Seventh Symphony rehearsal – as he had done with the Fifth Symphony and was later to do with the Ninth Symphony – but either the instrument or the player was incapable of making a decent sound, so he cut it out. Fortunately, contrabassoons and contrabassoonists are much better today, and so Mackerras and Rattle felt totally justified in putting them back in. I doubt that many listeners will notice much of a difference, as there is only one passage (bar 362ff), in the fourth movement, where the contrabassoons seem to add weight and clarity.
Another decision to be made by the conductor before the orchestra even plays a note is to decide on the size of the orchestra. We know that Beethoven worked with small and large orchestras on various occasions. Rattle decided that since the early symphonies look back to Haydn and the later ones are clearly more forward-looking and muscular in spirit, he should gradually enlarge the orchestra as he moved from one to nine. In this cycle, only the Ninth Symphony uses anything like the full complement of the Berlin Philharmonic. So, the First Symphony has a string section comprised of 10 first violins/10 second violins/6 violas/5 cellos/3 double basses, whereas the Ninth Symphony is much larger, with a distribution of 16/14/12/10/8 – almost double the number of players.
One can question Rattle’s choices. He notes that the Eroica was first played in a hall no larger than the stage of the Berliner Philharmonie (concert hall) and so this radically new (at the time) music “must have sounded like Vesuvius erupting.” But how does it make sense to play the Eroica today, with the same number of players as in the premiere, in a hall ten times as large? The effect of the music can’t help but be diminished. If you really want to hear “Vesuvius erupting,” listen to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, using many more players, in a live performance from 1982 (Sony DVD SVD 48434).
In matters of tempo, Rattle goes by Beethoven’s metronome markings, believing them to be almost totally reliable, but he is flexible when he thinks the music requires it. Thus, for the slow section near the end of the last movement of the Eroica, he ignores the metronome marking and takes a much slower tempo, nearly identical to the tempo chosen by older conductors such as Furtwängler, Böhm and Karajan.
On the whole, in these new recordings with the BPO, Rattle takes tempi that are nearly identical to the ones he took 12 years earlier in his recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic. Where there are differences, the already pretty quick tempi are nearly always even a little faster.
Near the end of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, there is a ‘slow’ passage marked “Maestoso,” which is almost never played properly. Erich Leinsdorf pointed out the error in his book The Composer’s Advocate (Yale U.P, 1981). According to Leinsdorf, “the score shows quite clearly that one-quarter of the ¾ bar must be equal to one entire bar of the 2/2 prestissimo.” This is a somewhat technical musical point, but Leinsdorf is right. What is most astonishing is that even after explaining the problem in detail in his book, many conductors continue to do it the traditional way. To his credit, Rattle does not. Listeners reared on recordings by the grand old conductors will be shocked to hear Rattle taking the Maestoso so fast. But he is right, and they are wrong.
While the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan was as fine as any orchestra in the world, on the basis of this recorded Beethoven cycle, there can no longer be any question that today it is even better. The hair-trigger accuracy of the ensemble, the quality of the solo playing, the variety of tonal colours the orchestra can produce, the technical virtuosity, bespeaks orchestral playing at the highest level.
Sir Simon Rattle deserves a good share of the credit. Since his earliest years as a conductor, he has been known as a born leader and a musician with an insatiable curiosity. Above all, he possesses an enthusiasm that galvanises players and audiences alike. In these crystal clear Blu-ray videos, one can see that Rattle and his players are fully committed to what they are doing and determined to give their best. All these performances have been prepared with painstaking care to get every detail just right, and there are numerous moments of beauty and excitement. The Ninth Symphony is particularly fine, with a wonderful contribution by the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Rattle and chorus master Simon Halsey have often worked together over the years, and the effectiveness of their partnership shows great benefits yet again in this exciting performance.
Both documentaries are well done, although with considerable duplication. The second is especially interesting for conducting aficionados. Rattle, who has always been exceptionally articulate and a first-rate communicator, sits at the piano talking about Beethoven and his symphonies, and from time to time uses the piano to make a point about the music or his approach to it. Not since Leonard Bernstein I think, has any conductor – with the possible exception of Benjamin Zander – talked with such insight and command of the language, about the music he is playing. One only wishes that the director had told Rattle to look into the camera at his audience, rather than off to the side, as if he were answering questions from an interviewer.
Latest posts by Paul E. Robinson (see all)
- SCRUTINY | TSO Lets Berlioz Do The Talking In Season Opener - September 21, 2018
- RECORD KEEPING | Even Yannick Nézet-Séguin Can’t Make Us Love Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito - September 6, 2018
- RECORD KEEPING | Giovanna d’Arco With Anna Netrebko Explains Why The Best Operas Survive - August 30, 2018