Beethoven: The 9 Symphonies / Gardiner

Thursday, September 29, 2005 Music: Beethoven: The 9 Symphonies / Gardiner

I've been a proponent of "ancient music" or "original instruments" for a long time, since I was a performer in an medieval and renaissance group, back when Thomas Tallis was a pop musician. So I'm naturally inclined toward these sorts of recordings.

John Eliot Gardiner's new recordings of the Symphonies is a lovely example of why original instrumentation is a good idea. So far I've only listened to part of the 2nd, the 6th (the Pastoral) and the 9th ( the famous Choral Symphony), and I've got to say it's thrilling to listen.

The fourth movement of the 9th Symphony (broken into two tracks, I assume to make it easy to find the beginning of the choral section of the IVth movement) is the example I like best. Basses, especially second basses, are used to music where they fill in the bottom and end up singing parts that, sung alone, sound like the tuba part in an ooom-pah band, so I have a soft spot for anything that gives a bass the lead. Plus, both the melody, and Schiller's words as rewritten by Beethoven, are among the most beautiful songs in the world. When Beethoven wrote the 9th, a "symphony orchestra" was perhaps 40 performers, and they were playing the somewhat "thinner", quieter, less robust instruments of the time. A single vocalist could hope to sing with an orchestra of that size, and a listener could confidently feel they were hearing the individual performers as they played. Modern orchestras are more than twice that size, modern instruments are much louder and fuller in tone. The result is a "wall of sound" that can be overwhelming, and that forces vocalists into amplification in order to compete.

In Gardiner's version, the "natural" size is restored. You can hear the individual instruments, and the balance of treble to low voiced instruments is noticably different: the half-dozen celli and basses saw along industriously, but they're not a separate voice as much as the foundation of the rest of the music; their low notes give a feeling of darkness and mystery. Gardiner makes another interesting choice, by playing the IVth movement, which is marked "presto", as presto --- quickly, lightly, not as a matter of deep import but as a "joyful noise", with the instrumental parts lively, staccato, almost pizzicato. It makes a marked constrast to the fluid, fugal complexity of the first part of the IVth movement, and to the dark bombast of the rest of the symphony, so that when the bass calls out "Freunde, nicht dieser Töne/Sondern laßt uns angenehmere/anstimmen und freudenvollere", ("Friends, not these sounds --- instead, let's sing something more cheerful and more joyful") you hear the bass's --- and Beethoven's --- answer to the darkness.

The whole work is full of these little surprises: the way the cymbals crash in the finale of the 9th, bringing a little bit of the enthusiasm of a band box in a park to this work that's normally performed with the pomposity of a politician talking about his own modesty; the sense of an open echo in the first movement of the 6th Symphony; the sense of tension, anticipation, in the first bars of the 1st.

All in all, if you love Beethoven, listen to this: you'll hear it with new ears. And if you think you don't like Beethoven, then listen to these versions --- you'll get an idea of why Beethoven was so famous in his own time, and in ours.


chuck said...

You have just about sold me on the recordings. I have Gardiner's version of The Symphony Fantastique and now I'm curios about his take on the Beethoven works. I don't think I have your ear, however, so the differences may not be so apparent to me.

vnjagvet said...

I have Gardiner's St. Matthew Passion and love it. He has a great ability working with chorus and orchestra.

I will be on the lookout for this set on the strength of your fine review.


Seneca the Younger said...

You guys just cost me another $50. Thanks for the kind words.

Knucklehead said...


I cannot appreciate the finer points for myself but I know somebody who can. Thanks for the gift idea.

Knucklehead said...

BTW, Seneca, which Bugs Bunny episodes were these symphonies composed for? said...

Ditto on the $50

Thanks, Charles, you are a Jewel


Jamie Irons said...

What a wonderful review!

I am always in awe of anyone who can write intelligently about music, poetry or painting.

I have just ordered the Gardiner symphonies!

Jamie Irons

Seneca the Younger said...

Knucklehead, you've got Beethoven confused with one of the great American composers.