Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

The last few weeks have seen a crop of varying Eroicas. Nothing as vastly scaled or sonically cosmic as Celibidache (Philharmonie am Gasteig Munich, 1987, fifty-eight minutes music time, without the first-movement repeat – inviting us to ponder the Almighty: “the richer the music … the slower the tempo”). Nothing as fist-shaking or fiercely driven as Savall (La Capella Reial de Catalunya 1994, forty-four minutes, with – yesterday’s world from tomorrow’s man). But provoking thought and sharing things in common: exposition repeats, reduced (distanced) strings, the rattle of hard-stick drums.

Tempo. Beethoven’s published metronome markings (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Leipzig 17 December 1817) give us an overview of what’s wanted. I: Allegro con brio, dotted minim 60 (a bar a second); II: Adagio assai, quaver 80; III: Allegro vivace, dotted minim 116; IV: Allegro molto, minim 76 [crotchet 152]/Poco andante, quaver 108 [crotchet 54]/Presto, crotchet (quaver misprinted) 116 [minim 58]. Some conductors opt for the hell-let-loose Mazeppa approach, sub-forty-four minutes (Scherchen post-war, Leibowitz, early Norrington – not, however, ‘period’ Hogwood, at fifty). Others, setting metronome aside, the aspiringly monumental, post-60 (Takashi Asahina). Most get the ratios of the Finale balanced – though I can recall Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra at the 1975 Proms, possibly thinking of that half-speed AMZ quaver 116, closing with a ponderously held-back coda. In 1906 Weingartner (On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies) proposed a scale of alternative tempi that in many quarters still remains an influential yardstick. I: dotted minim 54; II: quaver 66-72; [III: dotted minim 116]; IV: minim 76 [intrata]/crotchet 116 increasing to 132 [theme]/quaver 84/crotchet 108.

Numbers, timings, are interesting graphically, they can tell us a lot. But at best they’re only clues to the skeleton of a story. In a blog a decade ago, Kenneth Woods reminded his readers that “following LvB’s tempi doesn’t in any way guarantee a good performance – it’s got to be colourful, articulate, in tune, together, dynamic, balanced, phrased and more, and I’m not sure I’d sacrifice any of those for sheer tempo”. Obvious maybe, but necessary to say. Personal response, changing values, new dimensions have a part to play, too. I grew up on, acquired, referenced, a succession of weighty first movement Eroicas. Cluytens, Weingartner, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Schuricht, Karajan, Klemperer, Kleiber senior, Reiner, Mengelberg, Toscanini, Szell, Bernstein, Mravinsky, Sargent, Barbirolli, Giulini, Horenstein, von Matačić, the Jochum brothers (preferring Georg Ludwig) … so many. The dotted minim 32-52 generation. But then I tired of the manner, successive conductors – with exceptions: Abbado, Iván Fischer, Sawallisch, Thielemann – tending too often, for me, towards merely parody or imitation. These days I find myself more invigorated by the 58-60+ approach of such as Savall, Dausgaard, Paavo Järvi, Chailly … while mindful that excess of speed can be commensurate with lessening of stature. It’s a fine line.

Orchestral size. On the grounds of mighty forces for a mighty symphony, Romantically enlarged string sections remain broadly the norm (Karajan was particular about it). Time was, though, when judiciously doubled woodwind and brass in the tuttis “if the strings are numerous” (Weingartner:  sixteen first violins to eight double basses) – was also common. There’s a notably energised account under Charles Munch in Tokyo illustrating this clearly; similarly one from Kubelik The number of pro-am string players available to Beethoven for private and public performances of the Eroica between 1804 and 1807 varied. At the first run-through at Prince Lobkowitz’s palace [3.3].2.2.2 (June 1804); then [6.6].3.4.2 (January 1805). A concert in Vienna’s University Hall (December 1807), Beethoven ‘directing’, assumed more recognisably ‘symphonic’ proportions – Today a modern ‘period’ band or chamber orchestra would typically field around 8+6+4+4+2, give or take.

So … this past month. Veteran of the pack, inevitably, was Herbert Blomstedt, ninety-three, conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (August 15, Konzertsaal, Lucerne Culture and Congress Center, circa fifty-one minutes, including movement breaks). In many the ageing process leads to slowness. Blomstedt triumphantly contradicts the trend. Hawk-like, stooped yet with a spring in his step, expressive hands (no baton), not shy of physical gesture or stabbing thrust when needed, he shaped a fulfillingly organic account, paragraphing, phrasing and tempo moulded and fused into a cumulatively conquering whole. On all counts his speeds, down on Beethoven’s, grew out of old precedents, fluctuating according to musical priorities. A well-oiled engine, easing and urging. I: dotted minim 52; II: quaver 66-76; III: dotted minim 104; IV: minim 72/quaver 78/crotchet 100. Moving the Funeral March forwards, slightly holding back the Scherzo’s trio, felt comfortable, slowing for the country theme of the Finale arguably less so, familiar a device though it frequently is. The growth of the first movement coda, the tread of the second movement, the noble wind and brass cupola of the Finale’s Andante, the clarity of linear argument, the fullness of chording generally, left many positives. Antiphonal violins and violas. A richesse of players, several from the days when Abbado first launched the Lucerne Festival Orchestra – a twenty-four-carat ad hoc body calling on the finest soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral personnel around. Grigory Ahss (Camerata Salzburg) leading. Wolfram Christ (formerly Berlin Philharmonic) commanding the violas, Clemens Hagen the cellos. Chiara Tonelli (Mahler Chamber Orchestra), second flute. Lucas Macías Navarro (formerly Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra), principal oboe. Raymond Curfs (Bavarian Radio SO), timpani. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of this Praetorian Guard?

Classicist, modernist, ‘period’ man, big-time symphonist, François-Xavier Roth, half Blomstedt’s age, likewise without baton, is one of those talkative, engagingly lively personalities who brings enthusiasm yet seriousness, elevation yet humour, to what he does. He draws audiences in, he takes the music to the people. His Amsterdam Eroica, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (August 23, around forty-eight minutes), was crisply elevating. I: dotted minim 54+ (60); II: quaver 64-72 (68); III: dotted minim 114-20 (116); IV: minim 70-78/quaver 80/crotchet 92-96. With short attacks, and a determination to press on, undulations notwithstanding, I sensed echoes of the Zinman/Tonhalle recording – dispensing, agreed, with Jonathan Del Mar’s editorially plausible Da capo repeat in the Scherzo but favouring the same string quartet realisation of the Finale’s triplet variation at bar 59/60 (implicit from the telling “solo” viola marking in Cianchettini & Sperati’s London 1809 full score, otherwise omitted from all later standard editions and parts). A naturally breathed (unwritten) pause, too, into the Finale’s Poco andante – less terse than Blomstedt (Furtwängler’s eight seconds at this point, Berlin 1952, was from another universe). Underlining Weingartner’s view that it “should be fresh and energetic without any change in the tempo”, the horn trio of the Scherzo, all bright sky and hard frost, à la chasse, was brazen and tight, Kate Woolley leading her troops sonorously. Matched violin/viola quadruple/triple stopping at start and finish lent a gutsy tension. Dynamic gratuities apart (the soft/softer terracing of the Finale’s opening ground bass), most striking of the ‘period’ touches was the prominence of drums from Tomohiro Ando, a baroque proponent. He’s not as liberated a performer as, say, Koen Plaetinck, Alexander Schröde or José A. Trigueros Segarra, nor as theatrically forward as Jordi Savall is wont to encourage. But he’s powerfully committed to the idea of Beethoven’s drum parts being much more than cadential courtesies – a voice of their time. Musket fire and heavy cannon are for the finding, and they can change our perspective of the music radically, sometimes terrifyingly. (Fifty years ago Sibelius underwent a not dissimilar unearthing process.) Happy to let his sound ring on, not to dampen too swiftly, Ando created a world at times not unlike that of an early open-pedal piano … tonics, dominants and harmonics swirling tumultuously, sharply defined one moment, cloaked in haze the next, gutturally thunderous by the end.

Marking the return of ‘live’ music to the BBC Proms, albeit without audience (Royal Albert Hall,  August 28, fifty-minutes minutes thereabouts), Sakari Oramo’s “water in the desert” Eroica slashed its first two chords sabre-like into the acoustic, but then rarely rose above the pedestrian, with a higher than average error rate from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I: dotted minim 50, slowing into the 40s by the start of the development; II: quaver (sub) 60-72; III: dotted minim 100-08; IV: minim 70, slower theme, circa 58-62/quaver (sub) 72/crotchet 80, slowing. At best, this was a staid reading wanting in energy and inspiration. With its many shifts of tempo and tendency to broaden out, it felt like Oramo was steering a juggernaut down country lanes, nothing but ditches and hawthorns before him. Widely, unrealistically, separated across the platform, with forces pruned back (five violas, four cellos and three double basses covering the bottom and mid range), no one really in touch, the chances of this ship sailing the seas were always going to be poor.

Some players strove to make amends – oboist Alison Teale visibly so. Yet the sort of Vienna Beethoven had to put up with kept crossing my mind. “The orchestra certainly is not lacking in brave fellows, but rather in good will, team spirit and love of art” (1800). “Music suffers here from the inertia and [dejection] of most of the musicians … they hardly ever bring zeal and goodwill to bear on their work” (1808). Contrasting Lucerne (quietly modulated commentary) and Amsterdam (the Concertgebouw’s gregarious man of music, principal bassist Dominic Seldis), the BBC stuck to its usual presentation format, unchanged for a generation. Katie Derham simpered; Ayanna Witter-Johnson murmured; Stephen Fry flannelled. What pathetic, patronising television it’s become.

Footnote. There’s a brief moment in the Eroica I always wait for. Bars 20-27 of the Finale introduction. To pizz or not to pizz? Not the first to do so, Norman Del Mar commented on this in his book Orchestral Variations (1981), suggesting that the changes of string notation, including crotchet values and staccato articulation, plus the further pizzicato indication in bar 31, “strongly” warranted the passage to be bowed rather than plucked. Sonically, the effect is very different, once heard hard to forget. Blomstedt, Roth, Oramo didn’t oblige. But the arco version has had some notable advocates: Sawallisch, Saraste, Krivine, Chailly, Celibidache…