Addendum: Beethoven Symphony No. 5

by Glenn on November 15, 2015

I got into the car on Friday (30 October 2015) and apparently reached my saturation point on the amount of pledge drive talk I could handle on KMHD 89.9, the Portland jazz station. So I turned over to Portland All Classical, KQAC 89.1 and found myself in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I was stunned because it was being played so slowly. I mean it was really slow. Because I am trying to keep my writing relatively snark free, when I point out that it was played slowly I mean that as a description and not a judgment, although based on the two recent performances I heard conducted by Gardiner and Rattle, I think I prefer their approach, which is surprisingly similar.

My realization is that while Gardiner and Rattle appear to be doing two different things—Gardiner is HIPP and Rattle is modern—the reality is more complicated and nuanced than that. (Isn’t it always.)

I’ve said that there are three kinds of approaches to Beethoven: HIPP, Fake HIPP, and modern. Historically Informed Performance Practice seeks to perform Beethoven the way it would have been performed in Beethoven’s time. Fake HIPP attempts to impose aspects of historical practice without using the instruments (or copies) of the era, ignoring the plain fact that modern instruments sound different than those from the period. Modern orchestras play Beethoven using current performance practice.

On Friday, I realized that that last category isn’t so simple. As a working hypothesis I am going to say there are (at least) two modern approaches to Beethoven. I’m going to call them Old World and New Era.

The New Era approach is what Sir Simon is doing with the Berliner Philharmoniker this season. He is attempting to bring the past forward. Tempos are quicker—in tune with historical practice—and the brass is not allowed to dominate the way modern brass instruments can. But it’s a modern symphony orchestra playing this music. It isn’t sans vibrato or anything.

The Old World is the approach this recording I heard took. And, again, there is no attempt to be judgmental about this. But it’s clearly a different approach. It’s the modern world imposing itself on Beethoven. The recording was by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s a big sound. Not a bad sound. But definitely a big sound. And then there are the afore-mentioned slower tempos—a slow movement appropriating the idea of slowness that Wagner and Bruckner used in their music.

It was fascinating to hear Beethoven’s Fifth performed this way. Some words that could have faultfinding overtones: ponderous, heavy, dark, encumbered.

I’ve used the expression “primacy of interpretation” in describing that phenomenon of hearing a particular interpretation of a work and subsequently being critical of all other interpretations. It is possible that had I heard Solti’s version first, I might have found Gardiner and Rattle too light. But clearly I now have a preference and new things to consider as I hear these works going forward.