Interpreting Beethoven: How Authentic?

WQXR to Broadcast ORR Live on Wednesday at 8 pm

Monday, November 14, 2011 - 03:49 PM

When British early-music conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique storm Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, they’ll be equipped with the musical equivalent of muskets and pitchforks – valve-less horns, wooden flutes and gut-stringed violins – to present three works of Beethoven.

The grandly-named orchestra, based in London, was founded in 1989 to push the boundaries of “authentic” performance practice closer to the present. As many concertgoers know, historical performance practice began as an effort in the 1950s to perform music of the pre-Baroque closer to the way in which it was heard in those eras. Gardiner expanded the movement by recognizing that instruments from the Romantic era had distinctly different designs from those today.

In some quarters a divide opened up between the traditionalists and the period-instrument camp: the latter’s members were referred to as sandal-wearing "vegetarians" for their stripped-down approach. Their sound was criticized as being bloodless and dry. Musicologist Richard Taruskin argued, with insight and bile, that it’s impossible to re-imagine what concerts actually sounded like 200 years ago, and period-instrument practitioners merely reflect modernist assumptions about how all music should sound.

When the ORR’s complete Beethoven recording came out in the 1990s, listeners could hear an immediate difference: Instead of the clunky pace and weighty sonorities found in modern, 100-member-plus symphony orchestras, Gardiner delivered brisk tempos, light textures and a sharper, vibrato-less sound. Other early-music performers also put their stamp on Beethoven, including Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players.

Gradually, the old divisions between modern and authentic blurred as both camps drew from each others' innovations. Gardiner continues to lead his period-instrument groups (which include the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists) but he has also conducted traditional orchestras. As Martin Kettle wrote in The Guardian recently, “Gardiner is part of the establishment now. The traditional orchestras have embraced his nouvelle cuisine approach.” Kettle noted that Gardiner was himself in the audience during Riccardo Chailly's recent Beethoven cycle with the (modern) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra “to hear how the old iconoclasm is becoming the new normal.”

Yes, some audiences will take sides – whether for the massive string sections and beefed-up choruses of the modern orchestra or the gutsy, lean sound of the “vegetarians.” Which do you prefer? Before Wednesday night's broadcast on WQXR, listen to these two examples from Beethoven's Third Symphony and weigh in below (keeping in mind that other factors should be considered including acoustics and recording techniques).

On modern instruments (the Leipzig Gewandhaus led by Kurt Masur):

On period instruments (the Hanover Band led by Monica Huggett):


More in:

Comments [11]

concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

It depends on the piece of music. I like period instruments for Vivaldi's 4 Seasons and some of the Boccherini guitar concertos. There is a 'rinky dinky" sound.

Nov. 28 2011 04:00 PM
John Coppola from Westchester, NY

Beethoven was, to me, the greatest artist that has yet ever lived, greater than Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Shakespeare. Why? Because he was able to combine an absolute mastery of his medium with endless expression of his deepest self and at the same time communicate all of this so well that people all over the world for almost two centuries can make his music part of their own personal experience.

Nov. 21 2011 11:49 PM
Frank Feldman

Easy-1, 2, 4, and 8 on period instruments, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 with a beefed-up modern symphony orchestra.

Nov. 21 2011 08:28 PM
Shawn from Kingston, NY

Does anyone know the name of the piece and the text that Jeff Spurgeon referred to in the intermission that John Eliot Gardiner says was the catalyst for the opening sequence 4 note rhythm? He said it so fast, I missed it.

Nov. 17 2011 02:20 PM
Michael Meltzer

As I listened to the broadcast of Maestro Gardiner unfolding the Beethoven Fifth, the energy and intensity immediately reminded me of my old recording by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. To my ears, both conductors were after much the same thing.
There seems to be more than one set of steps up the side of Parnassus.

Nov. 16 2011 11:25 PM
Jeremy from Michigan

Overall I prefer the period instruments and HIP -- I buy that stuff hook, line and sinker -- but taste is subjective, there's no right or wrong, and there's plenty of room for all styles to coexist peacefully. Overly zealous partisans from either extreme scare me because of the potential for senseless divisiveness the classical music world can't afford... In recent years I've taken to trolling classical vinyl bins and discovered oodles of relatively early period instrument recordings that haven't made it to CD; it's really made me appreciate the progress HIP has made over the decades. It's mostly been Beethoven's music (and Handel's; when's Handel Appreciation Month??) that's compelled me to explore the variety of interpretations and performances from different ensembles. It hasn't much shifted my core preferences, but I find it comforting to know the music itself -- the true art -- completely transcends variations in performance practice. I mean Beethoven's Beethoven, and I'd like to think the man would really dig hearing how BIG his music can sound. I like it that way too now and then, but to my desert island, I'm taking Academy of Ancient Music and Cristofori, not the [Major City] Philharmonic.

Nov. 16 2011 12:37 PM
Michael Meltzer

P.S.: Mr. Wise paints a landscape as though everyone conducted Beethoven one romantic way until Maestro Gardner's arrival. Nothing could be further from the way it was. Every conductor was defined by their Beethoven and they were all different, from Toscanini and Van Beinum on one end to Von Karajan on the other.

Nov. 16 2011 04:59 AM
Kyle Hayes from Switzerland

@ Robert: Back in those days they didn't have the technology that we have today (such as accurate metronomes). Allegro, in literal Italian, means "happy" so the tempo marking really indicated a feeling rather than the speed. Beethoven's music is all about drama, passion, and feeling, so it's just the interpretation of the musicians as to what the speed should be.

As a musicologist, I like both modern and historical performances. I prefer to play the music on a modern instrument but it's good to go back and listen to the historic instrument to know what exactly the "sound of Beethoven" was.

Nov. 16 2011 02:58 AM
Michael Meltzer

It's a complex issue, and solutions won't be verbal, they'll be in the form of talented conductors knocking our socks off with inspired, possibly unexpected applications.
Some things get overlooked: the instruments evolved because they were in some respects inadequate and frustrated their players. The improvements that were made were toward increased range of sonorities, increased dexterity and increased control of nuance and shading, and with full knowledge by their craftsmen of the music literature that had gone before, with due respect and reverence.
Taking an example like Maestro Masur doesn't help, his sound is the heaviest produced among the three distinctly different timbres from all the same players under, Masur, Maazel and Gilbert. These wonderful players with their extraordinary instruments can probably make a "period" sound as well, if they are asked.
But, here's the contradiction: conductors and players in 1810 weren't trying to be "period" or "authentic," they were reaching outward and upward, trying to be GOOD, just like musicians today. The mindset was expansive and creative. When we look backward, we are constricting and paring down, censoring perhaps some of our best spontaneous musical impulses, with a mindset that is constrained and inhibited, to recapture a "sound" we're not completely certain of, anyway.
An observation: the "huge" choruses are usually amateur, in the U.S. we don't budget professional choral singers in large numbers. In the 1970's, I sang in the N.Y. Choral Society, a very good 200-voice amateur choir with occasional pro engagements such as the Mahler 2nd with Commissiona and the Baltimore Sym. At that time, I attended a concert by the Swedish Radio Choir at Town Hall. Those 40 perfect-pitch professional singers, with unerring unanimity of pitch and perfectly synchronized attack, produced more volume and resonance than the 200 voices of the NYCS.
In 1810, the string instruments were more or less already perfected in design, so there was an imbalance of quality over the other sections. History has corrected that now.
Two interesting quotes- one from Chopin: "When will someone do for the piano what Stradivarius has done for the violin?" and one from Rachmaninoff, when asked by a fan about some interpretive points in the C-sharp Minor Prelude: "Play it any way you like."

Nov. 15 2011 01:54 PM
robert k from rockaway,nj

I prefer the modern instruments. Beethoven's music is big and brash, filled with bravora and such, and period instruments sound like toys, seriously reducing the music's impact. And what's the rush? A hectically fast tempo is not what is meant by Allegro ma non troppo.

Nov. 15 2011 10:50 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'll go with the vegetarians. Masur's approach is way too slow!

Nov. 14 2011 11:26 PM

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