Beethoven updated

About a year ago, Paul Wells offered his recommendations on the best recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Here’s what he had to say about Paavo Järvi and the philharmonic orchestra in Bremen, Germany:

This [recording] is in second place mostly because it’s still in progress, with only Symphonies 3, 8, 4 and 7 released in North America; and partly because the interpretations are a little quirky. I think it might be best to listen to something a bit more canonical and then you can hear how outside-the-box these Järvi interpretations are.

Aha! Here is an updated rendition of Beethoven! If Järvi hasn’t brought Beethoven into the rock ‘n’ roll era, he has at least updated him to the jazz era.

Why do I say that? Because a good jazz performance swings:  i.e., there’s a propulsion to the performance, as if the next bar is always pulling you toward it. We might refer to it as a “leaning-forward performance”, to distinguish it from what I will call a “vertical performance”.

I’d like to compare two recordings of Beethoven’s 8th symphony. But first, let’s orient ourselves to the music — odds are, you can’t hum the 8th symphony from memory.

CBC Radio 2 has produced an excellent series of podcasts on Beethoven’s symphonies, which you can download for free from iTunes. (Search for “CBC Radio 2 Beethoven”.) Bramwell Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, walks listeners through each of the nine symphonies in turn. Here, he introduces the first movement of Symphony #8.

Now let’s listen to an excerpt from Claudio Abbado’s version:

There’s nothing wrong with that recording. On the contrary, Abbado’s version of the nine symphonies has earned rave reviews (e.g. here).

It is, however, an example of what Paul Wells describes as a “canonical” version of Beethoven; what I have described as a “vertical” Beethoven.

Now let’s listen to a leaning-forward performance of the 8th symphony:  a Beethoven that swings. I bring you Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen:

Paavo Jarvi, Beethoven Symphony #3 #8If you listen to Abbado and Järvi back to back, you immediately notice that Järvi’s version is fast! In this short excerpt, Järvi has already gained 12 seconds on the Abbado recording.

In fact, I think Järvi’s version is too quick during the lyrical passages (the syncopated bits). Abbado has achieved a better balance:  fast enough to capture the power of the raucous passages, yet slow enough to capture the melodious lilt of the lyrical passages.

Regardless, you can immediately recognize the propulsiveness of Järvi’s recording. And don’t suppose that he achieves it just by asking his musicians to play fast. I’ve heard plenty of fast jazz songs that don’t swing, and plenty of slow jazz songs that do. Swing is a mysterious phenomenon. You can’t instruct musicians on how to do it in a textbook. And a composer can’t bring it about by writing the notes of the score a certain way.

(Note, however, that Beethoven was aiming for a propulsive effect when he syncopated the rhythm in those lyrical passages.)

I should also explain that the Abbado recording is not exceptionally slow. On the contrary, most of the recent recordings (including Abbado’s) have been appreciably faster than earlier versions were. To some extent Abbado, too, has updated Beethoven to suit modern sensibilities.

Arguably, the older recordings were inappropriately slow. Beethoven’s metronome markings were surprisingly fast:  sometimes absurdly fast, as in the case of the Hammerklavier sonata (Opus 106, Piano Sonata No. 29):

The opening sequence of chords, preceded by a fleeting note in the bass and a multi-octave leap by the left hand, is humanly impossible to play at the metronome speed marked by Beethoven.

Once again, we are caught in the tension between tradition and transformation. Conductors don’t slavishly follow Beethoven’s metronome markings. Each conductor establishes those tempos that seem right to him or her. It’s one of the techniques that conductors use to stamp their own interpretation on familiar, centuries-old music.

As Järvi illustrates:  perhaps to an extreme in the case of the first movement of Symphony #8.

If you’re exploring Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time, you may want to purchase a couple of recordings. By all means, familiarize yourself with one of the “canonical” versions:  Abbado, Zinman, or perhaps Karajan. But you’ll want to pick up Järvi’s version, too.

All Beethoven recordings are not created equal. Järvi’s version is both exciting and enlightening. Paul Wells mentioned that only four of the symphonies were available in North America, but that was a year ago. You can now buy Järvi’s version of all Beethoven’s symphonies, except the ninth.

Here’s another taste of Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen:  an excerpt from the middle of the first movement of Symphony #3, the Eroica (“Heroic”). Here, the lyrical passages are beyond reproach. That extraordinary propulsiveness is still there, in spades. Also note that the orchestra does not lack precision, even at Järvi’s quick tempos.

If you prefer visuals, you can also find Järvi on Youtube. Here again is the Eroica symphony, from the top:

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