Beethoven Down-Dated for the 19th Century

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Chloe Fedor (violin), Juilliard415, Monica Huggett (director and violin), Peter J Sharp Theater,   Juilliard School, New York, 18.1.2015 (SSM)

Overture to Die Geshöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43
Romance in F Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 50
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60


It was wise that the Juilliard School chose the name “Historical Performance” for a department title. If they had named it the “Early Music” or “Music Before 1800” department, they may have run into some difficulty scheduling this all-Beethoven concert on period instruments. A school that offers “Historically Informed Performances” is not constrained by periods or centuries. Music that has stylistic elements not commonly applied today can be referred to as HIP; it needn’t be an original instruments group if the musicians understand that they will be emulating HIP.

So when does the HIP period end? It ends when the modern orchestra comes into being. But the period can also be extended when the director of a group feels that a particular composer will benefit from the HIP approach.

Here Monica Huggett has joined a number of HIP conductors who have moved into the 19th century to apply their stylistic techniques. I can’t imagine Ms. Huggett directing Juilliard415 in a Bruckner symphony; yet Bruckner symphonies have been conducted by inveterate HIPsters such as Sir John Gardiner and Sir Roger Norrington with no damage to their continued forays into earlier music. Both have done complete Beethoven symphony cycles, which puts Ms. Huggett in good company. The big conceptual issue with the Beethoven symphonies, particularly for HIP players, is the question of tempi. Beethoven had marked very clearly in his symphonies what the metronomic tempo should be. This has not been an issue for modern-day conductors because it was thought that these numbers couldn’t be right. The fast movements would be unplayable at the tempo indicated, so many editors simply elided them from the scores. If they were in the score they were summarily ignored by the conductor. Norrington proved that these tempos were playable, but the end result was odd to say the least. The most current research, based on the recent discovery of the metronome that Beethoven purportedly used, indicates that the device very likely was not working properly: an off-beat (!) but  convenient solution, until another surprise is discovered.

Ms. Huggett took a moderate pacing for all the works on the program, beginning with Beethoven’s overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The most salient feature of this program was its orchestral coloring. Every note played was so fresh and so much richer in timbre than its modern day counterparts. The opening two chords, played by the entire orchestra, produced a sound that would be hard to describe and impossible to duplicate. Each orchestral group had its chance to be highlighted. The woodwinds were particularly vibrant: the instruments’ voices were clear and distinct. Every detail meant to be heard was heard. Perhaps the playing was a bit scruffy and raw, but that seemed to add to its charm and warmth.

The Romance that followed, one of two that Beethoven wrote, is usually viewed as a precursor of the Violin Concerto, and in particular its slow middle movement. Here violinist Chloe Fedor offered a different interpretation, one that was totally convincing yet bravely very un-Beethovian. In her unhurried pace it turned into a fragile and delicate song, made all the  purer by being vibrato-less.

 The Fourth Symphony shared some of the positive adjectives used above, but was unwieldy and shapeless at times. This symphony, as any other by Beethoven, consists of  pieces that need to be picked up and put together to end in some structure. It’s no easy thing to do, and here the roughness worked to the piece’s disadvantage. The 4th is by far the least frequently played Beethoven symphony, and nothing here disproved the reasons why.


Stan Metzger

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