BEETHOVEN/GRIFFITHS: The General; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5; Egmont (excerpts) – Maximilian Schell, narrator/ Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano/ OSM Chorus/ Montreal Symphony/ Kent Nagano, conductor – RCA 88697400842 (2 CDs), 107:03 **1/2:
This is a strange release. Titled “Beethoven – Ideals of the French Revolution”, it attempts to make the case that Beethoven was an echt-revolutionary by transporting his music into a new piece called The General. First of all, the notes fail to make the case that Beethoven was of revolutionary sentiments along the norms of the French Revolution, and even if he was this does not mean that each note he penned was pregnant with world-shattering fervor. Plus, the music used for this collage comes from Egmont and King Stephen, the former certainly a story of rebellion, albeit a tragic one, and the latter not part and parcel of this genre at all, though Beethoven’s music does contain some dramatic moments, several borrowed here. But Beethoven was an idealist, not a violent revolutionary, and hoped that the several conflicts ongoing in his Europe at the time would result in a peaceful future, but it is hard to believe that this composer who wished for peace among all men would have countenanced the atrocities that followed the French Revolution. In this he would have been as misguided as Wagner.
The General was penned by music critic Paul Griffiths, who takes as his base the Rwandan genocide in 1993, and its protagonist Romeo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peacekeeping movement. But the story that Griffiths crafted from this sordid moment in human history, though finely done and lyrically written, is also neutered of any specific time and place, so that all we hear in the narration is a generalized account of “some” bad incident occurring at “some” time. I think this a mistake, as a direct reference in the text to what was happening would have been a far more powerful statement than what we get, which is too nebulous, and too tedious. The music chosen, while military and heroic and all of those things that we assign to Beethoven at specific places, doesn’t hold together well enough to present a cohesive story, and some of it is just plain badly chosen.
There are other bad choices in this set. Though the overture from Egmont is given as the opening number to The General, it is repeated again (copied?) on disc 2 at the beginning of the Egmont selections. This is plainly ludicrous and a stupid production choice. To end Egmont we also get the Opferlied that also ended The General on disc 1, but with different words there written by Mr. Griffiths. This is clearly nonsensical and a needless repetition. The performance of the symphony, which really makes no contextual sense here except for the fact that the note writer thinks it “triumphant”, will not unseat anyone’s favorites. The timpani is overdone and intrusive, and although Nagano makes a few interesting points of emphasis, overall the piece lacks a firmly held point-of-view and direction.
It is of course good to hear the Montreal Symphony back in action, though the soundstage is not as expansive as what we have heard before, the recording level quite low (I turned it up more than any other CD I have heard in a year), and in no way competitive with the now-legendary Decca recordings with Dutoit from years back. Nevertheless I do hope that RCA continues with this band, only next time with a program that makes more sense than this one.
— Steven Ritter