Beethoven’s Fifth. A Rediscovery (2010)
Complete Performance & Documentary
Conductor: Jos van Immerseel
Performers: Anima Eterna Brugge
Producer: Steven Mayes and Hans Bellens
Director: Pierre Barre
Studio: EPR-Classic 008 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
Subtitles: English, Dutch
This is in many ways an interesting and exciting disc, a live concert recorded in the Concert Noble in Brussels, chosen because practical reasons dictated that the work could not be performed and recorded in the Eroicasaal in Vienna where the original premiere took place, along with the “Pastoral” Symphony, three movements from the Mass in C, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Ah, Perfido, and the Choral Fantasy—quite a concert! The setting is beautiful and intimate, and very nicely captured on video and sound, along with some exceptionally fine camerawork as well.
But I must confess that something seems wrongheaded about the whole enterprise, and watching the longer-than-the-concert documentary here and reading the notes show what it is. Jos van Immerseel and his band are making some assumptions that to me do not ring true, or that he is not fully able to prove in his performance. Take the whole notion of period authenticity here—this is nothing new of course, but the disc notes like to pretend that this is somehow the first time anyone has attempted to scrape the barnacles off the Beethovenian ship and give us the “real” Fifth Symphony, devoid of all historical encrustations and presented with purity of form and spirit, finally.
How many times have we heard this? While there is truth to be found in the idea of recreating what Beethoven had in mind in terms of performing forces (identical here to the premiere in Vienna) and maybe even tempo indications (though this is always going to be open to debate), it seems genuinely ludicrous to assume that only now do we have orchestra and conductor willing to sacrifice any sense of personal interpretation to channel what the master intended to the present age! In fact, all of the great conductors wanted to give us what they thought Beethoven was intending, and the many interviews and writings on the subject prove this. Yet, the notes choose one of these as a convenient whipping boy, Herbert von Karajan, and make the following amazing statement: “The problem is that we have become accustomed to an ahistorical fiction. Our view of Beethoven, to be more precise, is Karajan-coloured. Ever since Deutsche Grammophon succeeded in entrenching Beethoven as the archetypal composer in 1963—with the second of Karajan’s complete recordings of the symphonies—Beethoven has been cleverly marketed as a superhuman genius who can only be tackled by God’s own conductor in sole charge of a gigantic orchestra which has to be conquered and subdued in order to release the cosmic dimensions in the music.”
What patent nonsense! As if Karajan—or the myriad of others before him (he was hardly the first) cared little for the real Beethoven, or if the use of a “gigantic orchestra” is outside the purview of these symphonies, meaning that Beethoven is in effect circumscribed for performance practices only of his time. The Karajan set is a great one, not because of any intention by his evil record company, but because it brings tremendous illumination to the inherent muse of the work’s creator, and is able to inspire and emotionally move literal generations of people who hear it.
Can the work do that outside of the Karajan—or one must presume, any great conductor—orbit? Of course it can, as is shown here. But what we get here is not as radically different from many, many other recordings of the work, both period and more traditional. The documentary argues that the Karajan sound was essentially string dominated, and in fact Beethoven’s orchestra was harmonie-oriented, the wind band, and that the symphony itself is wind-dominated. Not true! Any first year music student studying this score—or any from the period—can see and hear that although the winds perhaps did play a larger part than is fashionable in traditional readings today, this score is still very much string-driven, both in melody and harmonic implications. But does it sound that way here? A little, maybe. But I have heard other traditional recordings that seem to give as much play to the winds has this one. And in fact, it is nowhere near the “pioneering” Roy Goodman and his Hanover Band recording from the beginning of the CD era, which gave huge prominence to the winds.
This is not to disparage this performance at all, which is actually quite exciting, up-tempo, and generally well-played, though there is some sloppiness that separates this orchestra from the Berlin Philharmonic. And Mr. Immerseel is fooling himself if he thinks that his interpretative stance is any less interpretative than Karajan’s. The fact that he stands up in front of the orchestra at all gives the lie to that assertion.
So this is a fascinating look at one man’s opinion of this music, his failed attempt to get out of the way of it, and the resulting performance which is, after all, quite enjoyable, though hardly a first or only choice. A little less reverse triumphalism might have made it more palatable for me, but I am sure I will return to it, and its production values are very high all around.
— Steven Ritter