Every Beethoven cycle has the capacity to change interpretative history. The fact that hardly any does is beside the point. The challenge is there, because the music is big enough to adapt to the perceptions and fads of each generation. Even if the performances are not revelatory, they must reawaken us to Beethoven’s primacy in the musical canon. Otherwise a Beethoven cycle becomes little more than a marketing exercise.
London’s Southbank Centre has gone for the blockbuster approach, with concurrent cycles of the symphonies, piano concertos and string quartets. And why not? Last week’s opening concerts set up an intriguing debate about how these works should be played. Does modern Beethoven style amount to little more than technique – the instruments you use, the speeds you choose – or are its defining characteristics the time-honoured ones of individualistic phrasing, structural coherence, personal alchemy?
They all play a part, but the Beethoven proposed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Vladimir Jurowski on Thursday, in the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, sounded second-hand and heartless – all the more so when compared with Daniel Barenboim’s rendition of the First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Staatskapelle on Friday.
It was a shock to find the New Model Army of period style (the OAE) being upstaged by the old guard (Barenboim). The OAE sounded leaden, metronomic. Jurowski’s prosaic tempo choices, allied to a lack of rhythmic energy, made for a particularly po-faced Seventh Symphony. If it had not been for the woody flutes and gravelly horns, and the vibrato-free violins in exposed soft passages, you might have mistaken this for an all too conventional orchestra. Maybe the OAE will have something more original to say later in its cycle, which continues under different conductors until May. ()
Barenboim fielded an orchestra of roughly the same size. It played with a softer edge, a more blended sound – that of a central European ensemble playing modern instruments – but the performance bore the hallmark of greatness, if only because of Barenboim’s willingness to take risks. In his rapt opening bars he opened the audience’s ears; then he let the music fly, not just in his own quasi-improvisatory flourishes at the keyboard but also in the way he and his orchestra explored the music’s expressive contrasts. By generating a lot of flexibility within a given tempo, he created a sense of surprise. However well-worn the music, it never sounded predictable.
That degree of freedom demands experienced collaborators, a lot of self-knowledge and even more self-confidence, all of which Barenboim has in abundance – an impression further underlined by his choice of Schoenberg’s little-known Pelleas und Melisande for the concert’s second half. If this cycle continues on such an exalted level tonight and tomorrow, Barenboim’s Beethoven will deserve the same respect that Otto Klemperer’s earned half a century ago. ()