The Orchestre des Champs-Elysées’ Silver Anniversary: “Authentic” Beethoven Symphonies on Original Instruments

Nélida Nassar   03.27.2017

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The Orchestre des Champs-Elysées under the baton of its conductor Philippe Herreweghe is celebrating its silver anniversary. And what better way for the ensemble to honor this milestone than with performances of all nine Beethoven’s symphonies? This marks the culmination of a two-year project conceived on a European scale – from Paris to Aix-en-Provence, with stops in Vienna, Essen, Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt, Geneva, and Turin! Herreweghe is well known for his contribution to classical music, both as an expert on the oldest polyphonic traditions and as one of the most visionary conductors of the modernist repertory. He is a founder of several orchestras, including the famous Collegium Vocale Gent and the European Ancient Music Choir, which specialize in Renaissance polyphonic music. In 1991, he founded the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, which is world-famous for presenting music from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century played on period instruments.

Beethoven’s symphonies sit serenely at the center of our concert life. They are integral to the repertory of our modern, 100-member-plus symphony orchestras, with their gleaming, modern (meaning, mostly, perfected in the late 19th century) instruments. In contrast, the Orchestre des Champs Elysées prides itself on its performances using period instruments. What do “authentic” Beethoven symphony performances entail? First of all, a reduced group of players: the orchestra used only 29 for the First Symphony and 35 for the Fifth Symphony. More crucially, the Orchestra employs either authentic period instruments (i.e. ones actually built in previous centuries) or reconstructions of those used at the time these scores were composed; and its manner of playing reflects what we know of period practice. Specifically, the horns are valveless, the strings are gut and played with far less vibrato than is common today, the bows are softer and less brilliant sounding, the pitch is lower, and a fortepiano continuo is employed. The winds and brass make up about half the ensemble, in marked contrast to most modern orchestras, where a massive wash of string sound tends to bury the wind and brass parts. Furthermore, Herrewhege, in accordance with Beethoven’s score,   pays less attention to minute details of interpretive finesse than  to creating a steady, straightforward rhythmic progression.

Most controversial of all is the question of tempos. Two years after the metronome was invented in 1815, Beethoven authorized the publication of tempo markings for his symphonies that strike most scholars today as eccentric – mostly too fast – although occasional attempts are made to perform the symphonies at those speeds. Explanations for these oddities range from Beethoven’s own indecision or deafness to the inaccuracy of early metronomes. In any case, earlier documentation exists suggesting that “allegros” around 1800 were slower than one might now expect them to have been.

The first evening of the orchestra’s Beethoven’s cycle was under the sign of love, offering the most lively and playful of the symphonies: No. 1 in C, No. 4 in B Flat and No. 7 in A. Symphony No. 1 began with a mischievous digression. The expected C major chord contained a ringer, a B flat that immediately nudged the tonality toward F, though the harmony quickly righted itself. And the little rocket theme that opened the finale, painfully slow to blast off, anticipated the robust humor prominent in the composer’s later symphonies. Symphony No. 4 largely consolidated the gains of the second symphony without radically breaking new ground, thus furthering Beethoven’s pattern of following a wildly innovative odd-numbered symphony with a somewhat more domesticated even-numbered one. The program closed with Symphony No. 7, which Wagner called the apotheosis of the dance, and it was indeed in this spirit that maestro Herreweghe approached it — as an exercise in coiled energy. In what were by now Beethovenian trademarks, the slow movement tended toward the tragic, and clipped chords touched off the conflagration of the finale.

The second evening opened with Symphony No. 2, in D. A signal innovation of this piece is the labeling of the dance movement as a scherzo (joke) rather than the time-honored minuet, though the rollicking minuet of the First Symphony, too, could just as well have been called a scherzo. The carefree No. 2 was like a lull before the storm of the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, where the era of Romanticism in music is firmly announced. What more to say of the Fifth?  The famous theme of the opening bars forms the basis of virtually every subsequent melody in the piece, producing perhaps the most tightly unified symphonic argument ever created.

On the third evening the orchestra performed brilliantly in two highly contrasted works, as Herreweghe ably negotiated both the peaceful scenes of country life evoked by Symphony No. 6 in F, the “Pastoral,” and the soaring, explosive flights of the Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, the “Eroica”. Tone-painting was hardly new in Beethoven’s time, not even to the symphony, but his “Pastoral” symphony showed how persuasively it could be developed and woven through a sizable work which yet remained utterly convincing in purely symphonic terms. Although mellowness abounds here, the orchestra played the “storm” movement with a vigor that convinced one that such sounds must have been unlike anything ever heard before in a symphony. The « Eroica”, meanwhile, had already vastly expanded the scale and the rhetorical impact of the form, with old themes intensely developed and new ones introduced in formerly peripheral areas (transitions and codas). The opening movement — announced by two clipped, highly charged E flat chords — sounded a heroic strain, which the Funeral March carried into the realm of tragedy and the finale lifted to Promethean heights.

The final evening completed the Beethoven symphonic cycle with Symphony No. 8 in F and Symphony No. 9 in D minor. In its compactness No. 8 is a throwback , and in its impudent humor, it is Beethoven at his most mature. The tick-tick second movement is sometimes thought to be making fun of the metronome, then newly invented by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel and a source of so much controversy in later Beethoven interpretation. (Could he really have intended the impetuous, sometimes devilish, speeds he suggested in his metronome markings?). The inclusion of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which crowns the finale of Symphony No. 9, remains that work’s most obvious and most celebrated novelty. The opening of the first movement was scarcely less influential on later composers, and Herreweghe offered a convincing reading of its inchoate wisps of sound which quickly coalesce into a muscular, somewhat lumbering theme.    

Overall in these concerts, Herrewhege was especially successful in matters of timbre and style, and the orchestra played with vigor and assurance. The tempos, while not breakneck, moved smartly forward, with expressivity downplayed in favor of steady onward momentum. These were truly “Classical” performances, and they made clear the connections between Beethoven’s early symphonies and the symphonic world from which he emerged. What made the Orchestre des Champs Elysées’ performances so exciting was, above all, their passion.  Contemporary accounts of Beethoven’s own playing are full of references to his unprecedented ferocity of attack. The orchestra seemed to channel that same spirit, generating an impact that, if anything, was augmented by some slight roughnesses of intonation and execution. Yet, the playing was never awkward or inept. Rather, one felt the players straining against the limitations of their instruments and techniques, which is apparently just what audiences heard in Beethoven’s own day.

Needless to say, during these 4 evenings the Théâtre des Champs Elysées was completely sold out. Its acoustically reflecting surfaces created a resonant space of the kind in which so many early Beethoven performances would have taken place, and this lent a powerful surge to the louder passages. As a result, the audience enjoyed the virtues of a small instrumental group, and, at the same time, the excitement of a larger-than-life sonic assault.

The public was enthralled by the exceptional musical quality of this memorable event. Every evening cheers and several curtain calls awaited the orchestra and maestro Herrewhege. Surely no other ”authentic” performances in our age of the music of this composer have ever given greater pleasure.

Conductor: Philippe Herrewhege
Christina Landshamer, Stefanie Iranyi, Maximilian Schmitt, Thomas Bauer:
Collegium Vocale Gent