Beethoven: The Symphonies Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Shows That Beethoven’s Symphonies Remain Open to Reinterpretation

Beethoven’s symphonies remain open to reinterpretation, as Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe demonstrate.

Beethoven: The Symphonies
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Deutsche Grammophon
15 July 2022

If a composition has been hanging around the performance repertoire of Western music for more than 200 years, one can be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing new to be interpreted from it. At least two major themes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies have long been considered “greatest hits” within classical music. What more can be said about them that hasn’t already been said? Why drag out the microphones once again to make new recordings of these works when so many other recordings already exist? These are fair questions to pose, but keep in mind that a label as serious about classical music as Deutsche Grammophon wouldn’t bother to release a box of all of Beethoven’s symphonies if there wasn’t more territory to explore. 

Beethoven: The Symphonies finds Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe through all nine Beethoven symphonies, but the liner notes are entirely concentrated on the monolithic Ninth Symphony. Beate Angelika Kraus edited the latest arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth and felt she had some significant findings to share. One thing she fleetingly mentions but doesn’t dwell on is tempo markings. That seems curious and rather unfortunate since more than a few musical historians have recently taken to the theory that Beethoven must have heard his compositions faster in his head than the tempos we’ve grown accustomed to since the dawn of recorded music. A Radiolab episode named “Speedy Beet” demonstrated that a more “historically accurate” performance of the famous opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth took a little wind out of the sails of grandiosity. Apparently, Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad disliked Beethoven precisely because of all the grandiosity. Sure enough, Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation of the Fifth Symphony is brisk, bringing the work back to Earth so all of us mere mortals don’t have to be overwhelmed. 

Kraus’ unpacking of the Ninth came with its share of surprises. They won’t change anyone’s mind about the composer, but they may intrigue one’s inner-musicologist, assuming that every classical music fan has one. For starters, the contrabassoon was still a pretty recent addition to orchestras at the time of the Ninth’s completion, so having it stand in for double bass is “generally felt to be a parody or even thought of as vulgar”. It’s challenging to imagine Beethoven punking audiences this way, as Stravinsky purposely did in “The Adoration of the Earth”, but we may never know for sure. Kraus moved the part an octave higher to create a more natural texture. Beethoven mailed two copies of the score to different recipients, but only one copy asked its recipient to consult an enclosure long since gone. Kraus inferred that this enclosure would have shed some light on the contrabassoon dilemma. A primarily instrumental composer, Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” has given Kraus reason to be suspicious of how the vowels and consonants line up with the notes. “For the first time in the work’s publishing history, this takes account of Beethoven’s own ideas.”

The revile call that summons the opening movement of the “Eroica” Symphony to charge picks up the pace, as do the sudden halts and galloping starts that shape the opening of the Fourth Symphony. The quicker tempos put a muzzle on everyone’s tendency to inject Beethoven’s music with too much majesty. In this light, the composer’s first two symphonies sound downright adorable in their reverence, the kind of thing that would have moved Joseph Haydn to give his pupil a nice pat on the head and a sticker that says “Good job!” The predictable cadences and obvious Mozart influences make them a few notches above perfunctory, but everyone understands that “Eroica” couldn’t have ever just fallen from the sky as-is without them.

With the arrival of the Sixth “Pastoral Symphony”, Beethoven’s dynamic range was widening, and, under the conduction of Nézet-Séguin, the 61 members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe give nearly everything from the Sixth Symphony onward a touch that’s subtle enough to let the dynamics speak for themselves. The Eighth is something of an outlier, both in length and content. Lasting less than half an hour during an era when most of his symphonies were creeping closer to an hour in length, the Eighth Symphony also feels like a stylistic throwback to the composer’s early days – bright, cheery, and all too willing to resolve itself harmoniously.

Unsurprisingly, the Ninth is the main attraction. Not only is it a milestone in the world of classical music, but Beate Angelika Kraus has also made the case that the book is not closed on Beethoven’s symphonic pinnacle. Historians speculate that Beethoven’s hearing had been shot for nearly a decade by the time he set quill to paper to compose the work. Along with the composer’s late string quartets, the Ninth Symphony is one of those works that helped build a bridge between the Classical era and what would become known as the Romantic era. The contrabassoon passage at the start of the third movement that was addressed earlier happens so unobtrusively that most listeners can hardly be blamed for missing it. The fourth movement is broken into eight tracks, a move that is, depending on how vast your classical music collection is, somewhat novel (I’ve never encountered it myself). The words “Ode to Joy” are printed in both German and English, even though Kraus informs us that its premiere was sung in Italian. The vibrato of the solo voices warble just a few cycles too many, but it’s hardly a downfall that can disassemble a work as monumental as this.

When a friend of mine worked in a music store, he would tell me all about the funny and ridiculous questions customers would ask. One gentleman asked if he could purchase all of Beethoven’s symphonies on one CD. It was fun, in our youth, to snicker at an older customer being unaware of how much music a compact disc could hold. But a part of me wondered why we music consumers couldn’t just get all of these symphonies in one bite. There were too many recordings of each one, and you needed time and disposable income to weigh them all. Thanks to Deutsche Grammophon, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the unusual efforts of Beate Angelika Kraus, Beethoven: The Symphonies swoops down and knocks out the guesswork while answering a question many of us didn’t even think to ask: Is the book closed once and for all on Beethoven’s works?

RATING 9 / 10
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