Thursday, August 28, 2003

[8/28/2011] Beethoven's "slender Grecian maiden between two Norse gods" -- the Fourth Symphony (continued)


And here's the Adagio, again with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and again here "analyzed with the assistance of Robert Greenberg's Wordscore Guides." (In a moment we're going to hear Bruno Walter rehearsing the movement.)


Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Feb. 8, 1958 (mono, though the actual recording is in stereo)
[Note: We hear the finished recording of the Adagio below.]


(from the booklet for the original issue of Otto Klemperer's EMI Beethoven symphony cycle)

Composed 1805-6. First performed March 1807.

It became the fashion in the nineteenth century to regard the "even-number" Beethoven symphonies, from the Eroica onwards, as of lighter calibre than the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth -- as works in which the indefatigable artificer took an occasional day off, as it were, from the strenuous labors of his odd-number creations. Schumann saw the Fourth as "a slim Greek maiden between two Norse giants" -- i.e., the Eroica and the Fifth. A less apposite description of the Fourth, according to our modern notion of it, could hardly be imagined; it sets us wondering what sort of etiolated performance the work used to get in the Mendelssohn epoch. One even ventures to dissent for a moment from one of the best of present-day writers on Beethoven -- Walter Riezler -- when he speaks of the symphony as being "full of untroubled happiness." This, taken by itself, may easily set up wrong connotations in the listener's mind; but if we look into the judgment a little more closely we see that Riezler gets to the root of the matter in his further remark that "its consummate harmony is founded in darkness." This is a much-needed corrective of the superficial Schumann view and what was implied in it: "happiness" in Riezler's sense is not at all the static happiness of a gracile female figure in a Greek frieze but the dynamic happiness of a giant exulting in his strength.

The Fourth is in some ways the most enigmatic of the Beethoven symphonies; it defies all our efforts to categorize it in a single epithet or two. The preamble to the first movement is already mysterious; it leads us to expect a serious, if not actually tragic denouement, instead of which some exultant "whoops" at the end of it lead into a first subject (Allegro vivace) of the most carefree kind:


Equally light-footed and light-hearted is the second subject:


But it is not long before a storm breaks out; and these swift alternations of mood continue to the end of the symphony, which oscillates all the time between gusts of fury of the type of those Beethoven had already unleashed here and there in the course of the first movement of the Eroica, and a joy in life that is alternately idyllic and titanic. Even in the exquisite Adagio, which is one of the earliest and most moving expressions of the "romantic" in orchestral music, the one atmosphere is not maintained throughout.

The symphony, in fact, abounds in unexpected strokes, not only swift alternations of mood but, within each mood, unpredictable happenings of all kinds, rapid shifts and contrarieties of rhythm, deceptive pseudo-endings followed by apparent or actual restarts, and conversely, endings coming where we had been led to expect further development. The overriding gaiety is liable to be broken in upon at any moment by a sort of tropical storm, with lightning flashing, thunder roaring, and torrential lashings of rain, the clouds however, dispersing as suddenly as they had formed.

All the deities of Olympus seem to be at play in the symphony, exhibiting alike their graces and their gusts of temper. But it is useless to try to foist any kind of programme on the work, and absurd to suppose that because it sets up images of this kind in us, therefore Beethoven's imagination must have worked along some such lines. The symphony is just a self-delighting play of the purely musical imagination.

SO NOW . . .

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60

i. Adagio . . . Allegro vivace
"The opening movement presents a challenge. The first theme can hardly be called a theme at all, and yet what
Beethoven makes of this melodic fragment is simply fantastic. To hold the first movement together so that it neither falls nor falters along the way is not the easiest of assignments."
— Josef Krips
London Symphony Orchestra, Josef Krips, cond. Everest, recorded c1959
[Caution: The Krips-Everest Beethoven symphony cycle, originally recorded on 35mm film, sounds pretty spiffy via either original (and only original) Everest LPs or the officially licensed 1994 Omega Record Group CD reissue, but there have been countless cheapo LP and CD issues that sound mediocre or worse. Unfortunately, although I see a couple of the Omega single CDs on Amazon, at very high prices, I don't see a listing for the boxed set, and without reliable testimony I wouldn't trust any other CD issue. Caveat emptor!]

ii. Adagio
"The Fourth contains a slow movement of indescribable depth. 
For the conductor, this Adagio is the most difficult part of the entire work. I must confess that I worked on it for some thirty years before solving the essential rhythmic problem of this movement, which is, after all, in 3/4 time as written, and not -- as is
usually assumed for the sake of convenience -- in 6/8."
— Josef Krips
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Feb. 8 and 10, 1958

iii. Allegro vivace
"The third and fourth movements almost play themselves."
— Josef Krips

Ernest Newman notes of the Allegro vivace: "It will be observed that Beethoven originally called his third movement 'Minuetto,' though it is in no sense a minuet. This is the last time he gives a symphony movement that title, though in the Eighth we get the prescription 'Tempo di Minuetto.'"
NDR (North German Radio) Symphony Orchestra, Günter Wand, cond. BMG, recorded live, Oct. 8, 2001

iv. Allegro ma non troppo
"The finale is a virtuoso piece for orchestra that presents not the slightest problem for the conductor."
— Josef Krips
London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/Decca, recorded 1960


Last fall we had a series of posts devoted to what I called "those 'fraternal twin' Beethoven symphonies, Nos. 5 and 6." (Just a few months ago we had a post devoted just to the Pastoral Symphony, "Music for a late-spring Sunday -- Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony.)

I might similarly have mentioned last night, when I slipped the whole of the Eighth Symphony into the preview, that a similar situation occurred with the near-simultaneously conceived Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.


It wasn't intentional, really and truly. In choosing four recordings to "cover" the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, I simply gravitated to conductors of whom I had fond memories in the piece. It wasn't till the post was long since posted, perhaps prodded by that recollection of Josef Krips's that he struggled with the rhythmic problem of the Adagio "for some thirty years," that it occurred to me that we have here a decided veteran group:

Josef Krips (4/8/1902 - 10/13/1974): about 57, the "youngster" of our group
Bruno Walter (9/15/1976 - 2/17/1962): 81
Günter Wand (1/7/1912 - 2/14/2002): 89
Pierre Monteux (4/4/1875 - 7/1/1964): about 85

And in Saturday night's preview we heard the 82-year-old Pablo Casals.

Yet I don't hear much in the way of signs of age here. It does occur to me, though, that it may take an awful lot of wisdom to make this piece flow as pointedly and yet as seemingly effortlessly as our team of veterans did.

For the record, Carlos Kleiber (7/3/1930 - 7/13/2004) was "only" 53 when this video recording was made in 1983, and perhaps it shows, though this may be more a matter of his "we must reconstruct the piece from scratch" approach, which for all the incidental felicities can sound, in varying degrees, well, manipulative. I kind of like this Beethoven Fourth, but I certainly don't love it. Kleiber was a brilliant talent, no doubt about it, and delivered some genuinely great performances, but the body of his work seems to me wildy and dangerously overrated -- "dangerously" in that, as with so many highly talented but idiosyncratic performers, it's the idiosyncrasies that wind up being fetishized. (Think Maria Callas.)


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