Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Giovanni Antonini, conductor
The pure energy in Beethoven‘s scores explodes when the young musicians of the Chamber Orchestra Basel under Giovanni Antonini bring the music to life. Antonini has been one of the Basel ensemble’s regular guest conductors for five years. Time after time, he takes audiences by storm with Il Giardino Armonico. Here, he transfers the baroque ensemble’s exciting manner in undiluted form to the less puristic Chamber Orchestra Basel.
The electrical force of this interpretation, recorded in the superlative acoustical setting of the culture and congress hall in Lucerne, is especially perceptible in the SACD multi-channel version on this hybrid SACD, which presents both SACD stereo as well as CD stereo versions.
Born in Milan, Giovanni Antonini first studied
at the Civica Scuola di Musica and in the Centre de Musique Ancienne in Geneva. He became well known as a founding member of the baroque orchestra Il Giardino Armonico, which he has led since 1989.
Antonini has appeared as a conductor and soloist (recorder and baroque flute) with this ensemble in Europe, the USA, Canada, South America, Australia, Japan and Malaysia. He has performed numerous concerts in front of enthusiastic audiences with renowned artists such as Barbara Bonney, Christoph Prégardien,
Katia & Marielle Labèque and Viktoria Mullova. Baroque specialist Antonini is also in demand at leading international music festivals.
He has guest conducted such ensembles
as the Camerata Salzburg, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Swedish Chamber
Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle invited him to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic with works of the 17th and 18th centuries in January 2004; the resulting series of concerts was highly acclaimed. In addition to his successful cooperation
with the Chamber Orchestra Basel, he will be guest conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment during 2005. Giovanni
Antonini has released numerous CDs with works of Vivaldi, Bach, Biber, Locke and other repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries. Since 2000, he has worked closely with the Chamber Orchestra Basel as a regular guest conductor.
Beethoven’s symphonies between universal language and means of survival: an introduction
How would the musically educated person
of today get by without Beethoven’s symphonies? No pupil can avoid Beethoven at some point during his or her education; learning
the elements of sonata form is inevitable. No year passes without Beethoven’s Ninth being
played on New Year’s Eve. The images and sounds of the celebration of Germany’s reunification
at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin are still highly present: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. Beethoven’s music seems to ideally
represent a universal musical language that can burst all borders. Richard Wagner said that “music would become part of art in general”, thinking of his own music-dramas. Robert Schumann said, “When Germans speak of symphonies, they are speaking about Beethoven.” And even Claude Debussy came to the sober conclusion, “I believe that everything
after Beethoven has proven the uselessness
Beethoven. The embodiment of the symphony
in the 19th century simultaneously provoked discussions about form and content, program music and absolute music, new Germans and conservatives. Both Wagner and Brahms harked back to Beethoven when they argued.
Beethoven’s nine symphonies were the compositional and aesthetic standard which left its powerful stamp on composers like Schubert, Bruckner or Mahler and all their creations.
But how can one describe this phenomenon
of musical ethos that is always referred to in discussions of the reception of Beethoven’s music?
Vienna music critic Eduard Hanslick understood
Beethoven’s music as belonging to the aesthetic category of subjectivism – as the composer’s flight from the notion of objective fate in art. He writes, “As did Michaelangelo in the visual arts, Beethoven first broke radically
with the school before him, and then in the narrower sense began the modern art of mastering subjectivity.” But cannot subjective
music already be found in the passionate drama in Handel’s operas, the humor in Haydn’s
symphonies or in the “agitated condition of the soul” (Alfred Einstein) in Mozart’s late symphonies?
Certainly, music until 1750 was written primarily
for the glory of God or as homage to a noble commissioner. Music had a representative
character. Composition meant the art of placing tones in the ideal relationship to one another. Harmony was the overarching goal, beginning from the idea of order found in the divine creation. Just like the planets circle their center in relationships specified by divine
plan, the effects of music on the human soul were thought to result from the relationship
of tones to each other. This was the origin of standardized treatises for the musical representation
of different emotions, which were used by those wishing to learn to compose.
With new empirical knowledge about human behavior and the mind, the Enlightenment gave rise to major changes in thought on the effect of music on humans. Instead of harmony, music, at the apex of the arts, came to be seen as the individual
expression of a language of passions. In their own treatises, composers like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach referred back to Horace: to move others, one must first set oneself in a state of excitement. In the course of institutionalizing public concerts, however, critics saw a latent danger for musicians and composers.
At first glance, composing as an escape from hopeless reality seems to be an especially
fitting description for Beethoven’s music.
From no other composer of the time do we have so many documents and reports that substantiate the fate of a terminally ill man. And no other composer was stylized by posterity
as such a heroic artist, one whose music shows a positive attitude toward life despite great pain. Time and time again, Beethoven’s will to overcome earthly torments crops ups in the numerous biographies about him. “Life’s sting had wounded him deeply,” said Franz Grillparzer in his funeral eulogy at the composer’s
grave; “…and as a shipwrecked person holds fast the shore, he fled into your arms, Oh you, the good and the true sister, comforter of the suffering, [you] art who comes from above.”
This image of art as a lifesaver has become a typical paradigm in the reception history of Beethoven. But it is not entirely unproblematic
to equate Beethoven’s life and works. Is it really possible, for example, to hear the biographical
fate of a composer in the notes of his symphonies? Beethoven’s “ability to flare up” (Ferdinand Ries) and his incalculable mood
swings – as many of his contemporaries confirmed
– can be easily linked to the ebullience and thematic dualism in his symphonies. But is it not perhaps too simplistic to draw aesthetic and psychological conclusions from the music that only exist in the composer’s biography? Beethoven was a staunch follower of the aesthetics
of his time, which made fine distinctions between an artistic and a biographical subject. At the aesthetic level, feelings should be conveyed
to the listener as “Erlebnismusik” (music that transmits experiences) (C. Dahlhaus).
Beethoven’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, the virus spread by the “revolution’s
fever” (letter to Hoffmeister & Kühnel from April 8, 1802) can be seen many times during Beethoven’s life. But to perceive Beethoven’s individual power of expression, one needs neither biographical documents nor any musical analysis of his scores.
The experience one has when listening to Beethoven’s symphonies today has lost hardly any of its effect. This can be seen in the numerous
performances and recordings of his works. It makes no difference whether they are played on historic instruments according to the rules of performance practice or romantically
transfigured. This recording with the Chamber Orchestra Basel, conducted by Giovanni Antonini, uses the urtext editions of Beethoven’s symphonies and follows historically
informed practice, without, however, any philological stuffiness. This does mean that one is faced with limits. The interplay of tenuto
and staccato articulation, which Beethoven describes in minutious detail, can hardly be harmonized with his metronome markings without distorting the musical form. In such places, interpretory decisions were made to best get the gesture of the musical expression and its movement across.Giovanni Antonini is often inspired by his experiences with the rhetorical language of baroque music. It’s up to the listener to decide whether these deep physiological levels in Beethoven’s symphonies
can be fathomed and their motion-based energy conveyed by an agogic playing style. The protagonists of this recording wanted to convey Beethoven as one of their own “contemporaries”.
This is reflected by the choice of instruments. The sound of natural horns and trumpets mixes with modern woodwinds; the strings play modern instruments strung with gut strings and classical bows.
Between tradition and new paths – Beethoven’s First Symphony
“Beethoven knows how to handle his subjects with incredible heat: they become increasingly
boisterous the more they approach their climax, until they fully explode. They are like a thundering volcano, like glowing lava, that carries off everything in its path.”
(J.A. Delaire, 1830)
Beethoven was almost 31 when he finished
his Symphony No. 1 in C major, op. 21 in Vienna in winter 1800. The first drafts and sketches for the finale go back to the year 1795. Compared to Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven began composing in the symphonic
genre relatively late. When he moved to Vienna in 1792, the aristocratic Vienna salons
venerated him as a genial keyboard virtuoso
with “particular speed”, but also as an improviser in the art of free fantasy, i.e. with some compositional abilities. Circa one-third of his works for piano were written between the time that his Symphony No. 1 was written and finally published (1801). The piano works show Beethoven’s unmistakable signature, whose specific qualities – in addition to their highly virtuosic demands on the interpreter – can be described as a radical compression
of musical and dramatic content and a development to a more orchestral treatment of the piano. There are a number of reasons why Beethoven began considering composing
a symphony as of 1795. For one thing, the institutionalization of public concerts came to have new significance after the French Revolution.
Music – and its message – could now reach a broader public. After his success at the piano in the Vienna salons, it must have been important to citoyen Beethoven to reach “humankind” with the instrumental language of the orchestra. Not only was Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, a work that takes up the myth of the symbolic figure of the French Revolution, written at the same time as the Symphony No. 1, the two scores also show further similarities.
On the other hand, Beethoven’s interest in the symphonic genre shows his creative confrontation
with the works of Haydn and Mozart.
The interesting thing in this regard is that as opposed to his piano works, Beethoven’s symphonic debut shows clearer dependencies on his two models. Despite the fact that Haydn sneered at his student’s arrogant mien, the Finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 contains noticeable traces of the humor found in Haydn’s late symphonies. The influence of Mozart’s last symphonies is also unmistakable
in Beethoven’s virgin work as well. The primary theme in the first movement clearly refers to the introductory theme in Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (K. 543). But while Mozart’s musical language reflects the composer’s experience
writing opera and achieves tension through the varying degrees of contrast between
the musical themes, Beethoven takes a completely different tack. Even as early as the Symphony No. 1, the invention of a musical
character has essential significance for the work’s further course. As opposed to Mozart, Beethoven’s first subject sneaks into the musical events and is manipulated as the movement proceeds. A musical contrast first appears when the previous motive has passed through various stations. Beethoven’s method of creating and recreating themes is based on a new form of musical linearity that gains its force from the principle of tension and relaxation.
The genial improviser always has “everything
under control” without betraying how he actually arrives at his destination.
The introduction to the Adagio molto itself already travels new paths. It does not begin with representative, static accords in the home key, as had always been the case before.
Beethoven opens his symphonic debut with musical question marks – a chain of seventh
chords punctuated by rests. The woodwinds
ask the rhetorical question three times, accompanied underneath by string pizzicatos in quarter notes. And in almost every measure, the dynamics change from piano to forte and vice versa. Through this, the music releases impulses that determine the further musical course like a domino effect.
The divergence from standard classical forms can also be seen in the Andante. The melody of the dance-like main theme in 3/8 consists of seven “irregular” measures – as though nothing could be more usual – but without closing the musical statement. Likewise
the Menuett – the main beats of the measures of the courtly dance are shifted by accents. Beethoven thus shatters the representative
character of Ludwig XIV’s favorite dance, thus paving the way for a new character
piece: the scherzo. The Finale closes the cyclical parentheses of the Symphony No. 1 not only through its slow introduction. This movement is a “Liedfinale” with a broadly laid-out melody that lets the oboes and horns stir up memories of the “Marchons” from the Marseillaise shortly before the close. Beethoven has shifted the emphasis from the opening movement to the finale – a procedure that takes on completely new dimensions by the time of his Ninth.
The Viennese correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was both impressed and irritated at the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony
No. 1, which probably took place on April 2, 1800. He heard a symphony, “in which there was a great deal of art, innovation and richness of ideas; but the winds were used so much that they produced more harmony than there was in the entire score.” The reasons the critic perceived the work to be heavy on wind writing lie certainly less on its instrumentation than on the unfavorable conditions of the premiere.
Haydn, of course, had already experimented
in his Paris symphonies with stronger and more independent use of the winds, and had thus introduced completely new colors into orchestral writing. In the case of the Beethoven premiere, it was primarily the lack of quality and the condition of the orchestra of the Italian Opera – as the critic stated later: “In the second part of the symphony, they [the orchestra members] became so sluggish that despite all the efforts of the conductor, they could achieve no more fire – especially in the winds.” Both musicians and conductor were apparently too overwhelmed by the composer’s
unfamiliar ideas about tempo and mood. Thus, the final movement – supposedly saturated
with revolutionary fever – completely failed at getting this effect across at first. Five years later, the Viennese correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote about a “wonderful creation”. Carl Maria von Weber – later critical of Beethoven – said in 1816 of the work that it was a “wonderful, clear, fiery symphony”.
“Three-quarters of an hour of nothing but difficulties”:
Beethoven’s Second Symphony
Seen in this light, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 has a key role. The work is written in the regal key of D major and is characterized
by a powerful, relaxed basic mood. But while Beethoven completed his work in Heiligenstadt
in 1802, he was in the middle of a deep psychological crisis. The 32-year-old Beethoven wrote to his friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler, professor of medicine in Bonn, “I can say that my life is miserable. For almost two years I have avoided all contact with people
because it is impossible for me to tell them ‘I am deaf!’” A short time later, Beethoven wrote his “Heiligenstadt testament” with the purpose of putting his life to an end. “Oh you people who believe or say that I am hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You have no idea of the secret cause which makes me seem that way! From childhood on, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill. I was even inclined to do great things. But consider now that for six years, I have been incurably afflicted,
a state made worse by senseless physicians,
deceived from year to year with the hopes of improvement, but finally compelled to accept the prospect of a lasting malady… With joy I hasten towards death. If it comes before I have had the opportunity to develop all my artistic capabilities, it will still come too soon despite my harsh fate and I will probably wish that it comes later – but even then I will be happy, for would it not free me from a state of endless suffering? – Come when you wish; I shall meet you courageously.”
The tragic circumstances of Beethoven’s life during this period are hardly perceptible in this symphony – when at all, then only in the dark, slow introduction, which turns out to be a chimera
as the piece proceeds, however. But it is just as doubtful to characterize this work as the light-hearted response to bitter reality. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 fascinates the listener by the sharp contrasts in the choice of musical means, dynamics ranging from loud to soft and harmonic
contrasts between minor and major. The clear structure of the first symphony can also be found here, but the musical expression, the intense energy in the outer movements and scherzo almost make the composition a musical drama without words. Beethoven’s “Second” already points to his “heroic” phase. Compared to his first symphony, the second distinguishes itself through the considerable expansion of the musical
structure. The coda gains even more weight, being transformed into a second development that once again musically reworks the thematic material.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 is a display of musical fireworks – one of the most vibrant compositions he wrote. It was first received with relative restraint on the part of his contemporaries,
however. Its premiere took place during a mammoth concert in the Theater an der Wien together with the premiere of the Piano
Concerto No. 3, the oratorio Christus am Oelberge and a repeat of the Symphony No. 1. Even though Beethoven earned the noteworthy
sum of 1800 florins, the symphony found little acceptance. One critic found that “the First Symphony is worth more than the last, because it is carried out with unforced ease, while in the second, the drive to express the new and original is more apparent.” Further performances of the symphony in Leipzig and Berlin were also received by the professional world with similar coolness. In Leipzig, reviewers
concentrated primarily on the dilettantish rendition by the orchestra; in Berlin, the newspaper
criticized the work as “three-quarters of an hour of nothing but difficulties.” Only the publisher of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Friedrich Rochlitz, wrote enthusiastically,
“It is the work of a fire-demon that will remain after thousand modishly celebrated works have long been carried to the grave.” He turned out to be right.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler