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Bertrand de Billy & ORF Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies no. 7 & 8 OC 640 SACD
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FormatSuper Audio CD
Ordering NumberOC 640
Release date06.01.2010
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Beethoven, Ludwig van

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      Symphonies no. 7 & 8
      Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna
      Bertrand de Billy, conductor

      The RSO Vienna’s Beethoven cycle under Bertrand de Billy is continually developing. These carefully illuminated recordings do not rely on external sensational effects but on fidelity to the score, careful disposition of the formal sections and highly precise musical cooperation, i.e. chamber music culture in a great symphony orchestra. And as is so often the case, the music has the most direct effect when it is allowed to speak for itself and not forced into channels of subjective or even eccentric “interpretation”.
      The fact that a characteristic Beethoven sound is nonetheless possible under Billy’s direction is proven by the two preceding CD recordings of the 3rd, 5th and 6th symphonies.

      "Fit for the madhouse?"

      Observations and thoughts on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A major.

      Beethoven let three years elapse between the completion of his Sixth, to become famous as his “Pastoral” Symphony, and his first ideas for the Seventh Symphony in A major, for we find that his first sketches for the work date from the autumn of 1812. The previous four symphonies were written more or less in succession between 1805 and 1808, after which Beethoven turned to other forms before writing his Seventh, perhaps his most often performed symphony today. It has always enjoyed success, being free from the familiar stereotypes of the Third, Fifth and Sixth. The label that has been attached to it longest is Richard Wagner’s “apotheosis of the dance”. As we shall see, this may present one aspect in too strong a light but does not fatally misrepresent the symphony’s character as does the image of Bonaparte the Third, “Fate knocking at the door” the Fifth, or a simple programmatic “portrait of nature” the Sixth.

      Rhythm, movement and in the outer movements exuberant high spirits are true characteristics of the Seventh. They come out all the better, the more the executants take into account the composer’s own tempo and performance markings. It is particularly important to observe Beethoven’s instructions for repeats. They are unquestionably an integral part of the overall architecture of the work. To ignore them, in whole or in part, represents a serious interference with and alteration of the work’s structure.

      That repeats in the Seventh Symphony should have been handled in such different ways in the past has much to do with the keenly pursued debate on Beethoven’s metronome markings. The interpretation that emerged from 19th-century Romanticism entailed a substantial retardation of the specified tempos. Beethoven’s metronome numbers were either considered wrong or wrongly understood. This must be seen in connection with the tradition of eliminating repeats from the exposition sections of the outer movements in particular. Repeats at slow tempo turn an already long symphony into an even more extended work!

      The experiences of the past years and decades arising from the search for the original sound, the greater understanding of what instruments of the period could do, and in particular the certainty that Beethoven’s metronome markings were meant exactly as he noted them and not otherwise, have led to wide-ranging reappraisal.

      After two symphonies that “went straight into action” (and for the last time in his symphonic oeuvre), Beethoven prefaces this first movement with a slow introduction. Not that this can very well be compared with the customary form still in evidence in the Fourth Symphony, even if the device has been variously interpreted in the past. The views of conductors range from the assertion that the slow introduction to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony amounts to a selfcontained element – like the thunderstorm that represents the fourth movement of the Pastoral – to the conclusion that it is simply the slowed-down rhythmical preparation for the movement that will follow.

      Now, right from the start, Beethoven works with two themes as in a true exposition. The ideas themselves are rich in potential. After being presented in the woodwinds, they are expounded in a wide variety of dynamic variants and held from the very beginning in a fixed rhythmical embrace of heavy orchestral beats. All the same, one gains the impression in this poco sostenuto that the melody keeps asserting itself against the threat of rhythmic domination; as things continue, one is tempted to make out a secondary subject, but suddenly Beethoven cuts short the discussion: the decidedly melodious introduction ends on the dominant, settles more and more firmly into E and within several bars is the pure rhythm that is then almost fanatically taken over by the whole orchestra in the following Vivace.

      This sequence of events gives the listener the spontaneous impression of an opposition of the thesis of this symphony, “rhythm”, with the antithesis that precedes it. Alternatively, one deciphers the music – as so often with Beethoven – on the principle “per aspera ad astra”, though here the stairway to the stars is portrayed in the smallest confines, with the light embodied in the primacy of rhythm.

      Rhythm is then, more than in any of Beethoven’s other symphonies to that date, the determining theme of the work. That is why Richard Wagner’s sobriquet “Apotheosis of the Dance” does reflect the intention of the symphony and probably explains its continuing fascination throughout its history. The radicalism with which Beethoven makes his subsequent commitment to rhythm is not to be encountered again till the great works of the 20th century.

      Immediately after the rhythm of the Vivace has emerged from the transition out of the Poco sostenuto, Beethoven introduces the first subject in the flutes: dancing, light, animated. Before it can be transported into the introductory rhythm, it is halted at a fermata, and suddenly returns in the full orchestra with a peremptory gesture of the sort that only Beethoven could make, now almost thumping and triumphal.

      This is neither the time or the place to complement the many existing analyses of this symphony with yet another; instead, the aim is to allude to a number of interesting aspects in the development of Beethoven’s symphonic technique. In his slow introduction, Beethoven did not resort to an earlier formal scheme as we might readily assume, but assumed the structure formed by Haydn only to successively transform it; in the same way, he now sets out to push the individual parts of the typical sonata-form movement to their limits and to change them at the same time. For our generations, which have so easily taken this music for granted, it is simply impossible to imagine what it must have meant for its original audiences to hear Beethoven shaping the whole exposition with a single theme and the absolute imperative of rhythm, then casting aside every hitherto conceivable form of development, which surely explains why the coda – instead of being a pleasant restatement and well-mannered conclusion to the whole – is an autonomous formal element that serves to underline the whole movement, reinforcing it and radically summing it up.

      The second movement had to be repeated at the first two performances of the symphony Beethoven conducted. The first question to ask is, what did the evidently well-informed audience of those turbulent times find so new and exciting? The second movement of the A major symphony is frequently compared with the corresponding movement of the Eroica. However, the second movement of the Third Symphony is headed Marcia funebre, and its tempo is accordingly named as Adagio assai. Here in the Seventh, the heading is Allegretto, a striking contrast in itself and still more so in conjunction with Beethoven’s drastically different metronome marking. Both movements are in two-four time, but in the Eroica, Beethoven gives a metronome setting of Quaver=80 (anticipating a necessary subdivision into four). In the Seventh Symphony, on the other hand, where the indication is Crotchet=76. Beethoven clearly identifies an underlying two beats to the bar, taken appreciably faster than we are used to hearing it played. It is the very disregard for this tempo indication that has led in the past to this movement acquiring a completely different character and prompted the oftquoted comparison with the Eroica.

      A further element determining the character of this second movement is the use of the pilgrim song Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, which shapes the rhythmic structure of the movement. Only an elementary knowledge of music is needed to appreciate that a change of tempo can drastically alter the music’s character. Conductors in the Romantic Beethoven tradition base their slow speed in this movement on the pilgrim song, as does Otto Klemperer, justly acknowledged to this day as one of the great Beethoven experts. His criticism of tempos he judges too fast draws on this song to the Virgin, criticizing his then much younger but no less famous colleague Herbert von Karajan, who himself was not in favour of extreme tempos. This example makes it clear how much one’s interpretation and thus one’s understanding of the character of a piece of music depends on period and fashion – and on the available extent of musical knowledge. Today we no longer tend to take Beethoven’s tempo markings in contradiction to the Marian melody, particularly considering that the movement is then set in the context of the whole symphony and does not acquire the character of an elegiac island. The conductor of the present recording, Bertrand de Billy, does not mark a break in performance between the first and second movements, or between the third and fourth. Once the movements are taken at the speed prescribed by Beethoven, the question of thesis and antithesis can again be addressed: not only in the superficial sense that according to tradition the second movement is not in A major but A minor, but also because the rhythmic element merely accompanies the melodic line here. Its almost threatening beat shows it has not given up, with a few warning outbursts to remind us who the symphony takes its character from.

      Beethoven may seem to uphold the conventional pattern taking the middle section back into A major, but the mood lacks any real major-key character, with the underlying character of the movement remaining minor throughout. Beethoven mainly uses variation form in this movement, later resorting to a fugato. The five-part form (A-B-A-B-A) is evident, with the major-key section returning with changes, and dynamics are as crucial to the plot as they were in the first movement. Even early analyses emphasize the slowly waxing and then waning crescendo-decrescendo that suggests a procession approaching and disappearing into the distance. Another particular feature of this movement is the way it is book-ended by 6 4 chords. At the start, this chord seems to say “And so:”; at the end, the unresolved chord indicates an end to hitherto steady progress.

      It is this very lack of resolution, or if you like lack of solution to the second movement, that lends force to the thunderous start of the following Presto. Though Beethoven tends to put his scherzos into the home key, he moves here “on paper” into F major, having stayed very close to the home key in the second movement with A minor and A major. As subsequently becomes clear, the new key does not hold his attention very long. Just as this symphony is dominated by rhythm, so the home key of A major stays insistent almost throughout, and the start of the third movement forms a bridge to the slow introduction, specifically to the oboe theme, whose transformation we here encounter (cf. research by J.K. Knowles). Like most third movements in this phase of Beethoven’s creative development, this too is in five-part form, and the theme of the D major trio is based (according to Abbé Stadler) on a Lower Austrian pilgrim song, played by woodwinds and horns over a pedal point of A derived from the scherzo. A fine specimen of Beethoven’s dry humour is offered at the end of the movement, where he seems to be returning to the trio for a third time, only to bring the movement to an abrupt end with five rapid strokes from the orchestra.

      Practically every symphony of Beethoven’s since the Eroica is directed towards the final movement, where the sense of the whole is likely to be revealed. Thus the finale of the Seventh gives us a motif that not only provides food for thought but has been used by Beethoven many times before. It has often been remarked that the Seventh was composed at the time of Napoleon’s decline and fall. By the time of the premiere, the Emperor of France was already defeated, the second piece of the evening being Beethoven’s musical account of Wellington’s victory at Vittoria. Of all the tunes which might have inspired the main theme of the fourth movement, with its characteristic sforzati on the second part of the bar, the revolutionary march Le triomphe de la République by F.J. Gossec seems the most likely. It would not be the first time that Beethoven had used Gallic music (cf. the finale of the Fifth Symphony), and we know how intensively Beethoven followed Napoleon’s rise and fall. The whole movement is pervaded by a headlong fury almost unequalled in Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre, but this furious mood cannot conceal the care with which Beethoven has interwoven the subject-matter with the preceding movements, the way he expands sonata form by again opening up the coda and lifting it far above its former function. The dominance of the main theme over the much weaker secondary theme gives the impression of a monothematic treatment. Here too there is a bridge back to the slow introduction of the first movement: the extensive coda is again dominated by a ground of E, the dominant.

      The punch packed by this Allegro con brio must have positively alarmed Beethoven’s contemporaries. Carl Maria von Weber is reported to have declared the composer “fit for the madhouse”. Robert Schumann’s father-in-law Friedrich Wieck, for his part, thought Beethoven must have written the movement when he was drunk. So much for the symphony’s effect on contemporaries, even if they were part of the well-educated musical establishment. The fact is, nevertheless, that the symphony has been received with general acclaim in the concert hall ever since its premiere, its impact and language having proved themselves truly universal and timeless.

      “… because it is much better ”

      Observations on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony

      The Eighth Symphony, a work from Beethoven’s most productive period, is found relatively infrequently on the programmes of international concert halls.

      Almost contemporary with the highly popular Seventh and written as Beethoven was already planning the D minor Symphony, his Ninth, it forms the link between these symphonic monuments and risks being eclipsed by them. The very key of F major has sometimes led to its being described as the “little F major symphony”, in contrast to the much more famous Pastoral in that key, given that with the possible exception of the First, it is the shortest symphony Beethoven ever composed. These superficial features do play a significant part in the history of the work.

      The symphony was not as well received at its premiere as Beethoven’s other new works, as a contemporary review indicates. At that concert, the Seventh was repeated, a work that has always been among Beethoven’s most successful pieces. According to his pupil Czerny, Beethoven accounted for the poor success of his new work in comparison with the Seventh by drily observing that the new symphony was not so successful “because it is much better”.

      At least the reviewer of the premiere was intelligent enough to note that the Eighth must have as many beauties and specialities as Beethoven’s earlier symphonies and would profit from being considered and heard on its own account. Let us, then, attend to some of the special features which characterize this masterpiece.

      At least three epithets are regularly applied to this symphony. The first is “humorous” (whatever that may mean). The second is “Classicist”, by which “backward-looking” is implied. And the third is “idyllic”. Labels, once applied, tend to stick. But perhaps we should for once take a really close look at the beginning of the symphony. As in his Third, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Beethoven dispenses with a slow introduction. Here, however, he would seem to go one step further. Whether we look at the two orchestral chords at the start of the Third that seem to sum up the work, or the repeated “knocking” motif in the Fifth, or the self-contained opening phrase of the Sixth: they are all introductions, albeit in encapsulated and minimized form.

      Not so in the Eighth Symphony. With brute force and triumphant tone, the main theme bursts in Allegro vivace e con brio; Beethoven has arrived. There is nothing comfortable, classicist or “funny” about that. This is an altogether self-possessed opening statement without regard to tradition or expectation. As in every Beethoven symphony, the first movement is in sonata form. Not content with the usual two, however, Beethoven introduces three themes into what may be the shortest of his symphonies. That alone shifts the centre of gravity in the overall formal layout. As in the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven gives the coda a far greater weight; indeed, the boundaries between development and recapitulation are growing ever more fluid. The movement at first had a different ending. After a private performance in the palace of Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven rewrote a rather abrupt, almost prosaic ending into the version we have today. (What Beethoven did for the symphony in general was to create an awareness, which grew firmer and broader through Schubert, Brahms and Bruckner to Mahler, that form must be adapted to content, leading to Mahler’s gigantic works that threatened to burst the bounds of symphonic form itself.)

      This symphony is even further from a proper slow movement than any of Beethoven’s others. The Allegretto scherzando second movement has done much to reinforce the preconceptions of a “smaller” F major symphony. The old claims based on Beethoven biographer Anton Schindler’s false assumptions of an underlying canon for metronome inventor Mälzel, presenting and caricaturing Mälzel’s revolutionary device, have long since been refuted. All the same: the seemingly regular ticking of the background rhythm and its concealed rhythmic traps remain unmistakable characteristics of this work.

      Like Beethoven’s compositional innovations in the formal sphere, this second movement offers a masterly example of the composer’s art of subtle shifts in rhythm and experiments in beat and metre. All this artifice is likely to escape the listener at first hearing. Closer study, however, increasingly reveals why Beethoven held the Eighth to be among his best works to date.

      The third movement too earned the labels of comfort and classicism more from its tempo marking than from its content. Beethoven headed it “Tempo di Minuetto”, an anachronistic description that he had last used in his First Symphony. Here, too, one must beware. If there is such a thing as Beethovenian humour, it is the bitterly cynical humour of a man who takes pleasure in deliberately misleading his listeners, welleducated and knowledgeable as such premiere audiences were likely to be. If the third movement has anything whatever to do with the tradition of the minuet, it is likely to be more of a parody, if the exaggerated accents at the start are anything to go by. The trio, with its Austrian Ländler air, rather suggests the future development of the symphony by Schubert and Bruckner.

      The fourth movement, Allegro vivace, offers similar surprises to the first in the refinement of its formal experiments within such a short compass, being a hybrid of sonata and rondo form of the sort Beethoven had introduced in earlier symphonies. Like the opening movement, this finale shows Beethoven shifting the proportions of introduction, development and recapitulation in favour of the latter.

      The more or less equal weight of the two outer movements gives the symphony its symmetry, aided by the appearance in the finale of motivic references to the first movement, and also to the second. The movements of this symphony may seem disparate and self-contained, but ultimately the Eighth is just as much a “final-goal” symphony as the Eroica and Beethoven’s symphonies since then.

      However we may regard the symphony, we should not be distracted by superficially apt labels. This work, relatively short in duration, deserves its place between the two towers of the Seventh and Ninth; one could even say that after his Seventh, Beethoven found it necessary to write the Eighth, in order to be able to compose the Ninth.

      Michael Lewin
      Translation: Janet and Michael Berridge

      Tracklist hide

      SACD 1
      • Symphony No.. 7 in A Major, op. 92
        • 1.Poco sostenuto – Vivace13:40
        • 2.Allegretto08:03
        • 3.Presto – Assai meno presto08:23
        • 4.Allegro con brio08:26
      • Symphony No. 8 in F Major, op. 93
        • 5.Allegro vivace e con brio08:27
        • 6.Allegretto scherzando04:04
        • 7.Tempo di Menuetto05:50
        • 8.Allegro vivace07:24
      • Total:01:04:17