Beethoven Performed With Modern and Period Instruments
A while ago, I wrote about period instrument vs. modern instrument performances and touched on just a few of the issues involved in comparing and evaluating them.
Next March at Lincoln Center in New York, audiences will have a unique opportunity to make such a comparison with Beethoven. All nine of Beethoven’s symphonies will be played over four nights in a mix of period and modern performances.
Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer will lead The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in symphonies 1, 2, 3, 5 & 8 in period performance style, and then his own visiting Budapest Festival Orchestra in Nos. 4, 6, 7 & 9 in modern style. I haven’t heard of this happening before, and it will undoubtedly make for fascinating comparisons even if it doesn’t end any disputes.
The period instrument movement that began with medieval music and music of the Renaissance, moved on through the Baroque and Classical eras, and became more controversial as the ideas and practices of period performance styles were applied to Romantic music of the 19th century when orchestras became bigger and louder. And Beethoven is the bridge between the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and the Romantic composers to come in the 19th century, such as Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.
While it may be more fitting (to some) to hear Beethoven’s 1st played on period instruments (since it was published in 1800 and more clearly owes a debt to Haydn and Mozart), by the time we get to the 9th in 1824, we are worlds away in music on a grander scale in Beethoven’s visionary final symphonic creation.
One of the arguments for the modern approach would be that Beethoven was trying to break past previous boundaries in the 9th and would have reveled in the sound of a large modern orchestra, had he been able to hear one.
Although ironically (since he was completely deaf by the time he wrote the 9th symphony), he never heard it at all except in his imagination (which we do know was exceedingly vast). But the period instrument people will bring up the issue of those pesky metronome markings that Beethoven indicated on the score for tempos. Modern orchestras have a hard time trying to play some movements of the symphonies at precisely those speeds, which are often quite fast.
So, round and round it goes. You may just have to hear them played both ways if your mind is not already made up about which is preferable. A rare opportunity awaits for anyone who can make it to Lincoln Center next March for what is bound to be an intriguing series of concerts.