The authenticity of flexibility in Beethoven?

When I wrote to Clive Brown the other day to let him know how much we’d enjoyed working with his edition of Beethoven 2 in Pendleton he sent me his review of the recent set of Beethoven Symphonies recorded by Anima Eterna under Joos van Immerseel from Early Music in November ‘08. There’s a lot to think about in the article, and I thought I would start with this about rubato, an issue not enough of us give enough thought to when it comes to LvB.

In another respect, the Anima Eterna recordings, like all the others, display an entirely modern approach to the issue of Tempo Rubato (in the old sense of rhythmic departures from the literal meaning of the notation within a more or less constant pulse): they do not do it.

In this respect they are entirely within the post Stravinsky tradition of rigid fidelity to the text. Evidence that 19th-century performers, certainly those in the Austro-German tradition, regarded such Tempo Rubato as an essential element of artistic performance is overwhelming. Of course, this applied more to solo playing than to orchestral playing, but it is clear that even the string sections of 19th-century orchestras would have employed some conventional modifications of the written text, such as elongation of the first note under a slur (in the case of short groups) and over-dotting, or sometimes the assimilation of dotted figures to triplets. In the case of wind instruments in solo passages, there was more scope for freedom and it is reported that Beethoven took care to discuss the use of Tempo Rubato in his orchestral music with individual wind players. Examples of these practices in solo playing can be found on some of the earliest recordings by veteran players, for instance the 1903 acoustic recordings by Joseph Joachim (b. 1833) and the 1905 Welte rolls of Carl Reinecke (b. 1824); but they can also be heard in an orchestral context on the 1913 Berlin Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the passage from bar 127-143 of the Andante con moto providing a particularly telling example, with the wind instruments settling into an almost textbook example of Baroque 3:2 inequality. Despite the growing weight of scholarly evidence for such practices, they have scarcely impacted on commercial period-instrument performance.

Now, hear Beethoven with real flexibility and real Tempo Rubato from Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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2 comments on “The authenticity of flexibility in Beethoven?”

  1. Jim Drummond

    I have these recordings and they are simply superb in my opinion! They are fresh and insightful interpretations! I have been living with the John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Revolutionnaire set for the past 3 years, which are terrific! However, I think these Anima Eterna discs will very quickly become my interpretations of choice!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Jim-

    Great to hear from you. I’ve been going through the Anima cds for the last week. Interesting stuff. I have to say, I find the higher A a bit of a relief! The Gardinder is hard to beat- so polished…

    Will probably have more to say soon!

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