Symphony No. 4 in A,
Symphony No. 3 in E♭,
Bruno Weil, cond; Tafelmusik
TAFELMUSIK 1019 (77:37)
With this disc, Tafelmusik moves its sphere of reference from the 18th century to the early 19th, and the shift is a bit more radical than one might imagine. Despite the fact that Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony carries with it the stigma of being “light” music, and moreover a symphony closer related to those of Mozart and Haydn than to those of Beethoven and Schubert, the actual performance style required goes far beyond what is normally expected in the Baroque music with which they are better aquainted. The thematic resemblance to something like Handel’s
Royal Fireworks Music,
a Tafelmusik specialty, is not out of line, but the way the piece is constructed—and the type of phrasing and accents to be used—are far more modern in scope. And then, of course, there is Beethoven’s “Eroica,” a piece that was about as radical as one could imagine in the early 19th century.
Fortunately, this is not Tafelmusik’s first foray into Beethoven. For their previous label, Analekta, conductor Bruno Weil and the group recorded the Fifth through the Eighth symphonies, issued on two separate discs. Misha Donat, reviewing the Fifth and Sixth symphonies in the
BBC Music Magazine,
complained of Weil’s occasionally “rigorous and unyielding” tempos, particularly in the slow movement of the Fifth and the last movement of the Sixth, but I for one heard nothing upsetting or lacking a “sense of warmth” in this performance of the Third. Indeed, some of Donat’s discomfort is explained by his statement that “Simon Rattle…
avoids the recurring accents
that make Weil’s performance rather turgid (italics mine).” Aha, this explains a lot! Donat doesn’t like performances that follow Beethoven’s accent marks exactly if they interfere with his desire for a “warm,” cuddly performance. But Beethoven didn’t intend to be cuddly, folks. That’s why he was
And Weil speaks fluent Beethoven. Partly due to the transparency of a chamber orchestra and partly due to his own musical acumen, Weil brings out numerous details, not only in this symphony but also in the Mendelssohn, that often slide by in others’ recordings. Most of these involve those “little” harmonic clashes that the composer wrote into the score, and which upset contemporary audiences so much, but there are other textural qualities that just jump out at you more forcefully in this recording. I would place this performance alongside Michael Gielen’s “Eroica” in his complete set for Hänssler as being the two best modern recordings of this symphony I’ve heard—in fact, the best stereo versions since Charles Munch recorded the work with the Boston Symphony. If you have any doubts, listen to the way Weil joins the scherzo to the last movement without a break, and then proceeds to play that last movement with as much drama and energy as if it were the
movement. By doing so, he manages to “complete” the symphony emotionally in a way I’ve not heard anyone do in many a long year. Thanks to the transparent sound, the undercurrent of roiling basses in that last movement almost has the force of a rocket-propelled launch.
Indeed, as much as one admires the orchestra for their alternating moments of warmth, drama, and humor, it is Weil the conductor who makes these performances take life. His reading of the hackneyed Mendelssohn “Italian” is about as unhackneyed as one could imagine, the phrases shifting in both dynamics and accents as they flow one into the other. By doing so, Weil manages to avoid the mechanical feeling that so many conductors get out of this music, and he likewise employs dozens of subtle shifts and accents in the last-movement
that also propel the music without the feeling of “overdrive” that the music is prone to. I would place this recording alongside that of Vladimir Ghiaurov as being one of the most exceptional performances of this symphony I’ve heard since the days of Toscanini.
My sole complaint is that, by pairing the Beethoven Third with the Mendelssohn Fourth, Weil and Tafelmusik have broken up their apparently projected Beethoven symphony cycle. Perhaps in the future, Weil will record Mendelssohn’s Third or Fifth Symphony and that will be re-paired with the “Italian” on a different disc. Judging from this one performance alone, Weill’s Beethoven cycle with Tafelmusik, when completed, may very well be “the” Beethoven cycle played by a chamber orchestra using period instruments.
Lynn René Bayley