on 21 December 2014
I love Hogwood's interpretations of all things Baroque. His uptempo, no-nonsense style and the fresh, sharp sound of AAM work wonders for baroque music. (I especially admire what he does with Bach's oeuvre.) I therefore looked forward to his version of these great works - I really wanted to know what he would do with music from a much later period. Would his style hold up?
After listening however, I find that the sound of these recordings leans on shrill and harsh, rather than fresh and sharp. In my mind there is a serious lack of bass to balance all the higher frequency content. Also, the performances feel a little dull and lifeless to me, despite their higher-than-average tempi. I'm sorry to say that I'm really disappointed in this set, and I'm now on the lookout for something with a little more low-end.
I've long been a starry-eyed admirer of the better "paradigm shift" Beethoven symphony recordings, including complete cycles. Though I have been happy with Gardiner's cycle for 20 years, I have been keen to hear some of the other "pioneering" cycles from the early days of HIP Beethoven.
If I recall correctly, Hogwood and the AAM were the third HIP team to record a Beethoven cycle, following Norrington's LCP and the Nimbus project by the Hannover Band. Despite the Gramophone accolades for Norrington's cycle, Hogwood's recordings were comparatively better received for their more polished playing. In a way, I note two main strengths of Hogwood's cycle. Firstly, the AAM was a more established, experienced orchestra in which everyone was used to playing together. As such, it was not put together from scratch like Norrington's or Gardiner's orchestras (though the ORR had some players from the English Baroque Soloists). Secondly, Hogwood and the AAM recorded the symphonies in chronological order, thus having a better perspective of each symphony.
I found the orchestral playing felicitous, even if it could be a bit more robust and bracing. I also noticed that the tuning went off in some places and I also detected a number of cracked horn notes. Through the cycle, I noted that Hogwood's orchestra could do with just a bit more projection . Yet Decca has nicely recorded them in a wide yet detailed soundstage. The perspective is from the back of the hall, rather than the conductor's podium. I tend to like podium-perspective recordings a bit more so you can be closer to the heart of the music.
I know that HIP in anything means hurry-sick performances on a persistent rush-hour treadmill of haste and hurry. As such it would be criminal if listeners abetted the hurry-up professionals who want to drive the world to burnout. In addition, I am aware that evidence points away from stratospheric tempo in Baroque, Classical and Romantic era music because of rugged ensemble standards and poor internal instrumental mechanics. I also acknowledge that the character of scores generally reveals itself better at a slower speed than the stratospheric speeds adopted by the HIP performers. However, I found paradigm shift Beethoven a breath of fresh air. The traditional performances came across as stodgy and gloopy, especially those done by the conductors of the German conducting school. So I felt as if I was hearing the essence of these works in plain, unvarnished renditions that observed Beethoven's markings carefully. I know that Beethoven was deaf when he assigned his metronome marks to his compositions, but his prescribed speeds work if you consider that he wants us to feel his music in larger beat units.
Hogwood's cycle has its felicities in the less intense moments of these symphonies. He and the AAM are wonderful in the lighter, less-intense symphonies. I admit that the First Symphony takes time to warm up, but Hogwood gives it a light-footed, elegant reading in the manner of his Mozart and Haydn symphony readings. The Fourth is also a strong performance in Hogwood's cycle with bang-on characterisation. There are bubbly winds in the first movement and the various fast movements are generally spirited and strong. I did wish that the dotted rhythms in the slow movement could lilt a bit more and become winsome. Among the other historically sensitive versions, Mackerras (in his Scottish recordings) and Giovanni Antonini made this movement winsome at a speed close to the stipulated speed. The Second is also done nicely, but it still sounds brusque where needed. the first and third movements are on par with the Gardiner version(s), I occasionally found the Finale a bit subdued. Even so, I still find that Hogwood does well with the shorter, lighter symphonies.
In the middle period symphonies, I wished that Hogwood and the AAM could be just that bit more bracing and more robust with their salvos. I noticed this in the Eroica and the Fifth. I wished that the movement could be a bit more incisive and that the orchestra could project itself a bit more. However, in the first two movements Hogwood adopted a steady tempo and the interplay between the sections is still alert. Yet in more vigorous sections I wished that Hogwood could inject a bit more zing into the performance, notably into the finale. I found the Fifth slightly better than the Eroica, mainly because it is comparatively shorter. I found that the performance fared better in the odd-numbered movements. The performance comes to life in the secondary subjects of the first movement and Hogwood better manages the sharp contrasts and the build-ups to climaxes. Occasionally I wished that the slow movement could be a bit more tense (like the DG recording of Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic) despite the felicitous wind playing. The finale goes at a steady speed and benefits from blazing brass. Though it may occasionally lack torque, at least Hogwood turns up the heat in the latter part of the movement.
Of the other middle period symphonies, Hogwood does fine in the Pastoral, the Seventh and the Eighth. I know that the Pastoral needs a "long now" approach from conductors who make the moment last by adopting leisurely speeds. As such faster-paced Pastorals may rush listeners unduly. However, Hogwood's rendition of the Pastoral strikes me as one of his stronger symphonies. I know I occasionally noticed that his first movement climaxes may come off as a bit forced at his bracing speeds, but he still offers a spirited reading. Interestingly enough, Hogwood and Norrington undercut Gardiner in the first movement. The Brook is a bit stilted but still peaceful. The winds have a very good interplay. The third movement with the merrymaking peasants is a bit tightly buttoned, and the storm takes time to work itself up to its fury, but the Shepherds' Thanksgiving lilts along nicely.
Although the Seventh feels a bit tight-buttoned, it is at least nicely managed from the sostenuto introduction. Here I notice that the rhythms lilt a bit more, even in the seconed movement. Though the Trio may be marginally faster than most would like it, the Finale is propulsive and has torque once it has warmed up by the exposiition repeat. In the Eighth, Hogwood offers us a light-footed performances and handles the contrasts well. Occasionally I wished that some instruments or sections could assert themselves in their relevant passages.
Hogwood's Ninth is stronger in the instrumental sections than in the choral finale. It helps that his orchestra has more players in this symphony compared to those of his other colleagues. The first movement is bracing and taken at a sustained speed. The Scherzo presents no problems in the outer sections except for the slow Trio. Listeners might not take kindly to the revisionist conception of the slow movement because the HIP conception based on the marked metronome speed may come across as hurry-sick. Yet I am fine with this revisionist conception because this movement bears a family likess to the slow movement of the Pathetique sonata and Beethoven wants the minims to be the slow beats, not the crotchets. Hogwood's rendition might come across as thrown together in the first parts of the movement, but when he reaches the 12/8 variation the movement takes off with flights of ecstasy. I note a few problems in the finale. Although the pass-in-review introduction came off fine, the Joy theme could have done with a bit more torque in its first statements. Though most of the soloists are wonderful singers, especially Arleen Auger and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, I noted that Gregory Rinehart blustered in his first solo and that the sound of the chorus lacked body, conviction and projection. I also did not feel too happy with the slow tempo for the Turkish March variation. It might be good to remember that the double quick tempo of 84 minims had not yet been adopted. There are enough convincing grounds to justify this double quick tempo because of the affinity to the march variation in the Choral Fantasy.
This is still a very good HIP Beethoven cycle with strong, polished and nicely characterised playing. I know I wished it could be a bit more robust and bracing, but at least it has its moments in the less intense symphonies. I know it may come up slightly short when up next to Karajan and the Berliners, Mackerras's Hyperion cycle or even Gardiner's recordings (the most robust of the British HIP sets), but it's a worthy supplemental purchase at this price and more than competes with these other sets.
on 2 February 2006
If you are looking for Beethoven raw and exciting this is the edition for you. Played on period instruments, and with generally fast tempi (occasionally a bit too fast I feel, as in the finale of the seventh),the overall effect is one of a breath of fresh air.
Performance practice such as the use of a piano continuo part can give the music an unfamiliar feel, and if you are at home with the more grand interpretations then stick with Klemperer or Davis, but for something a little different look no further.
on 10 December 2014
What an enormous blow to hear of Christopher Hogwood's death some weeks ago. A true pioneer of "historically informed performance" (as we now apparently should call it).
In a wonderful partnership with L'Oiseau Lyre and the producer Peter Wadland over several decades he covered so much of the baroque and classical repertoire with amazing consistency, allied with excellent musicology, fine playing and splendid recording.
The Beethoven is no exception to this; there's plenty of life (and dare I say it - guts - pardon the pun) where necessary, but equally restraint and fluidity where appropriate - for instance the "Scene by the Brook" in the "Pastoral" symphony. Repeats are observed and a clear balance maintained between wind and strings - a feature carried over from his Mozart. So often a large string sound blots out woodwind figurations. Recordings, like many made by Hogwood and the AAM in Walthanstow Assembly Hall, are very fine.
I have enjoyed Norrington's traversal of Beethoven (rather different to Hogwood), and have heard some of Eliot Gardiners' discs, as well as encompassing many "standard" symphony orchestra sets - Konwitchny, Karajan, Klemperer, Zinman - to name but a few! Nevertheless Hogwood comes high in the league for me.
What a tragedy he never got to complete his Haydn survey......
on 29 March 2012
"Peter Arnett reporting here from the main road heading north from Period Practice City. It was once referred to as Highway 80. Henceforth it will be known as the Highway of Death.
This much we know. Incarcerated by the fad of HIP, the Nine Beethoven Symphonies tried to escape. Come dawn, they snuck out of Period Practice City, heading northwards towards the Musikverein. Good progress was made. Was freedom possible? It was not to be. The air-cavalry of the Academy of Ancient Music caught up with them before noon and blocked both ends of the Highway by raking the First and Ninth Symphonies with miniaturisation, bulges in the melodic line, deplorable intonation and vibrato-less twangs; not even the fine soloists in the finale could save this Ninth from oblivion. No poetry was in evidence.
Once these symphonies were haemorrhaging on the roadway, Hogwood and his gunships moved in to butcher the rest. The Third met an unheroic end: if one were to offer up a requiem for it, it would be more redolent of Chicken Little than Napoleon Bonaparte. Once the AAM had completed their onslaught, the Fifth Symphony was unrecognisable: the famous bridging passage into the finale brings Tinkerbell to mind but it matters not: the symphony is dead. The Pastoral was mauled with tweediness. The Seventh was found gutted of anything resembling an Allegretto: the second movement sounded more like a light-hearted intermezzo whose grandeur had been drained away into the sand. There is little one can say of Second, Fourth and Eighth symphonies: one finds an Allegro here and an Adagio there; whatever their claims on immortality once were, now they are nothing more than fragments on the bitumen that have been drained of their vitality and splendour.
With the cessation of hostilities, I have walked this stretch of the Highway of Death. The stench of clipped phrasing is almost overwhelming. There is little one can say.
The HIPsters of Period Practice City are not silent. They raise a lament. Fate has spoken. Drained of blood, Beethoven lies desiccated and disembowelled on the Highway of Death.
Oh Corporal Hogwood, great is thy praise."