Franz Konwitschny, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Beethoven: Hard to beat

October 09, 1994|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

Beethoven, the Nine Symphonies. Franz Konwitschny, Leipzig Radio Chorus, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Berlin Classics 0020 005 (six CDs; also includes overtures to "Coriolan," "Fidelio," "Creatures of Prometheus" and "Leonore" I-III)

Beethoven, The Nine Symphonies. John Eliot Gardner, the Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique. Archiv 439-900-2 (five CDs and a bonus interview CD)

At first it appears that these two sets of Beethoven symphonies should be polar opposites. We have the Leipzig Gewandhaus, )) which has an unbroken Beethoven tradition dating to the composer's lifetime. The Gardner set uses an orchestra with period instruments and attempts to capture the spirit of the original performances by taking a new look at all the source material and playing the "correct" tempo indications.

This listener would like members of the early-music mafia to drop the posture that they are the first to honor the composer's metronome markings. Performances by George Szell, Herbert von Karajan, Eugen Jochum, Arturo Toscanini and Carlos Kleiber use fast tempos and do it with large orchestras using modern instruments.

But Gardner does have the best-played original instruments on the market. The tempos are fast, but this ensemble plays with assurance and fire. Gardner's most convincing interpretations come in Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8. The quick pulse and the rock-solid timpani strokes work well in these works.

Less successful are Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 and 9. The Third Symphony (the "Eroica") is just not "heroic" to these ears, and the "fate knocking at the door" motif in the Fifth Symphony is too lightweight. The Ninth Symphony begins with a first movement that is almost 120 beats per minute, rather than the 88 indicated by Beethoven's metronome marking, and this robs the movement of its mystery. The rest of the symphony is more successful, with a whirlwind scherzo and a simple, beautiful, slow movement. The last movement satisfyingly concludes this well-executed set.

Passing from Gardner's set to Konwitschny's is like moving from Disney World to the Louvre. This is Beethoven played by an orchestra (one of the world's oldest) and conductor who believe that this is not simply great music, but that it's their music. This set was finished in 1961, one year before Konwitschny's death. He had been Leipzig's music director since 1949, and his communication with this great orchestra evinces some of the qualities that characterize the collaborations of Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Best are Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9. Every phrase in these powerful readings shows a sense of structure and drama. Because Leipzig's wind players have such individual tone colors, the orchestral fabric never becomes bland and homogenous. Tempos are not breakneck, but they are not ponderous, either. Grand Beethoven-playing on this order is increasingly hard to find. This is one of the treasures of the recorded history of one of the world's finest and oldest orchestras.

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