Friday 18 December 2020

Beethoven transformed: the second volume of Boxwood & Brass' series brings three bravura Harmoniemusik arrangements created in Beethoven's Vienna

Beethoven Transformed, Volume 2 - virtuoso arrangements for Viennese Harmonie of music by Ludwig van Beethoven; Boxwood & Brass; Resonus Classics

Beethoven Transformed, Volume 2 - virtuoso arrangements for Viennese Harmonie of music by Ludwig van Beethoven
; Boxwood & Brass; Resonus Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bravura performances by the period instrument ensemble which take you back to the sheer joy that the original performers must have felt on being able play symphonic music by Beethoven

Imagine the scene, the advert in the newspaper, the wait for the music, unwrapping the parts, the expectation and anticipation, the first run through, the music is difficult but eventually they get there, more or less. And so, nine musicians in a local harmonie ensemble in early 19th century Austria get to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, at a time when hearing a full symphony orchestra was reserved almost exclusively for the great and the good.

Harmoniemusik, music played by an ensemble of two oboes, two clarinets, two French horns, two bassoons and contrabassoon (or double bass) was big in Vienna in the early 19th century. Publishers were keen to get in on the act and everything was arranged for harmonie ensemble. On this disc from Boxwood & Brass, the second of the period wind ensemble's Beethoven transformed series on Resonus, the ensemble plays contemporary arrangements of Beethoven's Egmont Overture Op. 84, Sonate Pathetique Op.13 and Symphony No. 7 Op. 92.

Harmoniemusik is often dismissed as arrangements of operas and popular tunes designed for background music and outdoor events. But the high artistic standards of some of these ensembles inspired music specially written for them such as Mozart's serenades and Franz Krommer's partitas. Publishers, of course, got in on the act too and whilst a lot of what was issued was popular recycling, there was other challenging repertoire. 

Sigmund Anton Steiner
Sigmund Anton Steiner
Sigmund Anton Steiner (1773-1838) was a friend of Beethoven's and the proprietor of a publishing house the Chemische Drückerei (the chemical printworks, so-called because it used the new technique of lithography for printing). The Chemische Drückeri's production of Harmoniemusik included a regular Journal fur Harmonie which covered opera and ballet arrangements but as well the firm issued more challenging repertoire. And so, on this disc we hear an arrangement from about 1812 by Friedrich Starke of Beethoven's Egmont Overture (premiered 1810) paired with a modern arrangement of the rest of the incidental music by Boxwood & Brass's first bassoon, Robert Percival (you can read more about this on the ensemble's website), a version of Beethoven's Piano Sonata op. 13 'Pathetique' created in 1810, and a version from 1816 of the Symphony No. 7 (premiered 1813), all issued by the Chemische Drückerei.

The arrangements are highly ambitious, and perhaps show the genre at its most challenging. After all, boiling Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 down to just nine players is no mean feat. But whilst the music is intended to stay close to the spirit of the music, the letter is less worried about. The final 'Siegesymphonie' from Egmont without the famous piccolo part? No problem. Some of the keys are awkward for wind instruments? Simply transpose them, or miss them out.

It is easy, from our modern standpoint, to decry such arrangements, but we should remember that they provided performers and listeners with direct contact with Beethoven's music in an age when few were able to hear full symphonic performances. In their booklet notes, Emily Worthington and Robert Percival, refer to comments by oboist Josef Triebensee (who was involved in a lot of Harmoniemusik) which referred to 'the joy of the artist' in performing well-written arrangements that reflect the spirit of the composer. 

Before we worry too much about the fidelity (or lack of it) to the originals, it is worth bearing in mind that all the arrangements are contemporary, they were made by people who could easily have heard the original versions of the music. And we know that Beethoven had told Steiner that he must check all arrangements of his works before publication, so Beethoven probably knew about them. And the booklet notes raise the tantalising prospect (albeit a distant one), that the composer may have had a hand in the arrangements.

The arrangements were clearly ambitious, and in some of the movements you marvel that there only nine performers, so richly busy are the textures. The booklet article talks about the way that the redistribution of parts in the symphony both taxes the players' stamina and pushes the technical capabilities of the instruments. And, indeed, the part for the contrabassoon goes below the instrument's range at the time (!), leading the ensemble here to use a double bass instead.

Whilst you are aware sometimes that this is taxing music, and you wonder at the skill of the players, what comes over most is a sense of terrific joy and enjoyment in the sheer physicality of the music. The sound world takes a bit of getting used to for anyone familiar with the originals, but the sheer élan of the players takes over. That and the wonderful range of colours to be had from these instruments; remember that the horns are hand-stopped, meaning virtually every note is a different colour, whilst the period bassoon is a wonderfully primitive beast indeed compared to the modern one.

They don't try to reproduce the style and sound of the original works, instead the music is rendered in a way suitable for the wind ensemble. Their interpretation of the symphony as akin to a 'battle symphony' makes for stirring stuff and simply carries you away.

This disc is something of a document of a particular age's taste in its picture of 1810s Vienna and the love of Harmoniemusik. But more than a history of taste, or a demonstration of the virtuosity of modern players on period instruments, the disc is simply a terrific hour-long programme, vivid, vigorous and thoroughly engaging.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), arr. Friedrich Starke (1812), Robert Percival (2018) - Egmont, Op 84
Ludwig van Beethoven, arr. anon (Vienna 1810) - Harmonie arrangee de Sonate Pathetique, Op.13
Ludwig van Beethoven, arr anon (Vienna 1810) - Symphony No. 7, Op. 92
Boxwood & Brass (Rachel Chaplin, Nicola Barbagli - oboe, Emily Worthington, Fiona Mitchell - clarinet, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith - natural horn, Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi - bassoon, Jacqueline Dossor - double bass)
Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, on 3-6 February 2019
RESONUS RES10270 1CD [66.06]

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