Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Beethoven and Period Instruments

There are now several top class ‘Period instruments’ groups in the world. When they perform or record they aim to replicate as close as possible the sound that the composer would have expected in his time. This means that the instruments they use are either originals or modern copies, and the strings use thick gut or whatever was typical of the period and city that the composer worked. The size of the orchestra matches the number of players the composer would have typically used, and the style of playing tries to replicate the style of the time.

The first Beethoven symphonies to be recorded on period instruments and in accordance with historical practice were I believe the Third and Seventh with The Collegium Aureum under Franzjosef Maier in 1976. Since then there have been many groundbreaking performances from the likes of Roy Goodman, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner. One of the major discoveries that these performances presented was the fact that Beethoven’s metronome marks were generally perfectly reasonable and should at the very least be the starting point for any conductor trying to find what he or she considers the correct tempo.

Jos van Immerseel
Jos van Immerseel

So, on to the new recording that inspired this editorial in the first place - a new recording of the complete cycle with the Amsterdam based group Anima Eterna under the baton of Jos van Immerseel.

I was alerted to this release a few weeks ago when I heard that Gramophone Magazine were to give it an Editor’s Choice in their June Issue. I thought I'd better have a listen ... I’ve now worked my way through almost all the symphonies and have to say that they have probably gone to the top of my list in regard to period instrument performances. The playing is superb, and because of the instruments they’re using (and the careful attenetion of Jos van Immerseel) the balance is excellent. This is so important as the music comes so much more to life when you can hear all the parts. The phrasing is clear and the wind have the lovely unique character that you really only get from period instruments.

Almost all the metronome marks are taken literally and this results in some pulsating, edge of the seat listening. I suppose my only real gripe is what I would call a lack of tempo flexibility within the movements themselves. This results in a lack of those really magical moments that a truly outstanding performance can achieve in places like the third movement of the Ninth. My view is that Beethoven didn’t mark this sort of subtle tempo variations because he would have expected musicians to do them naturally. Jos van Imerseel’s view is presumably that, because they are not marked, they shouldn’t be done.

Anyway, that aside these performances must rate very highly and at such a fantastic price will I am sure do very well. If you already own a set by Bernstein, Karajan or the like, you can rest assured that this will sound nothing like it. But I can also guarantee that you will hear things you’ve never heard before, and those things might just be closer to what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote them.

Beethoven - Complete Symphonies and Overtures

Anima Eterna, Jos van Immerseel

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC