Saturday, 11 July 2020

Two Pastorals : Beethoven Symphony no 6, Knecht Le portrait musical de la Nature

Two pastorals : Beethoven's Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" op 68 and Justin Heinrich Knecht Le Portrait musical de la Nature , with Bernhard Forck conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, part of the ongoing Harmonia Mundi series where Beethoven's music is presented in thoughtful juxtaposition, geared towards listeners already familiar with the basics of Beethoven.  This recording examines Beethoven's Symphony no 6 in the context of pastoral traditions in European music, which evolved from the17th century and adapted to the Early Romantic aesthetic. 

Justin Knecht (1752-1817), a generation older than Beethoven, was an organist and composer who lived all of his life in Upper Swabia.  Knecht described Le Portrait musical de la nature as a "Tongemälde der Natur oder Groẞe Symphonie" (a tone painting in the form of a large symphony). In the first Allegretto, Knecht's written description suggests a scene where the sun shines, zephyrs blow, and brooks flow merrily through a valley where birds call, shepherds pipe and shepherdesses sing. An Arcadian idyll, embraced for centuries by painters, writers and musicians.  Knecht's  detaied commentary helps, since this movement describes tranquillity, its flow gentle and elegant.  The greater part of the piece - four of the five movements - address the progress of a storm. allowing for more spirited musical depiction.  In the second Allegretto, as Knecht wrote, "Der Himmel verdunkelt schnell", the sky clouds over and "der Donner grollt" presaging the storm to follow in the third movement where "der Bergstrom wälzt seine Wasser mit entssetzlichen Lärm" and gently subsides in the brief third Allegretto.  At last "Die Natur ist von Freude erfüllt" and idealized serenity is restored. 

It is known that Beethoven knew Knechts's theoretical writings, but there is no direct documentary evidence that Beethoven knew Knecht's Le portrait musical de la natureNonetheless,  Beethoven's structures are similar enough he may well have been aware of it.  But  Beethoven goes far beyond replication. In an era when symphonic form was relatively new, it was perhaps inevitable that Beethoven should respond to the pastoral genre by writing a "modern" symphony.  Beethoven's symphony is highly original.  He "provides a reinforcing counterpart to the underlying structure",writes Peter Gülke, and achieves "more concrete and radical programmatic effects  the murmuring brook, the trio of birds,  the character of the oboist of the village band who comes in too late several times  and its bassoonist who can only play three notes, the sudden thunderclaps...." Charming as Knecht's Le portrait musical de la nature is, Beethoven's symphony is altogther more sophisticated.  His landscape portrays the storm in the context of the lives of people who live in the countryside, the storm part of the wider cycle of Nature.  His titles refer to emotional states : "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunftauf dem Lande", and "Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm". As Gülke says, the initial notes "come so close to the character of bird calls that it is only a tiny step to Nightingale - Cuckoo -Quail, in which Art and Nature finally become one."  Gülke also compares and contrasts the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, premiered together in the Vienna concert of 22nd December 1808.       

Although there are so many Beethoven Sixths on the market, this recording is well worth attention because the performance, by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, is that of a specialist ensemble with a strong background in 18th and early 19th century repertoire.  They have just released a new recoring of Beethoven's Symphonies 1 and 2. (There are other recordings of Knecht but they're not nearly as well performed).  Period-informed performance does make a difference with Beethoven, and especially with the unique aesthetic of Symphony no 6.  Period instruments  highlight the "pastoral" delicacy in the orchestration. This free-spirited lightness of touch evokes the simplicity and purity inherent in the idea of a population living in harmony with Nature. There is a strong underlying sense of pulse, that feels as natural as breathing.  Because there is no sense of rush, details can be lovingly savoured, without pressure. Natural horns and simple percussion sound as they might have been heard in countrysides where people depended on Nature for sustenance, where hunting and harvests depended on understanding their connection to the natural forces around them. Clear, pure winds, sprightly strings and more than a slight touch of cheerful good humour. Even the storm, vividly portrayed, does not need to be heavy handed or brutal : the countryside survives, refreshed.   Beethoven's Pastoral is no disembodied, idealized landscape but one which evokes the spirit of life.                                                                                                                                                                      Please also see my review of Beethoven Symphony no 9 and The Choral Fantasy, also in this Harmonia Mundi series,  with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester.                                                                                                              

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