Beethoven's Symphony No 4, introduced by Osmo Vänskä

Monday, October 6, 2014

Continuing our series of great conductors introducing the Beethoven symphonies, Osmo Vänskä presents the Fourth Symphony

Of all the nine symphonies, for me it is No 4 that is looking back a little bit to the earlier, Viennese, Classical style. It is more connected to the first two symphonies than to the Eroica. That’s how it speaks to me. I have always thought that the Eroica is the first big step to the Romantic era, the Fourth comes back – and we know what happened with the Fifth! I have often heard people talk of the ‘big’ Beethoven symphonies – Nos 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9; and the ‘smaller’ ones – Nos 1, 2, 4 and 8. That’s all about form. If we are speaking just about music, then I believe these so-called smaller symphonies have the same amount of music in their symphonic bodies. Perhaps they are more like chamber music, but they therefore serve as a reminder of what a great composer of chamber music Beethoven was: less is not less.

What the conductor has to decide with all the symphonies is what the tempo should be. It is so often said that Beethoven’s markings are impossibly fast and something was wrong with his metronome, but when I have performed and recorded the symphonies I have used my own personal system, based on no great idea or theory. First I try to take the tempos as they are written. If I cannot make them work, I take them down by 10 per cent. In most cases, this has been working very well for me. Sometimes the metronome markings do seem to me to be too fast: there is time to play the notes, but not to breathe. In my recording of this symphony, the first three movements are perhaps 10 per cent behind the metronome markings, but the finale is very close to Beethoven’s marking.

The structure of Symphony No 4 makes it closer to the Classical style. The orchestra is down to one flute and there is a slow introduction to the opening movement, though not to the final movement. This is a great piece of music, and even if it had not been written by Beethoven as part of such a cycle of works, I am sure it would have its place in programmes – without help from the other symphonies.

When my recording was made in May 2004, I had already conducted the new Del Mar/Bärenreiter editions with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The scores had not been printed yet, but we obtained a list of the changes; it was a great thing for us – an opportunity to learn something that was more original. Then we started to do the recordings, which I think may have been the first to use these new editions.

When BIS asked me to do some recordings, my first reaction was to ask why? This cycle had been recorded so much, so why did we need more? The question mark was huge and I discussed the matter with many friends. How could we do a cycle that would have its own place among so many others? My only interest was in going back to the score, ignoring all those previous efforts and seeking to be as true to the composer as possible. Fortunately, we had a good producer with a good ear, which is a great experience for everybody and a masterclass in itself. Possibly the most important feature of these recordings, for me, was the fact that the orchestra was performing better after every CD. It was a great school for ensemble-working and for sound; and a reminder that the way to play this music is to have more dancing. The phrases should always be connected to rhythm and dance, even in the slower movements.

The Beethoven symphonies are like nine children in the same family. All are individual and all are great, but with different characters. Some get more attention than others, but they still come from the same family. In my personal history there have not been so many performances of Symphony No 4. I have conducted it perhaps 20 times, but orchestras are always asking to do Nos 3, 5, 6 and 7. The music is great, however; especially in the last movement, where the wind solos are always a pleasure to listen to, in particular those for clarinet. The dynamic range is huge. This is very much connected to old music too, with the brass, the timpani and the horns doing really powerful things, but always in short bursts only, so they don’t overdominate. I’m grateful to those of my colleagues who have contributed to our musical endeavours in moving away from the ‘Romantic’ tradition.

Although I played all these works when I was an orchestral musician, it is the score that matters to me, not those performances or earlier recordings. The score is more important to me than any ‘tradition’. Toscanini wanted a very dramatic effect, not just beauty; and he never compromised anything. I like that idea very much. Once, in Minneapolis and also at Carnegie Hall, I paired Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with Sibelius’s Fifth; and then Sibelius’s Fourth with Beethoven’s Fifth. This was not the decision of any musicologist – it was real life, practical life, where that combination worked very well and the Fourths were just the shy guys from two great families.

Interview by Michael McManus

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