Savall's concerts in the Laeiszhalle in October 2021: »Time after time one could enjoy with surprise all kinds of details of the score that are otherwise never heard.« What better way to celebrate Beethoven's birthday? In three concerts spread over two evenings, the Catalan conductor and his chamber orchestra Le Concert des Nations turned their attention to the famous composer's symphonies. Their performance of Beethoven's Sixth is now available as a concert stream.
Savall explained that he wanted to »restore the energy to the Beethoven symphonies, which are so well-known and are too often heard in cluttered interpretations« – a task that no-one is better suited to than this meticulous music scholar with his chamber orchestra specialising in Early Music. Incidentally, we can also congratulate Jordi Savall himself: he celebrated his 80th birthday in August 2021.
Jordi Savall conducts Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in the Laeiszhalle.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 »Pastoral Symphony«
Jordi Savall – conductor
About Jordi Savall
»Jordi Savall stands for the endless diversity of a mutual cultural heritage,« British daily paper The Guardian wrote about the Catalan conductor and viol player. For over 50 years now, Savall has been introducing unusual music to the world and stopping it from falling into oblivion. Both his concerts and his activity as a teacher, scholar and initiator of cultural projects have made a significant contribution to the way we look at Early Music.
Thanks to his untiring exploration of unknown repertoire and his historically sound, intercultural views on issues important to humanity, he enjoys an outstanding reputation worldwide. He sees music also as a vehicle for international understanding, and has been awarded the titles »Ambassador for Cultural Dialogue« by the European Union and »Artist for Peace« by Unesco.
Jordi Savall's repertoire stretches from medieval and Renaissance music to works from the Baroque and Classical periods, with a special emphasis on the Mediterranean and Iberian traditions. In order to better pursue his goals, he founded three different ensembles together with his wife, the singer Montserrat Figueras, who died in 2011. These were Hespèrion XXI (1974), La Capella Reial de Catalunya (1987) and Le Concert des Nations (1989).
Savall's discography numbers more than 230 records to date, which have received many prizes, among them a Grammy and several Midem Classical Awards and International Classical Music Awards. His work has also been acknowledged with the highest national and international honours, including the French title »Chevalier dans l’ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur« and the Catalan government's »Gold medal for special services«. In 2012 he was awarded the Danish music prize »Léonie Sonning« for his life's work.
Jordi Savall has been a regular guest in Hamburg in recent years. In 2019 he illustrated the history of Venice in music; two years before that he was responsible for documenting the cultural consequences of the slave trade, while in 2015 he painted a musical panorama of the European conflicts surrounding the Thirty Years' War.
Le Concert des Nations
About the ensemble
In 1989 Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras founded the orchestra Le Concert des Nations in order to realize their project »Canticum Beatae Virginis«, bringing together musicians mostly from Romance or Latin American countries who were able to play a wide-ranging repertoire from the Baroque to the Romantic era on historic instruments. All the members of the ensemble are recognised specialists in what has become known as »historically informed performing practice«. They have made it their goal to respect the original spirit of the historic works they play, while at the same time making them approachable for today's listeners thanks to their lively interpretations. The ensemble's name is a reference to the work »Les Nations« by Baroque composer François Couperin.
1992 saw Le Concert des Nations extending its repertoire anew when it made its debut with Vicente Martín y Soler's opera »Una cosa rara« in the orchestra pit of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid. Their next opera production, Claudio Monteverdi's »L'Orfeo«, was likewise put on at major venues – in Madrid, Brussels and in Vienna's Konzerthaus, and the production was released on DVD by the BBC.
Other productions featuring Le Concert des Nations include Antonio Vivaldi's »Farnace« at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid and »Il Teuzzone« in a semi-staged performance at the Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles. These operas, as well as Joseph Haydn's »The Seven Last Words of Our Redeemer on the Cross«, have likewise been released on CD and/or DVD. The orchestra has been awarded many prizes for its extensive discography.
COWS IN THE BASSOON PART :About Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 »Pastoral«
»Pastoral symphony, or: Memories of rural life. More an expression of feeling than painting.« This is the full title that Beethoven gave to his Sixth Symphony, and he attached the utmost importance to its being printed without omission on the cover of the score. He seems to have anticipated what thin ice he was treading on with such a specific title, which he immediately qualified with the explanation that followed. Essentially, the composer saw himself confronted with a central question of aesthetics that continued to cause heated debates long after his death. The question is this: should music always stand alone as an abstract work of art and an end in itself? Or should it express something concrete – a feeling, a piece of scenery or the plot of a novel?
Observations of nature
It's already clear from the headings of the individual movements that Beethoven had very specific pictures in mind when he was writing the symphony. Instead of the customary Italian tempo markings, we read of a »Scene by the brook«, of a »Merry gathering of country folk«, a »Thunderstorm« and a »Shepherd's song«. Moreover, all these things can actually be heard in the music. Thus the second movement opens with the quiet murmur of a spring that gradually evolves into a babbling brook – an early blueprint for Smetana's »Moldau«. Claude Debussy later bitched that the bassoons were probably meant to represent the cows drinking from the brook. Towards the end of the movement, Beethoven even imitates the calls of the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe) and the cuckoo (clarinet) – all ornithologically correct.
No less graphically depicted are the earthy barn dances of the country folk. After the starting the scene with blaring horns, Beethoven includes a typical inside joke: the oboe comes in with its dance tune a beat too early, thus simulating an amateur village musician.
But all of a sudden the blithe dance music breaks off abruptly as a thunderstorm gathers. Trouble can be heard brewing in the tremolo on the strings, lightning flashes and the timpani send thunderclaps rolling through the concert hall. From a meteorological point of view, Beethoven is way ahead of Vivaldi's »Four Seasons«, and Wagner's »Flying Dutchman« is not far off. But at the end of the movement the elements calm down, and the fifth and final movement opens with the song of a relieved shepherd.
Beethoven in the nature
Beethoven himself was a great nature lover. In those days there must have been an infernal amount of noise in the city from building work, horses' hooves and market criers plying their wares, and the composer was only too happy to escape to the peace of the countryside outside Vienna. »My motto is to just stay in the country,« he once jotted down. »My wretched hearing problem doesn't bother me here. What sweet silence prevails in the forest!« No wonder he felt the need to express his feelings and observations in his own medium, music.
Perhaps Beethoven overshot the mark a little with his need to share – like someone who overwhelms his friends with a huge stack of holiday snapshots. His attempt to qualify the titles of the movements later on does seem a bit bashful: »It is left to the listener to identify the different situations. Anyone who has gained an impression of rural life will be able to imagine the author's intentions without lots of headings.«
The key to this dilemma might lie in the symphony's first movement. The title »Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside« shows that the music doesn't depict the sounds of nature, but a human emotion. The music could also be described as generally positive in tone without any reference to rural life. So you can decide for yourself whether you want to hear Beethoven's musical holiday pictures as such, or as a reflection of your own memories and feelings.
Back to the original :Jordi Savall writes about the basic principles of his Beethoven cycle
The underlying idea at the centre of our Beethoven cycle is to rediscover the original organic sound of the orchestra that Beethoven himself had in mind. This led to a whole number of preliminary considerations that inspired our new interpretation – indeed, they were an essential condition for it.
»We studied and compared both Beethoven's manuscripts and the scores and individual parts used at the first performances.«
We needed to be familiar with the existing original manuscripts in order to check all the instructions on volume and articulation. One of the crucial decisions had to do with the tempi that Beethoven calls for. To ensure that his compositions were performed as he intended, he left extremely precise metronome indications – which, as he wrote, »are often ignored to my chagrin«. Despite these instructions in the composer's own handwriting, to this day many musicians and conductors are regrettably of the opinion that they are not practicable, or even regard them as anti-artistic.
The size of the orchestra
And this in turn influences the size of the orchestra. Like Beethoven, we use a total of between 55 and 60 musicians, depending on the symphony. About two-thirds of them are members of the orchestra Le Concert des Nations, with many of these having played with us since 1989. Roughly one-third are young musicians from all over Europe and other continents who have shown in a selection procedure that they are among the best of their generation.
A characteristic feature of the orchestra is the ratio of wind instruments to strings. A contemporary reviewer wrote of the first performance of Beethoven's First Symphony on 2 April 1800 that »too much use was made of the wind instruments«. From this the French musicologist and Beethoven biographer André Boucourechliev concluded in 1963: »The balance between the different groups of instruments is often ignored in today's interpretations. The hypertrophy of the string section is one of the most stubborn tendencies of the fashion for ›symphonism‹. Many conductors translate the expression ›symphony‹ as ›orchestra with 120 players‹. Beethoven's contemporary Ignaz Moscheles, on the other hand, reported that the composer feared ›confusion‹ above all, and did not want more than 60 or so players for his symphonies.« This new balance is essential for us. That's why we decided on a similar size of orchestra to the one that Beethoven had at his disposal: a wind section numbering 18 players and 32 strings.
Restoring the energy
The secret behind Beethoven's genius is expressed in the assurance of the creative act that shines out from his works. This energy, which surprised many of his successors, was never transferrable, as the creative act often took the form of a struggle in Beethoven's case. He often had to compete with himself in order to write music.
»Beethoven's work is the result of a creative process that testifies to a new concept of art.«
The paradox we face today was already described by the conductor and musicologist René Leibowitz 40 years ago. He reminds the reader of »the privileged place that Beethoven occupies in the world of music«, as is regularly confirmed to this day by opinion surveys and performance statistics. And continues: »It is tempting to deduce from this that audiences and musicians alike possess a deep awareness of the musical values that have found one of their highest expressions in Beethoven's work. However, we then arrive inevitably at the thought that there is something disturbing about Beethoven. There is possibly no other composer who has so continually been the victim of incorrect and incongruent traditions of interpretation. Traditions that go so far as to distort and hide the entire meaning of works – works that enjoy immense popularity. People seem to be worshipping something that they only know through distortions, and they systematically distort what they worship.«
Our research and the interpretation based on it take all these underlying questions into account – not for their own sake, but in order to achieve our primary aim. Our aim is to restore the energy to the Beethoven symphonies, which are so well-known, and are performed much too often in oversized and overloaded versions. The result of our efforts is a revolutionary brilliance, articulation, balance and tonal strength, and a dramaturgy borne by the spiritual power of its own message. This revolutionary power produces a permanent state of alertness in the creative mind, in which the youthfulness of these works is never exhausted.
Text: Jordi Savall
translations: Clive Williams