La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

BEETHOVEN: Ideals of the French Revolution

Maximilian Schell, narrator; Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, OSM Chorus / Kent Nagano

Analekta AN 2 9942-3 2CDs (108 min 15 s)
***
Musically, The General is essentially Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play Egmont. But the original Goethe text has been set aside and replaced by a new one created by the Welsh music critic Paul Griffiths. The General is based on the Rwandan experiences of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, as recounted in his book Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire was head of the ill-fated UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-1994. The world simply wasn’t interested in preventing the massacre and Dallaire returned to Canada a broken man.

For some reason Griffiths decided to tell the Rwanda story without mentioning either names or places. But without any mention of Rwanda, Dallaire, Tutsis and Hutus, Griffiths’ text is almost meaningless. This recording has been issued in both an English and a French version but neither one includes the text.

On the positive side, Nagano and the OSM play Beethoven’s music with great intensity. And the same goes for their performance of the Fifth Symphony on the second CD. Nagano’s performance indicates he has been strongly influenced by the period instrument specialists. He takes all the repeats and very quick tempi in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings. He has the strings play with little or no vibrato much of the time. The opening of the slow movement sounds strikingly different with this approach. There are some inconsistencies: why eliminate vibrato in the strings but allow it in the bassoon solos? And one can’t help wondering what the Fifth Symphony has to do with “the ideals of the French Revolution.”

Some fine music-making on this set but lots of questions too. Fans of Kent Nagano – and there are a growing number of them – will want to have this album as the first recorded documentation of his work in Montreal.

- Paul E. Robinson

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