There was a time when recording a Beethoven cycle was an enterprise undertaken with the benefit of a lifetime’s familiarity with the music, redolent with the (theoretical) wisdom of—if not old—at least a very mature age. Many of the greatest 20th-century conductors never completed their recorded traversals of all nine symphonies, at least not in systematic fashion. Consider such luminaries as Charles Munch, Igor Markevitch, Fritz Reiner—even Furtwängler, to name only four who most would agree truly were “great”. Or think of Thomas Beecham, who actually had the guts to say he didn’t particularly care for much of Beethoven, but who still managed to turn in a remarkable account of the Seventh Symphony. Does Andris Nelsons belong on their level? Only time will tell, but at the moment the answer is obvious and indisputable: Surely not.
Today we make Beethoven cycles for a different reason: because we can. The BSO/Deutsche Grammophon press release, which announced this new recording project in the context of its exclusive relationship with the 37-year-old conductor, reveals some very interesting facts about what the modern recording industry has become. There will be, actually, three major projects for the yellow label that Nelsons will headline—a Beethoven cycle in Vienna, a series of Bruckner recordings (they are being dodgy about how many) in Leipzig, and a continuation and completion of the ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle (plus Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk) in Boston. By any normative standard, only the latter has a serious claim to consideration from collectors.
Specifically, the Boston Symphony has recorded very little Shostakovich over the years, and yet it boasts a fine reputation in Russian music going all the way back to Serge Koussevitzky, continuing on through estimable versions of Tchaikovsky symphonies, concertos, and tone poems with Monteux and Munch, as well as excellent complete Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev ballets with Ozawa. Nelsons plays Shostakovich often, and has revealed a strong affinity for the music in concerts and earlier recordings. His Boston performance of the Tenth Symphony, already released, is excellent: powerfully conducted and exceptionally well-played. In short, this is a combination of conductor, orchestra, and repertoire that promises much, and looks set to deliver on that promise; but even here, the principal item of interest will be the orchestra. The conductor? Not so much.
This observation is even more relevant with respect to Beethoven and Bruckner. Not too long ago, conductors lived and worked intensively with a single orchestra in order to give it a personal stamp and shape the ensemble according to their preferences. George Szell, for example, conducted Beethoven in Vienna with delight, and superbly well, but when it came to making a complete symphony cycle he did it in Cleveland because this was “his” orchestra, and he was proud to insist that whether or not they played the music “better” or as idiomatically as the Viennese, they did it the way he wanted it done. This is one reason why we still value those performances today, as we do versions by conductors as diverse as Toscanini, Furtwängler, Karajan, Klemperer, Wand, Barenboim, and many others. Beethoven cycles represented the culmination of a life’s work, and the validation of a unique partnership.
Putting Nelsons together with the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven doubtless seems like smart marketing—never mind DG hedging its bets. People who haven’t heard of, or don’t care about Nelsons at least recognize the Vienna Philharmonic. If Nelsons turns out to be one of those rare geniuses like Leopold Stokowski, an artist of such strong profile that he can impose himself on any ensemble and magically transform its corporate sonority and technique into something utterly personal, so much the better. If not, at worst we have another Beethoven cycle from Vienna. Alternately, Nelsons could turn out to be taking his cues from the period-instrument movement, and we could get an “anti-Viennese” cycle dictated by “historically informed” orthodoxy—equally generic, perhaps, but differently so. Make no mistake, I hope I’m wrong and Nelsons does indeed come across as an artist with a genuine affinity for Beethoven, one who has something distinctive to say. Just don’t get your hopes up.
The fact is when it comes to Beethoven, Nelsons and his label are almost certainly moving too soon. Even in today’s fast-paced world of globe-trotting conductors, waiting a few years to give Boston’s new Music Director the time to settle in and make his mark inevitably would produce results that he could fairly claim represent “his” viewpoint. Of course, this assumes that Nelsons would then record Beethoven in Boston, a far more exciting prospect than yet another cycle from Vienna. Granted, Boston is no Vienna, but then, Vienna is no Boston. This is exactly the point. The combination of an equally great but less obvious ensemble, combined with a still youngish conductor who has some good ideas, could be marvelous. No orchestra has a proprietary claim on Beethoven. After all, has there ever been a more exciting recording of the Coriolan Overture than Munch’s Boston performance?
The situation with Bruckner is more questionable still. Despite the absolutely insane deluge of recent recordings, and the even more ludicrous proliferation of multiple editions of each of the symphonies (often billed as “critical” or “scholarly” by self-serving bureaucrats looking to stay employed) no one especially cares about Bruckner. He remains a cult composer who has become attractive to modern conductors because he wrote symphonies in the Austro-Germanic tradition that are easy to play by artists uncomfortable with classical sonata forms. He is not an audience draw, and recordings of his music don’t sell. Again, none of this would matter much if Nelsons turns out to be a Brucknerian to the manner born. Who knows? Maybe he is. Certainly it’s an unusual choice of repertoire, and in this market probably the most risky. Nevertheless, if there is a conductor equally at home in Shostakovich, Bruckner, and Beethoven, he has yet to appear on disc. Not even the great generalists of the last century such as Bernstein, Karajan, or Solti managed all three composers with uniform success.
More to the point, by pairing Nelsons and Vienna for Beethoven, along with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for Bruckner, Deutsche Grammophon has practically ensured that whatever personal qualities Nelsons brings to the party will count for little. Let’s not forget, these ensembles know this music much, much better than he does. Of course, he will get the credit for the results, good, bad, or indifferent, and Deutsche Grammophon (and the Boston PR apparatus) will do whatever it can to foster the cult of personality that constitutes public relations where major conductors are concerned. Nelsons is right to be delighted that he will get to record Beethoven in Vienna and Bruckner in Leipzig. After all, what could be easier? They doubtless could play the music just about as well with no conductor at all.
I understand that much of this sounds cynical, and the last thing I want to do is prejudge the results. Still, having the opportunity to record all of this music at such a young age represents both a windfall and a danger. If Nelsons regards it as a chance to make a personal statement in music for which he shows a deep affinity, and if he has the requisite taste, talent, and intelligence at his command, these projects could turn out to be stunning.
Short of that rare event occurring, I see three other possibilities. First (and most likely), Nelsons lets the orchestras do their thing and we get decent, unexceptional, if wholly unnecessary Beethoven and Bruckner. Second, he turns out to be one of those fussy, boring micromanagers who basically stands in the way and prevents anything naturally musical from happening. That would be sad. Third, he succumbs to the temptation to “do something” to try to prove himself, and we get some combination of stupidity and perversity. Whatever the result, here we go again.