A Tale Of Two Pastorals: Beethoven And Knecht

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

Twenty years before Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony appeared, the German composer Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) brought out “Le Portrait musical de la Nature”. One might call this five-movement symphony the “original Pastoral”. It aims to depict such scenes of nature as a babbling brook, a shepherd’s pipe, chirping birds, peasants’ merrymaking, and the inevitable thunderstorm. Although we have no direct evidence that Beethoven knew the work, the textural fabric of Knecht’s fourth-movement Allegretto strikingly foreshadows the Pastoral’s finale.

Knecht’s flair for orchestral color and dynamic contrast compensate for his relative lack of harmonic and melodic inventiveness and his tendency to fall into directionless sequential padding. Still, it’s hard not to perk up at the opening Allegretto’s playful repartée between quick string trills and woodwind gurgles, or at the third-movement storm’s pugilistic brass and wild timpani outbursts.

Conducting from the violin, concertmaster Bernhard Forck surprisingly downplays his part’s prominence, whereas the solo violin dominates throughout Christian Benda’s competing Naxos recording with the Filarmonica di Torino. In most respects I prefer Benda’s clearer balances and more robust orchestral execution, although Forck’s third-movement storm conveys harder-hitting ferocity.

If Forck avoids the threadbare timbres and annoying expressive mannerisms one hears in numerous HIP Beethoven Pastorals, he presents an overall orchestral image that is blended to the point of diffusion in loud tuttis. There’s little variety of articulation and inflection, with much of the music transpiring on the same underplayed level. The first-movement development section’s repetitions seem uniformly regenerated rather than creating tension and momentum, while the woodwind solos in the Scene by the Brook evoke unusually timid forest birds. The third movement’s Trio has grace but no swagger.

Considering the powerful storm Forck unleashes in the Knecht work, I’m surprised that he holds back for Beethoven. (If you want a period instrument storm that will make you run for cover and pray for mercy, Emmanuel Krivine and La Chambre Philharmonique figuratively raise the roof and raze the property.) In the finale, however, Forck and his forces shed their smooth patina for a leaner sonic profile and shapelier lines, as if Herbert von Karajan decided to reinvent himself as George Szell. To sum up, an inspired and arguably provocative repertoire coupling in performances that promise more than they deliver.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Knecht: Benda/Filarmonica di Torino (Naxos), Beethoven: Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic (DG); Walter/Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony); Krivine/La Chambre Philharmonique (Naïve); Dohnanyi/Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc)

    Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck

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