There is, nowadays, no one way to play a Beethoven symphony – if indeed there ever was. Just as we today are exposed to the myriad methods of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Christian Thielemann, Bernard Haitink, and Osmo Vänskä, the supposedly bad old days of the 1950s found space for the very different talents of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, and Hermann Scherchen to rub shoulders. For the past two decades, however, David Zinman has been at the forefront of reinterpreting these works in the light not just of the period-instrument movement, but of new scholarship and the opportunities brought by the escalating technical standards of professional orchestras. His recordings of the complete symphonies with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich in the 1990s remain notable for their clarity, stark textures, and vigour.

David Zinman, © Priska Ketterer
David Zinman,
© Priska Ketterer

Remaining in charge in Zürich, Zinman was invited by Alan Gilbert to lead this New York Philharmonic festival, ‘The Modern Beethoven’, of which this programme was the last. Briefly put, not a great deal has changed in Zinman’s Beethoven since his earlier efforts on disc – so much so that he no longer seems the interpretative radical he once was. Conductors like Riccardo Chailly, most notably, have been taking Zinman’s example further and with more instantly striking results. Meanwhile, those such as Daniel Barenboim show how powerful performances conceived of in a longer lineage can still be, battling against playing styles which can often go further than merely absolving Beethoven of textual accretions, and remove all of his intellectual content in favour of ever more speed and sparseness.

Even if his radicalism is now becoming a new tradition, Zinman is still remarkably able to make these works sound fresh and vital. Indeed, contrary to expectations, at the opening of Beethoven’s First Symphony it was not the quick tempo chosen but the fullness of vibrato employed that struck first. Zinman’s Beethoven is full of jagged internal parts, developmental underlinings, and hairpin dynamics designed to bring out thematic (or occasionally just interesting) material. Sometimes, especially in slow movements, it can sound abrupt, even curt. Thus, the humour of the First’s finale was transformed from a benign joke in the company of Haydn and Mozart into a brutal raspberry at their influence, which one suspects Beethoven might rather have enjoyed. The New York Philharmonic here were tested at times, and they were never able to dispel the impression of a slight instability. Nonetheless, much of the playing was very fine, particularly in the breathless Eroica. The First perhaps came off better, however. Its first movement was a particular triumph, driven hard but with enough focus on structure that the boundaries between formal markers whizzed by unnoticed in the ride. If the slow movement never settled (or breathed), the rambunctious minuet seemed much more amenable to Zinman’s style. The finale was taken at an extraordinary lick, string details blurring brutally by, winds spotlighted neatly.

For the Eroica a much larger orchestra was employed, to slightly grander effect. The blistering first movement seemed so quick as to be taken one in a bar: there was no lingering to be had here, even over the second subject. If the other movements lacked emotional power, here the great conflagration in the development section seemed to be screaming in a way that Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre would ape during a totally different political nightmare. The Eroica’s massive funeral march lacked precision, and seemed too illustrative, though its final bars dispelled that appearance to some degree. The scherzo was fleet and lithe, much like that of the First, its militaristic horns crowing with chest puffed out in the trio. The finale was another car chase, and saw Zinman at his most interventionist: the string bars immediately after the introduction reduced only to a string quartet; ornamentation encouraged in the oboe (as in the funeral march); and dynamics sharply notched. In this symphony as in the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth, I will never be convinced that the ‘let’s-strip-everything-down’ approach pays dividends. This music is simply not Haydn, and it needs the grandiosity and flexibility of a Klemperer or a Furtwängler or a Barenboim to make the political statements it was written in mind of hit home. Taken on its own terms, Zinman’s reading was everything it wanted to be: interesting, fresh, and alive.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s rarely-performed Concerto funèbre deals with the flip-side of Beethoven’s hope. Written in the Nazi Germany of 1939, it is a bleak, desolate piece that in its third movement seems to meld the hysteria of a roused populace and the straining of an artistic mind to come to grips with politics and suffering. Gil Shaham’s performance of the violin solo was outstanding: here was an artist with such complete control over his instrument and mind that it is hard to imagine this work played any other way. Taken like the Berg concerto but with the redemption removed, Shaham showed this to be a most unfairly neglected work. There were many portraits written of Europe undergoing self-destruction around the two major wars of the last century, but few can have been as personal, introspective, and as emotionally devastating as this.