Spring Symphonies 32/60: Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No 4, Op 60

Beethoven 1803

Beethoven: Baptised 17.12.1770 - Died 26.03.1827

Fourth Symphony: Composed: Summer 1806 and premiered in a private performance in 1807

Last year in Spring Symphonies, I put my prejudices and favourites on the line and I led the Beethoven charge (he would have approved of a cavalry charge I fancy) with the composer's Third symphony - Eroica.  This year it is one of the even numbered symphonies - which used to be characterised as not as interesting as the odd numbered ones by those of a superficial numerological bent.

The Fourth Symphony is still a surprising and audacious work for me - comparison with it's immediate sisters has always left it overshadowed - but the grace and charm of the Fourth belies that fantastical nature of the writing. The tightrope Beethoven walks and the innovation he musters are both precarious and utterly convincing.  I imagine it is still - after two centuries of performance - a work that a conductor and orchestra must approach with the upmost respect and finest judgement.

The character of the piece might be described as phenomenal.

The first movement begins with a most mysterious Adagio - straight out of Haydn but like nothing Haydn wrote. It has delicacy, other worldiness and mystery in equal measure.  The composer Weber was furious with it!  Bernstein speaks of it's delicate tiptoeing. It shifts uneasily in the minor landscape, but this is confident Beethoven, and not much is in doubt once it finds it's way.  His glowing strings, growling bassoons and ethereal flutes all swap adjectives through the movement.  When it does erupt it flies off like a cartoon train hitting the long suffering Coyote - blink and you miss it. The preceding tutti introduces the most critical instrument to this works orchestration - timpani - but more of that later.  The Allegro is fast but sweet and counterpointed with a lovely wind moment of ease in it's second subject. Woebetide any conductor who misses the speed Beethoven and his dubious metronome have set for this movement.  Many have had to ease back to accommodate their wind players, but at speed it's quicksilver quality is remarkable.  There's a repeat of the first material and then in development easy grace in what follows, at least at first until the music regresses to the nature of the opening adagio.  The timpani rolls here are essentially harmonic devices turned into dramatic interjections - their significance in the history of music is often marked, but they seem as natural as anything to us now.  These stormy moments are short lived  (nothing is overdone in this work) and we proceed to recapitulation.   The coda is suave: it reeks of Italian style. The timpani stays with us to the end securing the harmony but deployed in a way which made it part of the action like never before.

The slow movement has élan - I'm reminded here that the symphony was likened by Robert Schumann to a Grecian Urn.  It is easy in it's charm and as graceful as Schumann's simile implies.  There's a delicate opening and a rather earthbound reflective passage beyond that, though in its latter stages it reaches skyward.  The strings and winds need to listen so keenly to each other here, cohesion is all: especially at key moments such a delicate clarinet solo which should melt the heart.  A sinewy passage leads to peak of modest proportions and we begin again with augmented decoration.

All of a sudden the orchestra plunges to extraordinary depths - deeper and more vivid  than audiences for Mozart and Haydn would expect.  It's telling but again, not overdone.  The music dusts itself off after it's vision of Hades and rhapsodises on its other components to an end point - signed off with horns.  I'm always surprised at how surprised I am by this movement - I must have heard it a hundred times.  Nothing is out of place.  It allows for the most exquisite quiet playing and yet it is the force of that minor descent which is still a bit of a shock to the system.  What a master Beethoven of drama was. Peace and turmoil in the same shoe-box sized movement.

The Scherzo is a rather forward-looking thing, dance structures every so slightly transmuted into time travel.  The movement goes but sometimes we wonder what direction time is travelling. It has a rhetorical style where one begins to lose a sense of where the question or answer comes first - it has something Lewis Carroll about its logic. The Trio has grace and wit aplenty - and feels like a dance of some poise, ending in a droning base and blazing winds, strings and yet again, timpani.  It reverses up the hill to begin again.  The scherzo now in a different context but no easier to unpick even a second time round.  The trio begins again to emphasise the loopy nature of this music and then we begin a third time on the Scherzo, but all is cut short!

The finale is fast and fascinating, and to be played at Beethoven's speed - but only by the bravest.  The music is cycling quickly and wind solos have to be anticipate to be studied, catch them half way in and you're lost.  The composer plays tag with strings and winds exchanging figures - timpani continue to provide this symphony's punctuation.  It is a very busy movement for everyone and not least the wind solos which have to take some many roles.  It is in effect a comedy of manners with so many effects that by force and number they become, wholesale, something different - deeper, wider, faster and more provoking and witty.  A new ideal of witty, bustling joy.  In ends beautifully with a disconcerting sidestep off a bassoon solo.  You cannot beat this symphony- like all of Beethoven, it keeps on giving.

At the time this symphony was written Haydn and Mozart's last symphonic works were around 10 years old.  Hardly time enough for a revolution in orchestral sound.  The big symphony orchestras now play Beethoven's Fourth with ease and in doing so smooth out some of the terrors for the orchestral players.  Orchestras comprising instruments of around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries also nail the symphony but their task is harder. The sound they produce is different too.  So as much as I'd like to include a Karajan recording to enliven your reading, I've chosen a performance on older instruments conducted by Parvo Jarvi to illustrate the resources the players have to summon up for this work AND the very different effect that revolutionary writing for the timpani makes when older drums are used.

Here's Parvo Jarvi with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen:



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