I shy away from HIP versions of Beethoven, to the point of deploring their lack of passion and heroism, two qualities essential to Beethoven's greatest works. But then I was brought up short by Philippe Herreweghe's Missa Solemnis, which preserved the external traits of period performance (reduced forces, no vibrato, fast tempos, gut strings) without betraying the essence of that great work of spiritual aspiration. What could he do with an even more iconic piece, the fifth Sym.? The same externals are in place, although the microphone disguises how large or small the string body is; the prominence of winds isn't exaggerated but seems in natural balance with the whole orchestra.
Once again I have a positive report. In place of the superficial run through inflicted by Gardiner and Norrington (shudder), the far more musical Herreweghe captures the vitality and heroic intent of this symphony. He shortens the fermatas (held notes) in the opening motto, and the famous four notes are far from blows by the hammer of fate. Even so, nothing is raced along, and there's a coherent conception at work. Here, as in the second movement, one longs for more expression from the woodwind soloists -- since when is "authentic" the same as "bland"> -- but Herreweghe does as well, and in the same vein, as Osmo Vanska in his wildly praised HIP-flavored Beethoven cycle from Minnesota. the cellos and basses are too buzzy and thin at the beginning of the Scherzo; it would be advisable, in the name of building up their sound, is Herreweghe allowed some vibrato as a few other HIP conductors are starting to do. the Scherzo is rendered as a straightforward, vigorous march (no mysterious goblins as heard by E. M. Forster in his novel, "Howard's End"), and the blazing C major of the finale is quite martial, with clipped drums and fifes reminiscent of the battlefield. In all, an exciting, upbeat reading.
The Eighth Sym., a lighter work that suffers when too heavily trod upon -- even Furtwangler smothers it with significance -- has always been a showpiece for the HIP approach. Herreweghe, like Vanska, gives a quick, buoyant reading that is a touch impatient, the fault of strict timekeeping without expressive relief. You can revert to traditional readings that are just as ebullient but far more musical -- I'm thinking of the Aged Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival on Sony. As an overall picture, Herreweghe's Eighth is too slight and brisk. He's not in the flatlands of Gardiner, but there are no real ideas and therefore nothing memorable to hold on to.
For all my criticisms, I enjoyed this program and felt hopeful that the HIP fad, which shows no sign of abating, can merge with the kind of mature musicality that one turns to in the greatest music form Bach to the present day.