Three decades after rising to public attention, Beethoven's metronome markings still have a tantalizing news value. Dirk Brossé brought up the issue at Monday night's Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia concert at the Perelman Theater by telling the audience he would adhere to Beethoven's metronomic wishes in the Symphony No. 2, which he said might not be what we are used to hearing.
It's probably true that, with some notable exceptions, conductors and the orchestras they led slowed down quite a bit in the 20th century. On the other hand, as pianist Charles Rosen noted, Beethoven himself wrote in a note to a song that a tempo marking dictated by his still-new device built by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel "must be considered applicable only to the first bars, for sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number."
Mälzel became known locally after passing through Philadelphia with his Turk - a mechanical man that played chess - and it is no more possible to rely on metronome markings as a guide to sentiment than to accept the Turk as chess genius. (The purported automaton was later revealed to be a hoax.) And so, while I take no exception to Brossé's tempos - which, actually, were not terribly unusual - his interpretations often left unresolved the question of sentiment. There was a rigidity, a lack of flexibility within tempos, that overlooked possibilities for expressivity.
It was most acutely felt in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, perhaps because this is a work that has traditionally benefited from a firmly Romantic-era approach. I was left wondering what the warmly charismatic pianist Hanchien Lee would have done with the work had Brossé given her more time to breathe. But rather than taking a transitional moment as a chance to emphasize, say, a particularly meaningful note or harmonic progression, Brossé pressed on.
With an ensemble of fewer than three dozen players (just 11 violins), the horns sometimes overpowered in the Coriolan Overture, and the question of whether the group was functioning with the right number of strings continued into the Beethoven symphony. The revelation here was the third movement, a scherzo marked "allegro," which Brossé took a good deal slower than the norm. Details emerged, and the general character of the music - and our concept of what was possible - was transformed.