Philippe Herreweghe 1981-2007 Retroperspective – Harmonia Mundi 2 CDs + DVD
Published on June 10, 2007
This is one of those strange compilation sets that come out every once in a while in order to celebrate some aspect of a record company or one of its artists. In this case, it’s the 6oth birthday of one of the Harmonia mundi breadwinners, conductor Philippe Herreweghe, whose recorded legacy now approaches 75 discs for the company. Of course it is interesting to speculate that had it not been for the record company, Herreweghe might not have become the force in today’s musical world that he is. That is one of the bonuses of smaller companies like Harmonia mundi and others—they, in order to search out new (and many cases less expensive) artists, at least in the earlier days, have given a springboard to major talents that the majors might not have touched.
At the same time, one must ask who the set is aimed at. I suspect that most record collectors like me will tend to steer clear of such compilations as they offer only snippets of various works, and that fails to interest most of us. If this is being used as a marketing tool then the price will have to be appropriately set in order to entice anyone at all. So it is a sort of risk to the company to release this, though the music is all in the can and simply recycled, assuming little expense to anyone aside from production. So it is difficult to know how to review this—as a real classical album release or as a collection of marketing talking points.
Since it is not a free product, and people are going to be asked to shell out real money for it, the answer must be the former. And as such, it gets mixed reviews. Disc one, containing Herreweghe’s recording of earlier music, is a no-brainer. Though a period performance practitioner and advocate from the late sixties, he has brought a humanity and sense of reasonableness and clarity to everything he has touched. Just listen to any of the Bach selections—they are, without question, peerless in today’s recording market. The beauty of tone, superb singing, and above all, emphasis on the words as married to the music make Herreweghe one of the more intelligent performers of sacred choral music since the death of Robert Shaw. Listening to the entire disc at one sitting, disparate as the music is and even though there are only selections offered, was unalloyed pleasure of the first order. Nobody does this better today, and one can easily see the reasons for its success. Herreweghe apparently is not interested in recording the complete Bach Cantatas, for instance, and this to me will be a tragedy, for in my mind it would be far and away the best set on the market. Perhaps HM can persuade him to change his mind about that.
But with the second disc, and its far greater recorded competition, we run into many more problems. One must first accept the dogmatic construct that this music should be performed on period instruments, and that is a debate that will go on forever. But using that as a given, these performances must be judged solely on how they stack up to everyone else, regardless of the medium. The Mozart Gran Partita is a fine performance, but there are many great readings of this, even on period instruments that at least are its equal. I have always enjoyed Herreweghe’s Missa Solemnis, finding it to be one of the more perceptive (and exciting) on the market. Though HM indicates that they believe his recording of the German Requiem is one of his “essentials”, I would have to beg to differ. The example they supply is a perfect example, with the rush to the end of the movement and subsequent lack of dramatic power lessening it in value compared to such greats as Klemperer, Karajan, and Levine. His Schumann too, remains unconvincing, and I find this new release of the last movement of the third symphony somewhat tame and over-manicured. It is too soft in approach and rather powder-puffed compared to Bernstein (Sony), Szell, or Barenboim, even though it is a reading of great clarity and finesse. I had not heard the Bruckner and was surprised at how much I liked it; but it remains to be seen whether his band can muster the broad, brass built chordal structures that are essential for any great performance of this work. His Schoenberg is superb—this is one of the preferred readings on the market. And as one might expect, the Faure is a marvel of suppleness and tender feeling, right up the conductor’s alley.
The supplied DVD is about an hour’s worth of video showing the conductor in rehearsal and concert, with various commentators. It is in French with an English subtitle option. I found it fascinating, and it does help to bring to light much of the conductor’s philosophy, explained by him in simple, no-nonsense terms that make all the sense in the world, as if one could not possibly believe anything else. Of course, if you are like me, hearing some of the results does make it possible to believe other things, and one of the points that came across to me is that philosophy doesn’t always coincide with outcome. And hearing the rehearsal of the Beethoven Ninth, even with the controversial metronome markings in place, is not always a convincing experience. Herreweghe is convinced that Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing, but all performance must be contextualized in terms of one’s own time, and some of what I hear in that reading sounds comical to me. Others may disagree. [I felt overmuch time was devoted to the Ninth rehearsals too…Ed.]
So this is an interesting set that has value, more to some than to others, but certainly makes me want to go back and reinvestigate some of these pieces, probably by buying. HM can rejoice in that their efforts have bought at least one success, but then again, I did not pay for this, and you will. Herreweghe’s has been an interesting career, and he has done some fine service to music, and for all of us. This set is a testament to that.
— Steven Ritter