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Friday, December 16, 2011

Breaking Down Beethoven

Beethoven gets busted. Photo by the author with his iPhone.
A quick guide to the Nine Symphonies.

Today is Ludwig van Beethoven's 241st birthday: the perfect excuse to editorialize about the composer from Bonn.

For those just getting into classical music, Beethoven is often the starting point. A movie or commercial features one of his symphonies. Maybe Immortal Beloved was on cable the other night. Or your parents had a little bust in their house--usually of his scowling face. (See photo for mine.)

But buying (or downloading) your first Beethoven symphonies can be a bewildering experience. There are a lot of recordings available. Almost every conductor with a recording contract in the last 50 years recorded at least one of the symphonies--and most laid down all nine. Herbert von Karajan alone made four complete recordings of the symphonies. Other conductors (Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis) also issued multiple interpretations in the course of long podium careers.

So where to begin? Let's start with a quick summary of each of the nine symphonies. 

No. 1 in C: Beethoven started on a smaller scale. The First has charm and humor with a hint of the celebrations of life to come in the later works.
No. 2 in D: Often ignored or programmed out of necessity, the Second is an engaging example of Beethoven's early style.
No. 3 ("Eroica") in E Flat: What Wagner would have called a "revolution in art." A huge expansion of the symphony in scale and power, with a funeral march that inspired generations of heavy metal fans (who also like Beethoven.)
No. 4 in B Flat: The least played and among the most rewarding symphonies: a deceptive, moody introduction leads to a bucolic close.
No. 5 in C minor: Da-da-da-DUM. The "fate" motif dominates all four movements of this famous symphony.
No. 6 ("Pastoral") in F: Beethoven goes on vacation and takes the listener to the Austrian countryside. The first popular five-movement symphony and an early example of "program music."
No. 7 in A. Still on vacation. A dramatic symphony with the second movement that was in last year's The King's Speech.
No. 8 in F.  A bustling work that still confounds listeners. Beethoven had a sense of humor. Massively underrated.
No. 9 ("Chorale") in D minor: The cycle ends with the 'Ode to Joy,' the first time voice was added to a symphony. This famous theme ends what was at the time the longest symphony ever written.

So where to begin? I always recommend that new listeners should start with the Eroica, which pretty much defines Beethoven's style and gives you a sense of what you're getting into. The Seventh and the Fifth are also good starting-points, as is the ever-popular "Pastoral." 

As for which conductor and orchestra to go with here are some guidelines:
  • Karajan's earlier recordings on DG are better, (esp. the famous cycle made in 1963) with the Berlin Philharmonic.
  • Modern live recordings are sometimes better than in the studio. So what if you hear someone cough--the excitement of live music-making is vital to Beethoven performances. The new Riccardo Chailly cycle and the LSO Live set with Bernard Haitink are examples of this.
  • Period performances (using original instruments from the 1800s) are fine, but they may sound a little different than what you're used to. (Example: anything conducted by John Eliot Gardiner).
  • "Remastered" is often a fancy record company word for "repackaged recordings."
  • Analog recordings (made before 1980) may have small degrees of tape hiss, but often have more warmth and charm than chilly early digital sets. 
  • Recordings made after 1995 have better sound too, because the bit-capturing process for digital recordings and the advance of DAT led to better quality in the studio.
  • The best Beethoven cycles available may be cheap just because they're, y'know--OLD. There's nothing "wrong" with them--in fact some (The London cycle with Josef Krips, Otto Klemperer's set on EMI) are essential listening, and the Krips set (made at the dawn of the stereo era) is a bargain that has only recently been rediscovered.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic or Berlin Philharmonic will probably be the "sound you're looking for." But there are great recordings made in the UK and North America too. 
  • Anything recorded before 1955 is going to be in mono sound, not stereo. 
  • You owe it to yourself eventually to hear Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Knappertsbusch conduct this music but these are older recordings that sound better to the somewhat trained ear. 
  • That said, the 1951 Bayreuth recording of the Ninth (made to celebrate the re-opening of Wagner's opera festival) with Furtwängler is amazing.

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