Tag Archives: Beethoven

[77] Ludwig van Beethoven – 9 Symphonies

26 Sep

Tom Moon has saved the best for last when it comes to his Beethoven selections.

David Zinman and The Tonhalle Ochestra Zurich

David Zinman and The Tonhalle Ochestra Zurich

There was an initial appearance of a cop-out in choosing a box set of all 9 symphonies as a single recording – if this is a legitimate strategy then surely Queen’s 40th anniversary Box Set containing all of their albums must be included? – but the performances here are coherent and complete, and of course the music is sublime.

Also, I had forgotten how short a single symphony tends to be.

Throughout the 4 hours of this 5-disc set both composition and delivery is dynamic, inventive and thoroughly engaging – the tempo and mood, volume and color is constantly shifting.  I am utterly engrossed, no matter how many times I listen, no matter how familiar the tune.

Although perhaps I should not be, I am surprised that I have heard every one of these pieces before, not just the 6th, 7th and 9th which I could identify before pressing play, and the 5th which is ingrained into the musical consciousness of the entire Western world and beyond.  Everything here is a part of my musical history, heard on radios and televisions throughout my formative years through to today.

And there is a reason that these perfectly formed, 30 minute masterpieces are so ubiquitous, that the name Beethoven is perhaps the most familiar in Classical music.   These symphonies truly are that special.

There are some technical reason why this particular box set was chosen over the multitude of other recordings cut over the decades.  The orchestra here is working from a newer, perhaps more accurate score, playing at the faster pace that it seems Beethoven intended.

But I am quite certain that any number of “lesser” recordings would have moved me as much.

Over and over I find myself wallowing in a melody, enjoying a pretty line, revisiting well known phrases which trigger a multitude of sense memories.  I smile often while these symphonies play.

And the extended explorations of melody through repetition, through rhythm and structure, capture both my imagination and my intellect.

Beethoven is as masterful painting in broad, powerful musical strokes as he is creating quietly reflective internal moments.  Although I do so love the loud, brash movements it is the contrast with the meditative ones that elevate the whole to well earned world class status, and which leaves me wanting more.

Next week:  Bix Beiderbecke – Singin’ The Blues, Vol. 1

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 77 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (12 of 77 = 16%)
Recommend? Yes. (62 of 77 = 81%)

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[76] Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

19 Sep

Wait – didn’t we just hear these?

Arthur Schoonderwoerd with the Cristofori Ensemble

Arthur Schoonderwoerd with the Cristofori Ensemble

In some ways, this is the inverse of the situation I found myself in while listening to The Late Quartets – I have a recent familiarity with a huge orchestral style recording of the music at hand, and here the whole has been scaled way back.

In this case it begins as an almost academic exercise, reducing the number of instruments (as well as their actual construction) from modern norms to the best approximation of what would have been played at the time of composition.

But there is nothing academic about the nimble and lively sound that results.  I almost don’t recognize the 4th – which had so underwhelmed me just a week ago – as the same piece!

Moon had an uphill task convincing me that, with such a finite number of recordings to be included, there was any reason to allow the same work to take up two spots out of the 1,000.

Schoonderwoerd manages it before the end of the first movement.

The sound is brighter and somehow more immediate than the Serkin recording, at once subtler and more focused.  Much of this stems from the almost familiar sound of the fortepiano which remains far more front and center here, interacting with individual instruments rather than banks of strings and brass.

It is an interesting if fruitless exercise to wonder whether I would have recommended last week’s selection if I had heard this abbreviated but perhaps superior one first?

We’ll never know.  And I’ll likely never care . . .

Next Week: Ludwig van Beethoven – 9 Symphonies

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 76 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 76 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (61 of 76 = 80%)

[75] Ludwig van Beethoven – The Five Piano Concertos

12 Sep

There is *a lot* of music here.

Rudolf Serkin and the Bavarian Radio Orachestra

Rudolf Serkin and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra

The first section of the first Concerto – No 1 in C – is bright and lively and tons of fun with energetic runs up and down keys.  During the solo piano sections there are moments that, like during The Well Tempered Clavier, seem almost like exercises, but they are so amusing and engaging that you can’t help but smile, and follow where the stream of notes carry you.

It is almost a disappointment when the orchestra returns.

The melodies have a simplicity to them, without a feeling of staleness or overfamiliarity.  All of the complexity seems to be saved for the rest of the instruments, although perhaps it only seems this way thanks to the effortlessness of Serkin’s playing.

There is already plenty to explore and enjoy, and I am only into the first Concerto.

I can’t tell if Concerto No 2 in B flat is less interesting, or if I’m just having trouble maintaining focus.  It is certainly pretty, and once more I am more interested in the solos than the orchestral sections.

I understand the reasoning behind Moon’s selection – a unified take on one section of Beethoven’s work by one soloist, one conductor, one orchestra – but I am not immediately convinced that I needed to hear the whole thing, that each Concerto captured here is all as essential and necessary as the next.

What begins to win me over is the immense sense of fun – Serkin is so obviously enjoying himself that the orchestra and audience can’t help but feel it too.

With Concerto No 3 in C minor, Beethoven continues to require that his pianist range all over the keys in fascinating runs and chases – always highlighting the journey and to hell with the destination.

I find that I am enjoying this flamboyant, show-offish exuberance.  I am not a dancer, but the C minor makes me want to move, to emote, to express.

I am somewhat surprised that – once again – that I do not recognize anything here.  The radio in my childhood home was often set to Classical stations and my Grandpa’s record collection was full of Classical recordings, yet none of the Beethoven I have encountered over the past month has rung any significant bells of memory.

It begs the question, would I recognize these pieces if and when I encounter them again in the future?  Would I even necessarily know them for Beethoven?

Just how superficial has my exploration been?

At the very least I am learning to recognize the parts that make up a Piano Concerto – the frisky opening, the more langourous middle section, and the almost triumphant finale.

Until, of course, Beethoven departs from convention with Concerto Nos 4 and 5.

By the time we reach Concerto No 4 in G major I’ve somewhat lost interest, am running out of steam even if Serkin and company certainly have not.

“The Emperor” – Concerto No 5 in E flat – drags my attention back where it belongs.

I’m almost certain I’ve seen Tom chasing Jerry around to this one, and even if I haven’t the impression is still strong of hectic, manic motion paired with brief, contemplative moments.

It is wonderful.

Despite all of the preceding paragraphs, the previous weeks of discussing Beethoven and others, I am more or less faking it when it comes to Classical music in a way that I am just not with the Rock and Pop, even the Jazz and World recordings.

But while I don’t truly understand Classical structure and composition, I do have a well defined sense of what I like, and it creates a sort of internal heiarchy in place of any concrete logic.

So I can say that I enjoy these Piano Concertos far more than anything I heard by Bartok, but would choose to listen to Martha Argerich’s renditions of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 over Serkin’s Beethoven performances.

Something to do with the immediacy and vitality of the Argerich recording.

As I said, all very internal and imprecise.

I have always been a musical nomad, a jack of all genres, and this project seems to be reinforcing that sense.  There is something I love in every genre, just as there are gaping holes in my knowledge of each genre.

And I am OK with this . . .

Next Week: Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 75 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 75 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (60 of 75 = 80%)

[74] Ludwig van Beethoven – Missa Solemnis

5 Sep

To date I have been very all or nothing in my regard for Tom Moon’s Classical choices, loving the 4 Bach recordings, coming close to loathing the 3 from Bartok, and being less than thrilled with the 2 Adams pieces.

Otto Klemperer conducts the New Philharmonia

Otto Klemperer conducts the New Philharmonia

This left me very curious to see how I would react on the whole to Beethoven’s 6 entries into the list.  The Archduke blew my mind, while the late string quartets left me cold.

So what’s next?

The Missa Solemnis opens with an absolutely enormous wall of vocal sound that is as exhilarating to hear as it is astounding to comprehend.  There are just so many individual voices, instruments, lines.

The big themes sweep and soar, hundreds of moving parts creating an inspiring whole, then the quieter orchestral moments serve as a necessary pause, a catching of breath between the complex evolving melodies and the extravagant choral sections.

The juxtaposition is breathtakingly, frailly beautiful.

As with John Adams way back in the opening weeks of this undertaking, I’m spending a little more time adjusting the volume up and down than I’d like to, but this time I am invested enough in the operatic scope of the sound that it is not getting in the way of my enjoyment.

I am quite certain that I have not heard much, if any, of this before and the melodies are at once unexpected yet somehow familiar – they rarely go where I expect them to, but still sound somehow “right” for want of a better word.

Each solo vocalist shines as they take the lead, blending beautifully where they intersect with each other, with the chorus, with the orchestra.  The image that keeps coming to mind – perhaps cliche but nonetheless appropriate here – is of painting with sounds in loud, proud strokes.

I would *love* to hear this performed live, to sit in the concert hall with a mass of humanity on stage and off, to experience the waves of power and emotion physically washing over me.

In the meantime, this recording seems to be a close approximation.

Next Week: Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 74 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 74 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (59 of 74 = 80%)

[73] Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartets Opp. 131 and 135

29 Aug

My wife and I recently watched “A Late Quartet”.  In the back of my mind I was aware that, for this blog, I would soon be listening to a recording of the pieces featured in that fascinating movie.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic

However, the perfect personal performances seen and heard on screen bear no resemblance whatsoever to the huge and hearty sounds that Leonard Bernstein urges from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The reason is obvious.  Bernstein has transposed Beethoven’s work – originally written for a viola, a cello and two violins – to an entire string section of a modern orchestra.

The sound is big and bold and yet still nuanced, the many parts of the orchestra coalescing into a pleasing whole.  But something – the melody? the lack of intimacy? – fails to grab me the way the same pieces did in the movie.

I do not follow the internal story, the structure of these pieces intuitively as I did so viscerally, so immediately with the “Archduke”.  It’s not something I can easily articulate, but this recording doesn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way.

Am I unfairly comparing this purely audial experience with all of the visual and interpersonal storytelling that went hand in hand with this music in “A Late Quartet”?  It is entirely possible.

Am I still reveling in the afterglow of discovering the “Archduke”?  I certainly could be.

But whatever the reason, I don’t expect to feel the desire to revisit these String Quartets in the future, although I might watch the movie again.

However, I am certain that I will enjoy my next visit with Bernstein a few months from now . . .

Next Week: Ludwig van Beethoven – Missa Solemnis

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 73 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 73 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (58 of 73 = 79%)

[72] Ludwig van Beethoven – Archduke Trio / Kreutzer Sonata

22 Aug

I press play, and immediately my senses are overwhelmed by such beautiful melodies, the seamless transitions between piano and strings trading those melodies back and forth.

Archduke Trio / Kreutzer Sonata

Archduke Trio / Kreutzer Sonata

It is like a private conversation, overheard in passing that the listener can’t help but eavesdrop on – you want to hear what each has to say, what interesting tidbit comes next, how the others will react.

Moon makes it clear that, impressive as the composition of these works undeniably are, it is the performance of the Trio that elevates this particular recording.  Three friends and virtuoso soloists – Thibault, Casals and Cortot – had been playing together for two decades when these takes were captured in London in the late 20s.

You can hear the chemistry, the affection between the performers, not to mention the long years of history and practice which brings an immediate familiarity to each tune.  Everything is so intricate – lines overlapping, tempos and moods constantly shifting – but the sound remains effortless.

Nothing is allowed to interfere with the pleasure of experiencing, or performing, the music.

It quickly occurs to me that the “Archduke” excites me at least as much as anything else I have discovered over the last 15 plus months.

It is unusual for me to be so moved by instrumental music – it is usually a lyric that makes my heart grow three sizes – but the Scherzo second section of the “Archduke” at times leaves me with a swell in my chest and a catch in my throat.

Here is another example of why I picked up Tom Moon’s book, why I started this blog in the first place.  Of course I have heard Beethoven’s work before, but I have only ever scratched the surface – the “Pastoral”, the “Fifth”, the pieces that are used at all times and in every place.  I needed an excuse to actively dig deeper for the quality I knew must be there, and this first of six choices does not disappoint.

Six for The Beatles and six for Beethoven. Seems appropriate for such giant names.

Next Week:  Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartets, Opp. 131 & 135

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 72 = 13%)
Heard before blogging? No. (11 of 72 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (58 of 72 = 81%)

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