The Year in Beethoven

Beethoven is eternal, the calendar just marks time. But we note things that happened during a year and remember it that way, and we reward things from a given you, so it’s time to look at the year in Beethoven. You might find a good gift:

If you all you know of Beethoven is the symphonies, you’re doing fine. If you know the string quartets and piano sonatas, then you are familiar with a good amount of the central masterworks in Western classical music. This year in Beethoven begins with two collections of the symphonies, and please note that before them I already had … fifteen, why do you ask … complete sets, along with various single and partial cycles, There is literally not enough time in the year to listen to those, yet I’ve been mostly listening to Daniel Barenboim’s new cycle, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and a box that collects previous recordings by Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.

Barenboim’s previous Beethoven cycle, with the Berliner Staatskapelle, teeters between the glorious and the ponderous, depending on your taste in ye olde skoole interpretation. The view of the music comes from the mid-twentieth century and is heavily influenced by Fürtwangler, as it seeks poetic truth through gothic architecture. The new one is better in every way, and is consistently excellent. Where before the conductor underlined passages portentously, or else displayed them with the not so subtle aim of having him agree with him in re their profundity, on the new cycle, the music unspools with great pace and a very clear view of the development of harmonic and rhythmic tension and release in the music.

It is fascinating how much difference the orchestra makes to this conductor. This is a group of young musicians from Israel, Palestine and Arab counties of the Middle East put together by Barenboim and Edward Said to hopefully promulgate piece as much as music. They play with skill, great energy and are deeply involved in the music. There is certainly something to their freshness that either intentionally or by accident has everyone concentrating on the lines rather than making statements about the music, history, culture. Beethoven clearly means a great deal to them, and there is so much relish in their playing without a hint of received wisdom. At $19.99 at the iTunes store, this is a real value.

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De Vriend’s cycle is one of the best I have heard and equals the great one from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra as my favorite. He is also rapidly becoming one of my favorite conductors, especially after his exceptional recording of the original version of Mahler’s First Symphony, the kind of thing that usually comes off as an academic exercise but under his hands was a logical, expressive, coherent musical experience. Those are the salient aspects of his art: this cycle is notable for it’s clarity of intent, the ‘just-right’ sensation that follows every eight bars, every section, movement, finished symphony, the attention to individual phrasing and articulation while seeing the overall shape of each piece. This is especially clear in the most structurally challenging work, the Seventh Symphony, where de Vriend’s judgement of tempo and intensity through each of the first three movements prepares the final movement, one that often bogs down, for flight. Top of the line SACD recording enhances this masterful thinking and playing. Highly recommended, one of the best Beethoven symphony cycles available.

It was a good year for chamber music too: HJ Lim made her recording debut with a complete set of the Beethoven piano sonatas. While the consistency did not rise to the level of ambition, it’s full of plenty of strong thinking and exciting playing and is more than worth the $9.99 price at the iTunes store. It’s an ideal value for a first purchase of this music. The bookend to Lim is Andreas Staier’s excellent performance of the *Diablelli Variations*, played on the fortepiano. This is ideal Beethoven playing, and moves from insouciance to graceful profundity, and a the album includes a selection of variations on the same theme written by some of Beethoven’s contemporaries. This is a CD that makes a familiar piece sound brand new and enhances its greatness.

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On the same label is a complete set of Beethoven’s piano trios, from Trio Wanderer. This is one of my favorite recordings of 2012. The playing is absolutely beautiful and the thinking is a little quicker and tighter than the celebrated set from the Beaux Arts Trio, more Classical than Romantic, and it yields benefits. Beethoven has a reputation for power and fire, and it’s deserved, but his music was made with such intelligence and elegance, the power comes from the materials fitting together as no other music fits together, fueled by a sense of aesthetic and personal dignity that was an essential part of his character. Trio Wanderer has a deep affinity for this type of expression, and this is a wonderful recording, the best in this repertoire.

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Last in this last only is the final installment of the Cypress String Quartet’s recordings of the late Beethoven Quartets, a disc that is part of a three CD set that collects all the music. Dignity and intelligence are the hallmarks of the Cypress performances as well, along with a rich sound and beautiful recordings. Their playing is thoughtful but not mannered and they go for a lean sound in the pieces. This music will always be beguiling and mysterious, the harmonic movement and structure, development and placement of phrases moving in ways that will never completely make sense, as much as we try to divine their meaning. While other groups emphasize those elements,, the Cypress Quartet lets those qualities speak for themselves and highlights the rhythmic structure and energy, the keys that hold so much of Beethoven’s music together. A great set, one that I hope circumstances will allow the group to expand with the body of the great man’s work.

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