Beethoven always makes a great gift, more reliable than anything else. And as the greatest artist of the human spirit, there’s no time like now to give Beethoven. Here’s some suggestions that are superb musically and real values money-wise:
This cycle from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the very best, and the price makes it the best value of all the symphony cycles in print.
Much tougher to make one choice here. Kempff is the ideal first choice, and his first, mono recordings are the finest set available. But his stereo versions are also excellent and cheaper.
Those are analog recordings. If you want digital (and well-recorded), Paul Lewis’ set is very good, beautiful played and sane all the way through, though not as deep or dramatic as some others. The price gives it high value.
The final leg of the essential Beethoven tripod (itself fundamental to the Western art music tradition). Like the Piano Sonatas, there’s no clear single choice in terms of musical quality and low cost. This is compounded in that many of the best cycles seem to constantly go in and out of print, leaving the consumer at the mercy of the secondary market.
Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” premiered the night of April 7, 1805. And thus began Romanticism, with what sounds, still, like cannon fire.
If the Classic style of Vienna presents the composers thoughts on music in the form of a Haydn Sonata or a Mozart Serenade, the Romantic style presents the composers thoughts about . . . everything. It is not, “listen to my music,” but “listen to me.” A command, an imperative. And Beethoven begins not at the periphery of this idea, but at the core. In the “Eroica,” Beethoven demands that we consider what he means, and what he means he does not exactly know – he means many things, all at the same time, and many of which disagree amongst themselves. In other words, Beethoven is the artist not as Platonic ideal, but as human being.
This is a part of the “heroic” style which begins with him. Another component of it is the endurance, but not always the triumph, of the human spirit against general adversity and especially internal conflict. The title of the work tells the tale – a crisis of belief without a neat resolution. Beethoven was no admirer of France, but did see in Napoleon Bonaparte the possibility of an Enlightenment Revolution sweeping across Europe. He initially thought of dedicating the work the work to Bonaparte, but as his biographer Maynard Solomon relates, he began to have his doubts when that meant losing a fee from one of his patrons, then was further enraged by Bonaparte declaring himself Emperor. That story is well know, as least apocryphally. The tale continues, though. After completion, Beethoven still considered calling the symphony Bonaparte, and the work did not received the title Eroica until 1806. It had become the symphonic depiction of an abstract “Hero.”
This matters, because the work presents a world of musical, intellectual and emotional conflict; sensation, hope, turmoil, questions without answers, a conclusion but not necessarily a resolution and, most of all, it juxtaposes life and death and describes a journey from one to the other and back again. Romanticism! It is a hero’s life and thoughts, and we can think of that hero as Bonaparte. I had been thrilled by the verve, pathos and passion of the symphony, but it didn’t mean much to me until I read Anthony Burgess’s incredible Napoleon Symphony, a novel that is quite faithfully modeled after the music. The marcia funebre takes on a new life when the narrative depiction is of a group of freezing French soldiers trying to make their way back alive from the gates of Moscow in 1812.
But what Beethoven ultimately felt about Bonaparte was ambivalence, and the symphony is anything but that. It is conflicted to the nth degree. It’s an internal portrait of a hero who is really just a man. Beethoven easily fits that, but so can we all. This heroic idea has nothing to do with power, fame or notoriety, or even the current decadent idea of heroism that ‘conservatives’ are so enthralled by. This is heroism as the daily struggle between human impulse and indulgence and our ethical and moral sense, the struggle to find our place in the community and the universe, and at least do no harm.
The work bursts with energy and seems to wander into traps and travails, falling into extremely unstable dissonance almost at the beginning, and following nothing like Classic harmonic structure – it smashes materials against each other which cannot fit together in any way, and then stands briefly, looking at their shards, before turning with a sigh towards some random direction and, hopefully, some light. And that’s just the first movement. The funeral march is heavy with the tread of pall-bearers accompanying the casket, carries some wistful memories of happier times, before falling apart in grief. The scherzo is a wild, almost drunken peasant dance, interrupted by the distant hunting horns of the aristocracy. The finale is Beethoven himself, impudently making fun of a peer, turning the other’s banal melody into a moving finale via a dazzling set of variations. Musically, this comes through clearly in an excellent new recording led by Andrew Manze with the Helsinborg Symphony:
I find the tempos ideal. There is a tremendous effect at the opening, where the opening chords are played with the force that implies a fast pace, and one is left anticipating the second chord, which builds immediate tension. This is a reading where the music really speaks for itself, and the small size of the orchestra allows clarity of internal detail. I’ve never heard the kind of delineation of dissonance in the internal voices as with this performance. Manze seems to be viewing this work from a point in the Classic period, and is full of subtle wonder about the shift in possibility the symphony produces. The newness is there.
Michael Tilson Thomas also covers the work in great musical detail. Between the two conductors, one can get quite an education into what makes the Eroica revolutionary. My own thought is that with this work, you have an idea that becomes essential to Romantic music, which is of music as a memory art. The Classical style, generally, describes a musical journey from a home key and back again. It is the journey of a technique. The Romantic style describes a personal journey, mainly between degrees of light and dark, and frequently between life and death. The territory covered is internal, and the method is through memory – the hero can only return to life by recalling moments, experiences, joys and sorrows, and by that means reconstitute himself again. This is true in Berlioz, who could not exist without Beethoven, and in the art of Courbet, who himself only cares about telling you what he thinks, whether in the famous self-portrait above or this wonderful one of himself as a Communard, rueful and self-mocking:
The terrific Courbet exhibition at the Met includes the famous portrait the painter did of Berlioz, and relates that the composer did not like the painter at all. Two willful artists together, not surprising. It’s a great picture though, the composer full of the same type of creative conflict and turmoil that Beethoven used as his fuel. We admire, even exalt their work, and frequently disparage their personalities, expecting some kind of easy, shallow psychological correlation between the ‘goodness’ of art and that of the people who produce it. But this is based on a strange idea of goodness – a combination of saintliness and agreeability. Beethoven was not a saint, and often not particularly agreeable. He was a man, and that makes him the artist, Hero.
We all have our madeleines. This morning I sat in a waiting room, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto came over the radio. Lost time came in search of me, a mass of moments revivified and occupying me equally and simultaneously. The sensation was familiar in one important way, it was the feeling I have each time I hear this music, which is both the sensation of the moment and the recollection of that same, wonderful feeling from each previous time. It is the sensation of knowing that Beethoven is my brother.
In my first go-round in Brooklyn, living in Fort Greene in the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, you might have found me some early weekday evenings at the bar of the Alibi Club, which, before the sun set nightly, was a comfortable, no-frills neighborhood place where one could sit quietly, chat and win a pot of cash by putting in your own money and answer for ‘Final Jeopardy.’ I remember one conversation I had with a frequent patron named Noel, about music. We were talking appreciatively about what we loved, avant-garde jazz for me and classic album rock for him, but when I mentioned that I had been listening obsessively to George Szell’s Beethoven cycle – and I had been – we found ourselves conjoined in a love for Beethoven. Not everyone loves, or is even interested in him, but he’s easy to love no matter what one’s musical taste or interest may be; we love our brothers, and Beethoven is one.
Pop songs tell us about experiences that we have had our would like to have, we can relate to and identify with the stories and the feelings and the personalities of the tellers/singers, whether we kissed a girl or loved and lost like Frank has. Sometimes the songs are so good, so complex and enduring that they leave it to us to decided what exactly we are identifying with emotionally, which changes through time as we endure life. Usually, though, unendurable teenage heartbreak turns into adult disappointment and ennui, and so the teenage songs no longer work and must be replaced by adult songs. Classical music is different in that it doesn’t tell us very much at all, it instead appeals to totally abstract ideas of time and form. It asks questions rather than offers answers, and so does not appeal to all, but its appeal is enduring since it’s always an intriguing, often beautiful mystery to solve. We never actually find the solution, but there is marvelous pleasure in the process.
Classical music does offer personalities, but often these are both abstracted and idealized. This is especially true in the Classical era, where the music of Mozart and Haydn is guided by their personalities, i.e. their taste and choices, but presents what they think about their own ideas, not themselves directly. This changes with Beethoven who is so exceptional because he does both simultaneously; he doesn’t need to choose between telling us about himself and about what he thinks of his own abstract ideas. To Beethoven, that’s an irrelevancy. In the Violin Concerto, we hear what he thinks about sonata-allegro form, and how he likes to solve the puzzle of finding his way home after a long journey, and this is appealing and satisfying to those who find spirit and beauty in those questions (and they are full of such things). We also hear Beethoven tell us about himself, not the abstract figure represented in Classical music but his real, Romantic self. What he tells us in all his music, literally all, is this: I have suffered, and I have struggled, but I have also found joy.
That is something we all desire to hear and to be able to say ourselves at times in our life, and so Beethoven can appeal to everyone. For other Romantic composers, we react as we would in making or rejecting friendships; how our personalities mix with the music is the key. If the music is appealing it is because it becomes a friend, and like real friends we think and react in a variety of ways depending on who we are with, and our moods and the companionship we require. Schumann, Schubert, the eccentric Berwald, the simple, mystical Bruckner, the aesthete Tchiakovsky, the enigmatic Sibelius are all my friends, but I don’t wish their company at all times. The Stravinsky of The Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps is my dazzling, eternally youthful and brilliant friend, while the late-Romantic Schoenberg is an acquaintance who shares few concerns with me, and Richard Strauss is an unpleasant fellow who seeks social circles that I find repulsive. Gustav Mahler is the exhaustingly intimate friend with whom the discursive, fascinating conversation never ends.
Those are some of my friends, and they are my friends because I like them. Beethoven is not my friend, however, and I don’t always like him. He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with. That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me. He’s my brother, and so I will always love him.
Looking out for your dollars, so you don’t have to …
Must Haves and New Releases
* DG is releasing a new Claudio Abbado Mahler cycle. This one collects his live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and completely supersedes his previous cycle in terms of music making and recording quality. Everything is strong, and Symphonies 1, 3, 5 and 9 are among the finest on record. You can pre-order through Amazon or, for half the price, the Presto Classical site. You’ll also get is sooner through Presto, though once the domestic release date nears, the Amazon price is likely to drop below $50.
* Not available in the US domestic market, there’s another great DG box coming out, 23 CDs of recordings from the great conductor Rafael Kubelik. This one collects the complete symphonies of Mahler, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Schumann. These are fine recordings and this box is a great value.
* Beethoven Symphonies 1 – 9, George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. The best first choice for a Beethoven set, and arguably the finest cycle ever recorded, this has gone in and out of print for the last thirty years, but is available again for less than $20. If you don’t have this, order it today.
For the shortest month, February was packed with new and upcoming releases that I loved. Taken together with music that was released or previewed in January, I already have a short-list for finest recordings of the year, and my pleasure in listening to these recordings assures me firmly that I will be enjoying them just as much, if not more, by the time the day light starts to wane:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. Equally fantastic. This is a departure in style for Cave, but one that suits his ideas and sensibilities so well that it is not only welcome, but seems the point that his career has been moving in. The narrative lyrics and metaphors are still there, rooted deep in Anglo-American folk traditions, the voice is as seductive as ever, but the music not longer holds to song forms. Instead, the vocals are delivered over a beds of looping patterns, making this just as much an ‘electronica’ record as Amok. This doesn’t diminish Cave’s songwriting, but rather focusses it on the things that matter: the words, the rueful, intimate delivery, the sense of the sublime.
Barbara Govatos, violin, Marcantonio Barone, piano, Beethoven, the Violin Sonatas. Did you think I only listen to pop music? This actually had a release date of December 2012, but the promo did not reach me until last month. These are, of course, great pieces of music that sit at the center of the Western Classical chamber music tradition, and these are exceptionally fine performances. Govatos and Barone literally ravish each phrase with musical attention, everything is done with meaning and purpose, and they have a complete understanding of the architectural aspects of the music and how they serve the emotional content. Govatos has a tremendous violin sound, one of the best I’ve heard, and the entire recording has been beautifully captured. Great interaction, lustrous phrasing throughout. This has displaced the formidable set from Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich as the first choice.
The rest of the list:
Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestras, Nielsen: Symphonies 2 & 3. There’s a Nielsen revival going on and that’s exciting. This release finishes up Davis’ live cycle, which has been personal and quirky and rewarding.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Functional Arrhythmias. Dense, complex structural and rhythmic patterns from Coleman. While I miss Jen Shyu’s voice his previous two releases, this is an advance in the sophistication of Coleman’s concept of applying structures found in nature to music. Mysterious, sometimes opaque, but compelling.
Gloria Cheng and the Calder Quartet, The Edge of Light: Messiaen and Saariaho. Beautiful chamber music from two great composers. I love the way Cheng plays Messiaen’s “Huit Preludes” like it was Ravel, and the stark aesthetic of Saariaho’s music is a natural for the group.
Matthias Goerne, Schubert: Erlkönig. From one of the finest contemporary voices and singer, a performance that emphasizes the music and underplays the Romanticism, to great effect.
Richard Egarr, Bach: The English Suites. Egarr has been recording the Bach keyboard works on harpsichord, and his series is one of the finest there is.
Nadia Sirota, Baroque. Perhaps it is, but unlike Bach. This second recital disc from Sirota on co-produced by New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community (UPDATED) is less immediately surprising, but repeated listening shows power and depth to the pieces from Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly, and welcome respites from Shara Worden and others. Very fine.
Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memory Depot. This is a major release, ambitious and accomplished. Eastman’s music is exciting, important and neglected, and on this disc Clayton presents both “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla,” two piano works that display Eastman’s virtues of irreverence, seriousness and forceful thinking and expression. Clayon uses electronics to rework the instruments sounds in something of an elegiac haunting of his own work by the composer. It’s terrific.
As always, you can support this site by purchasing any of these release through the links in the post, or donate below.
About the same time, January 29 – February 3, David Virelle’s Continuum will be at the Village Vanguard. The music and band was, by far, my choice for the best Latin Jazz of 2012. If you can pick one date, Henry Threadgill will be playing alto with the band January 31.