If anyone were to tell me that classical music as a genre is too quiet, boring, or too cultured, I'd like to sit the guy down in front of a good sound system, turn the volume knob up to the highest level that the amp, speakers and room can take, then blast the guy with Beethoven's Symphony #5. Then I'd like to hear him repeat his opinion about classical music again.

Ok, jokes aside. :-)

Beethoven's symphonies are grand, exciting, dramatic, at the same time it can sound raw, and even angry. This is, after all, sound crafted by an individual afflicted with the misfortunes of life (he was probably suffering from lead poisoning and was growing deaf), yet refusing to take it lying down.

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony marked a departure from the traditional symphonic form laid down by Haydn and Mozart before him, and he heralded the arrival of a new era, what musicologists call "Romanticism". Before this, music was composed for music's sake. Starting with Beethoven, composers used their music to express themselves more freely, music became more emotional, more dramatic, and personal.

Herbert von Karajan recorded a few cycles (four, I believe) of Beethoven's 9 symphonies, the version I have is his excellent 1963 cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is vintage Karajan - majestic, sweeping and full of grandeur. If you want only one version of Beethoven's symphonies, this is arguably one of the top contenders.

Deutche Grammophon 429 036-2

My other Beethoven symphonic cycle is from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The first few times I listened to it, I did not 'get it', so I put it in cold storage for quite a while.

I did not 'get it' because I listened like I was listening to Karajan's version. Karajan highlighted and lingered on the many climactic moments in the symphonies. With Harnoncourt, I was waiting too for the same climaxes at the familiar places, but he just did not do these at all. With my expectations not met, I thought this cycle was simply, well, not up to par.

Teldec 2292-46452-2

How wrong I was! Later, listening to Harnoncourt in earnest again, it dawned on me that it was indeed an excellent cycle. Harnoncourt eschewed highlighting moments in this music for thrills - for example, contrast the opening bars of the 3rd and 5th symphonies between the two - Karajan's emphatic opening is exciting and sets the tone for the entire performance. Harnoncourt's is fleeting, almost nonchalant in his approach (I was thinking, "bummer, no excitement from these best moments in music.").

But what Harnoncourt did was to take an entirely different tack to these familiar tunes. Instead of focusing on the climactic moments, he adopted a very quick tempo, he held the energy and tension throughout his performance without letting go. The thrills for the listeners come from the sustained energy and clarity of his vision. The whole performance is done seemingly with one breath (the chinese expression for this is 一氣呵成). Each movement is presented as a unified whole, rather than as a string of moments.

Let me end with an analogy. Listening to Karajan is like you sitting in a big Merc, cruising on our North-South Highway at a good speed. Listening to Harnoncourt was like riding a zippy BMW, tearing downhill on the country roads of Cameroon Highlands.

Me? I like both Merc and BMW, depending on my mood. :-)

However, if you are just starting to sample Beethoven's symphonies, I'd advise you to start with Karajan, just like a comfy Merc will be preferred by most people, I believe. :-) (check out the normal culprits - #3, #5, #6, #9).

If you are already familiar with this music and want to get off the beaten path, Harnoncourt is cool.

Happy listening again.

P.S., another exciting Beethoven symphony cycle is from John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique. This one is even faster than Harnoncourt's, it is like sitting in a Ferrari. :-)

1 comment:

hafiz said...

Karajan's 1963 cycle with the Vienna Symphonic Orcestra;I get goosebums just typing those words.....the absolute best IMHO