Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Not making history

The rationale of the Resound Beethoven project is about what a wine expert would call terroir; it's a historical reconstruction of the original venue for important premieres of orchestral works from the composer's lifetime. I've bought in to the concept to some extent, though I preferred the theatrical Egmont Music of volume 3 to the much more demanding 3rd Symphony in volume 4. For the 9th Symphony the original venue is no longer in place, so we hear instead a recording from the Redoutensaal at Hofburg Vienna, where the second performance took place on May 23, 1824. But this is in a sense moot, since because of his deafness Beethoven would have heard this music in a completely different venue: his head. All bets are off, I think. When we think of a Platonic Ideal of the 9th Symphony living in Beethoven's head, how this music sounded in a long-ago venue seems less important. Instead, we can imagine a direct line from Beethoven's head through his score and nearly two hundred years of performance traditions to the mind and imagination and musical skills of a conductor and a group of musicians. The music on this disc has some plusses, most especially in a rather good slow movement, which combines a child-like simplicity with subtle atmospheric effects. But the rest of the work sounds very square compared with the powerful rhythmic thrust - I want to say swing - of Toscanini. It seems very rustic when we put it next to Karajan's polish and cool elegance. And it's lacking entirely in the glimpses of the other world that Solti brings, especially when Jessye Norman sings. The sense of place looms large in certain famous performances of the 9th Symphony, none more momentous and historic than the Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein concert with an augmented Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as the Berlin Wall came down. There Bernstein and his musicians made history, but only because the spirit of the time lifted them up and inspired them. But without a more compelling and engaging performance no venue will make a big difference.

This disc will be released on March 24, 2017.

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