A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 19, 2011
11:13 AM
Classically Speaking

Got Beethoven?

Got Beethoven?

 You don’t have to be a classical music lover for long to understand that the Beethoven  symphonies and piano concertos are foundational works. In both genres, Beethoven exploded the Classical boundaries that had just started to be pushed by Haydn and Mozart at the end of their lives, and set a standard that most later nineteenth-century composers despaired of matching.

And no matter how familiar they become, we turn back to them again and again. Over the course of the past year, Cmajor and Unitel Classica have released a set of DVDs that might be the perfect place to start in building a personal collection. The protagonists are conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic, and the nine symphonies are available in either three-disc volumes of three symphonies each, or a nine-disc set. You can save a little money (and enjoy the upgraded technology) in single Blu-ray discs, or a set of three Blu-rays.

For hard-core Ludwig lovers, probably not one single performance jumps out as “definitive,” or even surpassing a previous favorite. But it is the total package that makes these performances treasurable. The camera work is at least as beautiful as the playing, with multiple angles that renew one’s interest as well as follow pretty closely the instrumental highlights as each symphony unfolds. Each of the first two volumes also includes the major overtures of Beethoven.

But the feature that puts this set over the top is that each symphony receives a one-hour documentary which consists of fascinating discussions between Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser, an octogenarian critic of music and theater who has made part of his life’s work to hear and discuss Beethoven with every major conductor of the last sixty years or so. Far from being bogged down with pedanticism, these discussions take unexpected byways, and best of all are filled with clips of other conductors such as Karajan, Bernstein, Jaarvi, et al.

Needless to say, the highlights among all of Thielemann’s performances are too numerous to list here; let’s leave it at a mention of a glorious No. 6, “Pastoral.” A lifelong favorite, this is a reading that exudes the meadows and brooks of the Viennese countryside. Then there’s the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony, where Thielemann suddenly adds weight to a passage where others blithely clip ahead.

Just be sure that if you buy this as a gift, wrap it right away … or you might just end up keeping it for yourself.

Recorded a couple of years ago, but distributed earlier this year by Naxos, is the Euroarts two-disc set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist and conductor, with the Staatskapelle Berlin. It is commonplace for pianists to perform the Mozart concertos and lead the ensemble as well, but it is unusual, especially in the last two of the Beethoven concertos, to do so.

Not to worry. Of course, Barenboim would be a well-known commodity to any literate local listeners, even if he hadn’t been director of the Chicago Symphony from 1991 to 2006. In 2000, the Staatskapelle voted him “conductor for life,” and it’s easy to hear—and see—why. These folks are completely on the same wavelength, and unlike Thielemann’s symphonic cycle (admittedly a different task), more than a few might rank Barenboim’s interpretations among their most cherished. Again, the camera work is exemplary and, in this set, equally adept at revealing Barenboim the pianist and conductor.

Please check back ‘round the middle of next week, for a “Classical Madison in Review” posting. Until then, happy listening, and safe and joyous holidays to all!

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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