Music

Radio Reaction: Isolating with the Big ‘B’ – vital Beethoven recommendations

Musical recommendations to enjoy while at home - a daily service for Reaction readers

BY Gerald Warner | tweet GeraldWarner1   /  25 March 2020

Beethoven is surely a solace in most circumstances, including the present. He is so eclectic a composer that everyone has favourites to cherry-pick from the canon, ranging from delicate sonatas to great bursts of symphonic thunder. So, whether you are playing ancient scratchy 78rpm records on a wind-up gramophone or invoking the services of ubiquitous handmaid Alexa, here are a couple of Ludwig’s productions you might like to consider listening to.

Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92

The most obvious choice for people who need cheering up and a bit of stimulation. It was an instant popular success from the moment of its premiere in December 1813, when the audience insisted the second movement (Allegretto) be given an encore. It marked the beginning of Beethoven’s reign as a generally recognised master and popular composer.

It is a mature production and its vigour and liveliness are exceptional. Richard Wagner said: “This symphony is the very apotheosis of the dance.” A mildly dissenting modern view was expressed by Sir Thomas Beecham, who described the third movement as being “like a lot of yaks jumping about”. But would you trust the judgement of a conductor whose trousers once fell down while he was conducting in the Royal Albert Hall?

Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58

This piano concerto was mis-characterized, at least among many of the musical commentariat, a generation ago. It was described, almost patronizingly, as a product of one of the few serene periods in Beethoven’s life, with the implication it was somehow a workaday piece, when it was fashionable to turn a composer’s output into a kind of programme music in tandem with his biography.

It has also been suggested the Fourth is the most “feminine” of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Certainly, it is very lyrical, especially in its opening, which seems to emerge almost from a mist. But it was so demanding a piece it was only played twice in Beethoven’s lifetime, on both occasions with him as the soloist. A contemporary pianist named Stein did contract to play it, but found it so difficult he asked to play the C minor concerto instead.

It was revolutionary in having the solo instrument play the opening bars instead of the orchestra, as was conventional. Beethoven buffs like to prattle knowledgeably about how the orchestra states the main theme in B major, dropping to a cadence in the tonic, G major. Most of us Philistines just like the music and would prefer not to see the scaffolding.

Yes, much of it is lively and it certainly lifts the spirits; but there is also, especially in the first movement, a lyricism that suggests an underlying gravitas. Despite having achieved that, it was Beethoven himself who subverted his own creation at its premiere in Vienna three days before Christmas in 1808, in the words of Conrad Wilson, “in an unheated Theater an der Wien which was growing colder by the minute”. Beethoven rattled the piece off in a style described as “roguish” by Karl Czerny – which is far removed from how it is played today or how one imagines the composer seriously intended it to sound.

Beethoven’s sense of urgency was probably due not only to the cold but to the fact that the premieres of both the Fifth Symphony and the “Pastoral” were to follow later in the programme. Just another night at the Theater an der Wien in 1808.

Anyway, give it a try: both as a reflective piece and as lively music in turn, highly suitable for listening to in solitude.

Here are some suggested recordings:

Symphony No. 7, Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic


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