Thanks to the good offices of a friend of mine, I’ve been looking at a couple volumes from the Magnum Opus series at Continuum Books. This series, edited by Robert Levine, takes a closer look at what it calls the touchstones of the Western classical tradition, in a bid to reach people who want to know more about these pieces.
The volume before me is David Hurwitz’s examination of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, which came out, according to the Website, last October. I’ve read roughly half of this small 132-page book, and I like it so far; Hurwitz does a good job in the opening chapter, which examines Beethoven, the history of the symphony, sonata form and other niceties in a friendly, non-threatening way, and he doesn’t have to resort to jargon to do it.
All to the good. One thing did catch me by surprise, and that was this sentence on page 30:
The presence of so many recordings of Beethoven symphonies, dozens of complete cycles and hundreds of individual performances, however, tends to blur the distinctions between artists, and makes it more difficult to get noticed in this repertoire, unless, like Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), the conductor chooses to be wilfully perverse, damn the consequences.
As it happens, I had a busy few days last week reviewing the RNO and Pletnev (pictured at the top of this post) in performances of the Second and Fifth symphonies at the Festival of the Arts Boca, and while I did note some very eccentric conducting and said so on the ArtsPaper site, I loved the Pletnev perfomances of these works. I thought his interpretations were vivid, bold and big; he made excellent use of his huge orchestra, and while I didn’t agree with everything he did, I thought the power and the force of these well-worn pieces came out with fresh energy.
Hurwitz was talking about the Pletnev Beethoven cycle, which I haven’t heard, but judging by the work he did last week, I’d be eager to hear how he handles the series. One of the most interesting things about Beethoven is how durable he is no matter how inspired or indifferent the performance. His music, maybe because it’s so familiar and good readings of it are locked in our heads, seems to be able to withstand the weirdest of interpretations.
Weird doesn’t necessarily mean refreshingly radical. As I mentioned in still another Boca Fest review, the historically informed performance practice movement (Hurwitz calls it HIP) has done horrible things to the finale of the Beethoven Ninth. That movement remains one of the most bizarre, original such movements anyone ever wrote, but it can’t take the super-fast Beethoven metronome tempi. Itzhak Perlman’s version of the symphony was much more in line with the established tradition of conductors like Eugene Ormandy — the choral section beginning Seid umschlungen, Millionen, was quite slow and very broad, and that’s what the music demands, despite what marking Beethoven called for.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that even venerable works like the Fifth and Seventh can undergo readings that are widely divergent from received tradition and still work because of the force of the personality that has interpreted them that way. And if Pletnev’s interpretations last week were perverse, they nevertheless forced you to think about these pieces in a new way, and that made it even more worthwhile.
Finally, I want to applaud Continuum for doing this project, and Hurwitz for writing what so far is a very useful little exegesis. I also have a copy of Victor Lederer’s traversal of the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, and since today is Bach’s birthday, I should take a look at that sometime today and probably play a good recording of it.
Here’s a nice video of an organist named John Scott Whiteley playing the beautiful chorale Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ, on the historic organ in Luneburg where Bach lived from 1700 to 1703: