Tag Archives: Ludwig van Beethoven

New book series takes closer look at Western musical monuments



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:


Dinnerstein disc a winner, and so is Lasser piece


The New York-born pianist Simone Dinnerstein has been getting a lot of good press lately, and there are ample reasons for it.

Her Berlin concert album, released earlier this year, features the pianist in music by Bach and Beethoven,  as well as a new American piece, by Philip Lasser, based on a Bach chorale.

This, to my ears, is beautiful Bach playing of a very high order, limpid, energetic and deeply soulful. Her ornamentation is crisp and precise, and her counterpoint sounds natural rather than fussy.  She has a way of making a page of modest-looking Bach text, such as the French Suite No. 5 (BWV 816) she plays here,  come alive and fill the hall.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Bach performances, that of Tatiana Nikolayeva playing the Art of Fugue, in its inhabiting of the Bach sound world yet making it come across as intensely personal (the Sarabande of  the suite is a fine case in point).  I don’t find it surprising that Dinnerstein’s favorite composer is Bach, and it’s a pleasure to hear these works more frequently on piano programs. There’s no other single composer who can teach the interested musician so much about music, primarily because the lesson of Bach is the lesson of the importance of every single note.

The Beethoven is the final piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, and Dinnerstein brings to this task the same linear clarity as she does to the Bach. Beethoven became more interested in older counterpoint as he aged, and that focus is clear in her playing of the second movement arietta and variations. But the first movement is every bit as good, with a kind of springy power that works ideally for this bold, fascinating work from the composer’s last days.

But it’s the other piece on the program (there’s an encore of the 13th variation from Bach’s Goldberg set) that holds extra interest for me. It’s a set of a dozen variations on Nimm von uns, Herr, du Treuer Gott, from Bach’s Cantata 101, where it closes the work. Philip Lasser is a 45-year-old American composer who teaches at Juiilliard, and here he has written a first-class piece of contemporary music that respects its source in such a way that the variations grow organically from the chorale and create their own narrative structure.

lasserThis might sound like nothing particularly to get excited about, but it makes the difference between an interesting piece of music and a truly good piece of music. Any number of composers can go through the Riemenschneider collection of Bach chorales (this one is No. 292) and devise any number of creative things to do to it. But Lasser’s approach is to develop the variations naturally, so that they have their own dramatic arc.

Lasser’s voice is perhaps more noticeable in the approach than in any specific variation; the sixth variation, for instance, is a marvelous finger exercise that owes a debt to Rakhmaninov, as does the acrobatic 10th variation, with its aggressive chordal figures and extensive use of the piano’s registers. There’s something of the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses behind the whole work, too, perhaps not directly, but by key and the overall integrity of both composer’s approach.

Maybe the most personal of the variations is the ninth, which uses the first few notes of the chorale as a murmuring mood setter that gets interrupted, or cleansed, by a short melodic statement that serves as a lovely response to the murk of the opening. Lasser’s language, again, is quite conservative and indebted to late Romantic models, but this is a beautiful piece and holds its own admirably in titanic company.

The other interesting thing about the Lasser piece is that this composer is published by a company called Editions Rassel, a house with three composers on its roster and a mission statement that says it is devoting its energies to publishing composers who write in a tonal tradition. I like that idea, not because I’m opposed to atonality, but because it directs performers to a body of music that stands to reach contemporary audiences more immediately than more experimental pieces, and that could be a good way of stretching the boundaries of the repertory (the Rassel Website has plenty of MP3s on the site for interested listener).

Whether this or any other contemporary music lasts, of course, will be a judgment of history. But at least it can be said that Philip Lasser has added a fine new piece of piano music to the repetory, and he has in Simone Dinnerstein a most persuasive advocate.

Here’s a nice film excerpt of Dinnerstein playing Bach on YouTube: