Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 | Symphony Study No. 11 of 118

by Glenn on September 1, 2015

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
first performance: 1800

It seemed like it was time to listen to the Beethoven symphonies, all nine of which appear in Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. With some of the composers on Steinberg’s list, choosing a performance to listen to isn’t much of a choice for me—I have just one recording, so that’s the one I listen to.

With Beethoven I have a number of recordings to choose from, including a box set of the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by its legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. He actually recorded two (at least) complete sets of the Beethoven symphonies. I thought I would listen through his earlier set but then I remembered a rather acerbic remark someone made on a List-serv I subscribe to.

In a discussion of performance practice (the art of playing music like it might of sounded at the time it was created), he remarked “there is a high musical price to pay for what now passes for high level ‘professional’ music making. An example of this is the old story about how listening to Karajan’s Beethoven is like watching a gleaming new pink Cadillac about to run over a defenseless baby. One doesn’t know whether to admire the car or be aghast at the situation.”

Trying very hard to get that image out of my head, I thought I would save von Karajan for another occasion.

I could have picked a different conductor/orchestra for each of the symphonies but, instead, I decided to listen to a box set I picked up some time ago of John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. I think this experience with Beethoven will be perfectly lovely.

Although Mozart and Haydn (et al) wrote symphonies before Beethoven, Steinberg tells us that “our idea of ‘symphony,’ has been shaped for us overwhelmingly by the nine symphonies that Beethoven composed across a quarter of a century—eight of them in thirteen years.”

Beethoven’s First sounds so tame with all of the history that follows this music. You have to remind yourself that, for the time, this was fairly dissonant music. It comes two ways. First, in the opening you have this series of dominant seventh chords that are just begging to be resolved. (In fact, the first chord is a C7, which normally would indicate music that is in the key of F—an interesting thing to do in a symphony written in the key of C major.) And then Beethoven in the course of the music drifts far afield to remote keys before returning home. But after listening to Hartmann and Vaughan Williams and Walton, you don’t get quite that sense of how radical this music is.

Most of my thoughts about Beethoven’s First are about the performance rather than the music.

I heard restraint. Beethoven’s music has much more power in it than Haydn’s. It’s possible to bring out that power with a big orchestra including big brass. Gardiner’s band acknowledges a continuum. He’s aware that since this music was written in 1800, it doesn’t have to be played with the dynamic range of a Mahler symphony.

I heard a lightness. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is quite nimble. I was actually surprised how quickly they took the second movement. Again, they are not playing Beethoven’s slow movement like you would a Bruckner adagio.

This was beautifully done. I’m looking forward to this journey through Beethoven’s symphonic statement.

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[…] ☑ Symphony No. 1 | #11 | John Eliot Gardiner | Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique ☑ Symphony No. 2 | #12 | […]

by The Symphony Project « on 5 March 2016 at 7:59 am. #