The Beethoven Revolution

by Glenn on May 15, 2016

A recent addition to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall features a tour performance of Beethoven’s First and Ninth Symphonies. The BPO with their conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, were in Taipei.

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The BPO are featuring the Beethoven symphonies in their home season and on their various tours this year. They’ve performed a five-night marathon of all nine symphonies in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and New York.

For this concert in Taipei, the BPO presented the bookends of Beethoven’s symphonic output. When presented this way, you hear how revolutionary Beethoven was. It’s extraordinary how far he takes the symphonic form from 1797 (No. 1) to 1824 (No. 9).

The First Symphony is an enhanced Haydn symphony.

The Ninth is about making all things possible—for starters: orchestra size, performance length, harmonic and rhythmic intensity, and the inclusion of voice and text (I’ve tried to document the ways Beethoven was revolutionary here.)

In terms of performance quality, I think the First here outshines the Ninth. The transparency, urgency, and energy of the Berlin Philharmonic is striking.

In the Ninth, however, Mr. Rattle takes the corners pretty fast. The players are plenty virtuosic, but at times it feels like the playing of some extremely fast tempos, particularly in the second and last movements, makes things a little rough around the edges, particularly in transitions. The BPO is a high-end Porsche, but even when a performance automobile hits some gravel around the turns we slip ever-so-slightly. Is Mr. Rattle pushing to keep things fresh, avoiding the stagnancy that can creep in from predictability?

I didn’t hear this concert live. It would be fascinating to hear how much patching went on before this performance was included in the Digital Concert Hall.

I love how the Berlin Philharmonic changes their sitting formation for various kinds of music. Here, the violins are divided left and right.