Friday 24 February 2017

Classical... Beethoven's genius: Something for us all

George Hamilton


Beethoven is a colossus. In any snapshot of the broad landscape that we know as classical music, his achievements stand out, a kind of artistic Everest, giving him a prominence that extends way beyond his chosen field of artistic endeavour. Some weeks ago in this space, we were considering the part he played in pushing back the boundaries, ushering in what became known as the Romantic era. But he demands a chapter of his own.

I must confess to a feeling of intimidation when first confronted with Beethoven. It was so much easier to get a handle on the bright counterpoint of Bach, the sheer musicality of Mozart.

Beethoven seemed dense, difficult to approach, a bit like trying to read the vast tome that is Tolstoy's War and Peace, not only in the original Russian, but through the medium of the Cyrillic script in which it first appeared.

As is so often the case, the key to unlocking the secrets of Beethoven, the pathway to discovering the magnificence of his music, was the realisation that the mystery had already been solved, long since.

Hadn't I taken endless pleasure from mastering, then performing the piano piece Für Elise, without giving a second thought as to who had written it? A mere Bagatelle, as Beethoven called it, a little number in honour of the girlfriend he lost. Didn't I delight in the Ode to Joy, without fully appreciating that this was the culminating glory of his canon of symphonies?

It was like pushing an open door. The more I looked, the more I liked what I heard. And the more deeply I delved, the more I came to realise that this wasn't some vast collection demanding academic application, it was open on all sides, for the enjoyment of each and everyone.

The range of his output is astonishing, the more so when you remember that increasing deafness afflicted him from his mid-20s, and some of his greatest music was composed when his hearing would have been seriously impaired if not absent altogether.

The evocative elegance of the piano sonata we know as the Moonlight, and the inspirational splendour of the 'Ninth Symphony' that reaches its climax with the aforementioned Ode to Joy are just two examples of Beethoven's creativity under such physical duress.

That struggle undoubtedly informed much of his music. That there is such energy is quite remarkable. It was this dynamism, if you like, that so impressed his contemporaries, to the extent that he became something of a hero, a reference point for others who would follow, from Mendelssohn in Germany, via Dvorák in Bohemia, to Tchaikovsky in Russia. It might be easier, in fact, to list those who weren't influenced by Beethoven.

He wrote for the concert hall, he wrote for the salon, there were songs and dances, but only one opera, Fidelio. You can, more or less, pick your speciality, and you'll discover that Beethoven has been there. It really is up to you where to join in with this German genius.

There's such a wealth of material, it's impossible to recommend a recording that encompasses it all. Better to devote yourself to a specific area. Riccardo Chailly's cycle of the Nine Symphonies with the Gewandhausorchester of Leipzig (Decca 0289 478 3492) is just magnificent. Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have the five piano concertos together on an album called The Beethoven Journey (Sony Classical 305887). Naxos do offer a taster menu - The Best of Beethoven (8.556651) - 10 sumptuous tracks to whet your appetite.

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