Saturday, March 29, 2003


Perhaps my biggest musical confession is a studied agnosticism (bordering on complacency) towards Beethoven. Maybe it was something to do with my father's over-wrought devotion in this well trodden field of musical endeavour, but I found myself leaping straight from Bach and Handel to Bartok with no caution or inhibition. I've been filling in as well as venturing forward in the intervening years, but I have more work to do to get my 'classical period' repertoire up to scratch. Mind you, I'm pretty fond of the late Beethoven Quartets... but then sometimes they almost sound as if they are the early twentieth century Hungarian maestro's.

Which brings me back to the Symphonies. I've known for some time that I should visit them, and I realise just what a sturdy influence they have been on some of my musical heros, such as Tippett. But somehow I can never muster the enthusiasm. Until now. I have to hear the new Simon Rattle / Vienna Philharmonic live recordings. Rattle has done wonders already with the Berlin Philharmonic, and he's a strong artculator of contemporary music with a bold interpretative approach.

The indefatigable Norman Lebrecht sums up the situation in his recent (26 March 2003) review in the London Evening Standard. He ends up on the questioning side of admiration. But then he has just lost a bet with EMI about whether their leading conductor would hit the top of the classical charts again. He did, and a top hat (for the eating) has been promptly delivered to Lebrecht! Even so, Rattle, he writes:

"... made the Viennese set aside their time-hallowed scores and relearn the symphonies from a steam-cleaned scholarly edition prepared by the British conductor Jonathan Del Mar from the composer's manuscripts. The variances between the Beethoven we know all too well and the notes he actually wrote are legion, affecting not just literal discrepancies but the structural balance of key passages in the Third, Seventh and Ninth symphonies. Even a casual listener will notice atmospheric changes just before the "Freude" chorus in the Ninth. For the professors in the Philharmonic these exhumations, allied to Rattle's sparkling enthusiasm, elicited concert performances of, by most accounts, astonishing clarity and excitation." (c) N Lebrecht

A must, I think, even if the scrutiny of recorded sound can't quite avoid one or two flaws masked by the present energy of concert performance. So go for that 'luxury 5-CD set' now... and the full Lebrecht review is here.

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