June 13, 2009

Recently I took on a project of listening to all of Beethoven’s symphonies. Growing up, I was always more interested in Bach, but a couple things that came up more recently had gotten me into the idea. First, I got a 120G iPod. This gave me the space to load on my dad’s 5 CD set of George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra recordings of the symphonies.

The real spark was from a couple years ago. My brother was a roadie (if that’s what they’re called, for orchestras) for the Windsor orchestra while he was at school, and he told a story about some musicians discussing the best ever orchestral piece. Basically, they all agreed it was Beethoven. They just couldn’t decide whether it was the 5th or the 9th.

So I decided to figure it out for myself. And it was an amazing project! There’s such a range of themes and emotions, and yet they really provide a very unified listening experience. These particular recordings, too, are wonderful. Everyone’s heard at least some of these pieces over and over, and yet, Szell’s treatment of them is so sensitive and subtle that they’re exciting and brilliant again.

One of the things listening to the symphonies reinforced for me was how much I love…instruments. I mean, the different “voices” that make up the orchestra. Beethoven does a lot using the horn and the oboe, both of which I love. I played the horn, and, a couple times, the timpani, in high school, and so they make me particularly happy. And STRINGS! Most of my musical experiences (Shaw musicals, choral and instrumental concerts) aren’t on a scale that involves strings…but that’s what makes a really fascinating and active piece of music…

1 & 2 were wonderful, but not especially exciting. 3 has broad scope, a lot of variety, and a very good ending.

The 4th is somber…the most somber opening phrases of any…but wonderful modulation from minor to major and back, within phrases and within the movement. I love that in any music, from this to choral to pop music. 4.1 is “quoted” in lots of other pieces. 4.3 sounded like the end of a symphony, not a movement.

Listening to 4 got me thinking: why do we know the ones we know (5, 6, 9), and not know the others? They’re all great, but some of the lesser known ones are better!

5 made me think about how great these particular recordings are…even with the (perhaps) best known symphonic phrases of all time, Szell’s handling of them is so much more subtle that they’re new and interesting again…light strings, quick horns…

And that the opening of 5.2 would make sweet entrance music if you were a megalomaniac. Or 5.3…especially a megalomaniac who loved F Horns…hmmm….

Then I started thinking each one I listened to is the best…But I do think 5 best shows the composer’s and conductor’s understanding of those instrumental voices I was talking about.

6…more complex than it seems…but definitely the most pleasant…pastoral, indeed. Loved the way horns and strings play with each other.  6.3  is especially good.

7.1 could have been my favourite single movement of the whole oeuvre. The contrast between 7.1 and 7.2 is amazing! I had heard both of these movements a lot, but never known they went together. (7.2 is the piece from Mr. Holland’s Opus, where he cries at Beethoven and his son being deaf; but this recording is quicker, and much more effective/less drab). The interplay between the strings and the horns is wonderful.

7’s really, really good.

8. Meh. Comparatively.

9 is the most serious…but still has some lightness, especially in the 2nd movement (woodwinds up against timpani). The 2nd movement has a fantastic horn part, and I found it echoed 6, quite a bit. I love the quick endings, like 9.2. Not drawn-out, but still very effective.

9.4: Chorale! I love how this movement builds! Starting with the low strings, to trumpets and voices. This movement is almost twice as long as the other closing movements, and it’s worth every second. But I’m not sure that the rest of the 9th suits it…

So I think the 7th was my favourite…the others are brilliant pieces of music, but…somehow…less interesting?


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