He may be the first composer you ever heard of and he could be the last you hear as you leave this world. Ludwig van Beethoven – Louis to his friends – takes us through life like no other musician. We hear him before we know him – someone playing Für Elise or the Moonlight Sonata on a neighbour’s piano. At school, he gets a brief mention in Napoleon’s story. The ninth symphony gets played at state occasions, the Eroica at funerals, you can’t miss them. Beethoven is in the air when we fall in love, break our hearts, wrestle with major decisions. He walks us through working life, relationships, society, health, and he guides us to the very edge of darkness with late string quartets of such bottomless profundity that we marvel how a human mind could ever conceive of such things.

His is not a friendly face like Haydn’s nor a naughty grin like Mozart’s. He is serious, unsmiling, even a bit forbidding. But we trust him more than others because he always tells the truth.

None of his works is trivial or inessential. The earliest opus 1 trios for piano and strings contain stirrings of mighty concertos. When he attempts ‘light’ variations on themes by Mozart or Handel, he is not so much honouring his predecessors as unlocking their untapped potential. Everything he does has momentum. Beethoven is the ultimate progressive, believing that the world exists for us to improve. While his own circumstances were miserable – loveless, pain-stricken and frustratingly deaf – he retained to the last a shining faith in peace and understanding.

His dedication leaves us awestruck. Mozart spent his evenings playing billiards. Wagner wasted whole days shopping for expensive fabrics. Verdi liked a good cigar. Brahms drank beer. Tchaikovsky went to parties, Elgar to the races. Every great composer had some indulgence or other – except for Beethoven, who went to his desk every day with a determined tread, intending his next work to be an advance on the last. Some find his seriousness uncomfortable, others build academic careers on theories they construct from his building blocks. Politicians have harnessed Beethoven to all sorts of causes from Nazism to Leninism to European unionism, none with much foundation. Myself,  I look upon Beethoven’s music as one of the few constants in a turbulent life, a guarantee of stability in a sea of uncertainty. In distress and confusion, it is to Beethoven that I turn first.

So, in the 250th year of his birth, I have decided – in partnership with the streaming service Idagio which has almost all the recordings ever made –  to examine one Beethoven work every day for the next four months, an act of self-immersion in waters that run deep, in the hope of finding renewal and hope. One work every day, starting this weekend.

Here’s what we know about the man: from a small town in Germany, Louis headed to Vienna to observe the workings of power at close hand. He fell in and swiftly out of love with Napoleon, met Goethe without much impressions and followed his own instinct to produce one musical milestone after another until, at his death in 1827, he received the biggest funeral the city had ever seen. ‘Who are they burying?’ asked a visitor. ‘The commander-in-chief of the musicians,’ said an onlooker. Beethoven alive was too awkward for people to approach and appreciate. Loneliness infuses his work. Perhaps that is why is feels so personal, and so enduring.

Every Beethoven score has someone’s name on it, maybe yours. Every work adds something to our grasp of the human condition. Each of us has a Beethoven prescription. Mine is the violin concerto, a work that seldom fails to raise me from despair.

His entire output has been recorded many times over the last century, some works more than 100 times. It would be nice to believe that each work has an ideal interpreter, a definitive reading, but life’s not like that. There are so many ways to play Beethoven that I would never dream of making a single recommendation for, say, the Pastoral Symphony, the Hammerklavier piano sonata or the late string quartets. In the course of this odyssey, I shall offer various options rather than one solution.

My earliest concert experiences of Beethoven were with Otto Klemperer and Adrian Boult as conductors, Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Kempff at the piano, Yehudi Menuhin and Nathan Milstein as violinists and Pau Casals and Paul Tortelier on cello. Since my childhood I have heard three generations of musicians, each with a Beethoven of its moment. To measure what I hear today against past legends is to risk anachronistic distortion. What Fritz Kreisler did in the violin concerto was right for his time. What Anne-Sophie Mutter or Patricia Kopatchinskaya does is apt for ours.

My choices are conditioned by who, and where, I am. I suspect that is the same with most of us. In a straw poll I conducted among 20 musicians whose taste I trust, I found variations of choice that were dictated by generation and geography. Americans swear by George Szell in the symphonies, releases that are practically unknown in Europe. Germans vaunt Kempff, Kulenkampff and Schneiderhan in the chamber music. The French revere Cortot and Thibaud. Italians argue over Muti and Chailly as they might over Inter and AC Milan. Very few artists achieve universal approval in Beethoven. Furtwängler, perhaps; Gilels, Argerich, Perlman, maybe; and then the period instrument movement reveals a whole new catalogue of contenders from Harnoncourt to Hogwood. Who to choose? And how? I have asked a number of expert friends to help out with their choices, some quite unexpected, others simply wierd.


I decided against taking the chronological route, starting with opus 1 and ending with 135. It feels too predictable and Beethoven anyway did not always publish works in the order he wrote them, it can also be misleading. Instead, I shall follow my instinct, picking whichever Beethoven work feels right for a particular day. The Idagio streaming service has the whole of recorded Beethoven. Never before has so much Beethoven been available to so many people, and for so little cost.

Let’s go.


Norman Lebrecht


The great opera director has died, aged 84.

Dame Anne Evans:

Of all the directors I worked with – as Chrysothemis, Leonore in Fidelio and Bruennhilde in the Bayreuth Barenboim/Kupfer Ring cycle – Harry was the most thrilling and stimulating. He had the ability to recognise your hidden potential as singer and actor and use it to help you build a performance that otherwise you might never have imagined possible. I would have turned somersaults for him if he had asked me to. A few singers grumbled that he was allowed too much rehearsal time, but he knew just how to make use of it to the singers’ advantage. Harry was the last survivor of a group of fine East German-trained directors with whom I had the good fortune to sing: Herz, Friedrich, Berghaus, Kupfer. For me Harry was the greatest of them all. He was hoping to come to London in February to take part in a discussion about his Bayreuth Ring organised by the Wagner Society. Sadly he won’t be present, but he will be very much in the minds of all us there who worked with him and loved him.

Harmut Haenchen:

Harry Kupfer enabled me to leave the GDR.
After a political problem as chief conductor of the Mecklenburg State t=Theatre, I was no longer allowed to use my passport… the first opportunity was Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear. I went to Berlin to talk to Harry Kupfer about it. He knew me from Dresden as a conductor of classical and baroque music and told me in his wonderfully direct way that he couldn’t imagine me mastering such a work.

My argument that I had taken over his Parsifal production in Berlin in front of a Stasi-booked audience didn’t help, because he hadn’t heard it. He still took on the venture with me. This Lear became such an exciting production that in the dress rehearsal references to life in the GDR had to be quickly removed from the introduction. Nevertheless, a great success for Harry Kupfer and also for the conductor, who was invited to the Berliner Philharmoniker. Then to the Netherlands Opera for Elektra, which led to my appointment as general music director at Netherlands Opera and as chief conductor to the Netherlands Philharmonic and the Dutch Chamber Orchestra. This allowed me to leave the GDR. I was not only able to bring the Berlin Productions of Lear to Amsterdam, but also the premiere of Boris Godunov in the new house an der amstel together with Harry Kupfer.


The Editor of the Financial Times has inside track on how Carlos Ghosn jumped bail in Japan:

He’s not the first to do so.

The Soviet spy George Blake escaped Britain in 1966 inside a bass case.

Dashed useful, these basses.

He must have flown by private jet, since no airline would board a doublebass these days.

And what did they do with the doublebass itself – leave it on the tarmac?

More from the Mail:

Lebanese news channel MTV reported that a ‘paramilitary group’ had posed as musicians hired to perform at Ghosn’s home to smuggle him out under the noses of the Japanese authorities.

He was then flown to Beirut via Turkey.

MTV reported: ‘The band entered his home in Japan under the guise of a band for a Gregorian dinner, then returned and exited after the party’s logical time had passed.

Gregorian, as in chant?

More likely Georgian, as in Stalin.

Andris Nelsons has been talking in Vienna about his much-missed mentor:

‘I learned the trumpet, played in the opera orchestra in Riga, later conducted the odd performance. Mariss encouraged me to focus only on conducting. I learned so much from him. When I was faced with the choice of becoming chief conductor of the Riga Opera or Symphony Orchestra, he advised me to take up the opera first, later a symphony orchestra, because the other way rarely works.’

Mariss himself was never music director of an opera house and conducted opera very sparingly throughout his life.

He is so sorely missed.

Irina and Mariss Jansons with their protégé


The German Wagnerian director died yesterday at his home in Berlin. He was 84.

Concept provider for the Daniel Barenboim 1988 Ring at Bayreuth, Kupfer emerged from the Walter Felsenstein crucible at the Komische Oper in East Berlin and spent the formative part of his career under Communism. He was head of opera in Dresden from 1972 and of the Komische Oper from 1981.

Kupfer made his Bayreuth debut in 1984 with Flying Dutchman and went on to the international circuit.

He wrote the libretto for Penderecki’s opera The Black Mask and staged its 1986 premiere in Salzburg, and later in Santa Fe.

A realist among modernists, he was very much a singer’s director, working with artists individually and respectfully.

His singer wife Marianne predeceased him.

l-r: Domingo, Netrebko, Kupfer

UPDATE: What we owe to Harry Kupfer

The AP journalist Jocelyn Gecker who led the nameless hounding of Placido Domingo has written a year-end report, picked up by many US newspapers, in which she claims that her revelations have prompted sweeping changes in opera practice.

Among other self-pats on the back:

The Houston Grand Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Minnesota Opera and a few other companies have started hiring special consultants known as intimacy directors to help stage sexually charged scenes to ensure there is no inappropriate improvising.

Perryn Leech, Houston Grand Opera’s managing director, said it’s about staging sex scenes in “a more caring way.”

And: Since the Domingo allegations publicly surfaced, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera and a few other companies have held “bystander Intervention” training designed by Umezawa, who is trying to bring a see-something, say-something culture to the industry.

However: “Nobody with greater agency or greater stature is coming forward in a strong way – either to tell their own story or show support,” pianist and opera coach Kathleen Kelly said. “Where are the women who are helping to run companies and who are stars? They are not doing a damn thing. And it’s incredibly disappointing.”

Read the full report here.


Alena Wagner reports that her husband, Petr Wagner, died yesterday after a long illness.

Petr Wagner was a virtuoso viola da gamba player, a conductor and professor at Masaryk University.

Petr studied in London and The Hague. In 1998 he founded the Ensemble Tourbillon with which he toured and recorded extensively, specialising in the works of Couperin, Bach, Marais, Rebel, Purcell, Finger, Fischer and Handel.

Můj manžel, virtuos na violu da gamba, dirigent a pedagog Petr Wagner zemřel 30.12. 2019 po statečném boji s těžkou nemoci. Díky všem, kdo jste ho znali, za tichou vzpominku. / My husband, virtuoso of viola da gamba, conductor and pedagogue Petr Wagner died 30.12. 2019 after brave struggle with serious illness. Thanks everyone for silent memorial. Alena Wagner

Musicians and dancers at the Colon in Buenos Aires are staging nightly protests against low wages and job insecurity.

The theatre, supposedly the best in South America, has appalling labour relations.

These pictures have been sent to us by onlookers.


We have been notified of the death of Michael Grebanier, principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony since 1977.

Grebanier, who was 82, had not played for a whle due to ill health but remained on the active roster.

His wiFE, Sharon, has been a violinist in the orchestra since 1973.

SF Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin said in a Facebook post: ‘Michael’s playing was a model of elegance, beauty, and musicality. Colleague, friend, leader, ardent union supporter.’

Grebanier, a New Yorker, was a student of Leonard Rose at Curtis. Aged 19 he won the Walter Naumburg Competition. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra for four years, and at 25 became principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony for 14 years. With Garrick Ohlsson and ex-SF Symphony concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, Grebanier formed the FOG Trio.

He recorded the Prokofiev cello sonatas and Rachmaninov’s complete music for cello and piano by Rachmaninoff for Naxos.