Welcome to the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven project

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

https://app.idagio.com/discover

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  • John Borstlap says:

    Touching and heartfelt tribute…. thank you Norman. Totally agreeing with this assessment.

    In my student days, I hated the bourgeois genius cult around B and the instructions heard from every corner that ‘thou shalst kneel’, while exploring the ‘so much more interesting’ exotisms of Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schoenberg and Berg. In comparison, B’s harmonies and themes seemed boring and trivial. Later-on the very same sounds opened doors to an inner realm that all that other ‘more interesting’ music did not, they had other subjects. Music is psychology in sound, and what B did with relatively ‘simple’ material is psychological magic. In terms of craft, invention, and structure his works will always be an infinite source of learning and stimulation, but especially the penetrating psychology of the works will remain a touch stone of musical and spiritual caliber.

    In what poor time we live that such kind of music is no longer written, and that ‘the best’ Vienna seem to be able to produce is the Klangkunst of Ms Olga:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYeP0inBQ0M

    By the way, Wagner never spent time on choosing his fabrics since he delegated this job to the women in his environment, and later in Bayreuth he had a seamstress in Vienna who secretly sent him the fabrics, being instructed from afar by extensive letters with detailed descriptions.

  • John Dalkas says:

    Thank you, Norman, for this stunningly eloquent, economical and loving portrait of Beethoven the man, of what made him unique, and why his music moves us. A treasure to read where you also unabashedly reveal to us the depth of your passion for music and why you have made it your life’s calling. Without the latter you couldn’t have written the former, which gives voice to thoughts and feelings we might not otherwise articulate, the art of great writing.

    We have much to be thankful for in your work as a new decade begins.

  • fflambeau says:

    “Every great composer had some indulgence or other – except for Beethoven, who went to his desk every day with a determined tread…”

    Actually, Beethoven had at least one hobby: hikes and walks in nature. It is reflected in most of his music.

    Let’s not make someone inhumane who was very human.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    I can hardly wait!

  • Happy New Year! A great idea. One small question: what Beethoven do the French associate with Cortot? To my knowledge there is hardly anything by him – a couple of trios, one set of cello variations, some sonata excerpts…

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I’m puzzled by that first visual, the cover for the C minor concerto. Eschenbach recorded it with the LPO, Henze conducting, but the London Symphony Orchestra??!

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Just like after a great concert one feels like shouting “Bravo”! Such is my reaction to this extremely well written text, the result of a deep understanding of and respect for maybe the most influential creator in the history of music. “Chapeau”, Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Aaron Herschel says:

    According to Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s first biographer, Beethoven was an antisemite ( hardly surprising given that he was a German ).
    Why is this not mentioned ?
    A composer with such a mindset has no place in an enlightenend society.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Schindler was entirely untrustworthy, he deleted passages in the conversation books, wrote his own inventions into them, changed stories, misinterpreted things, etc. etc. According to latest research, there is no evidence that Beethoven was antisemitic. There are occasional slurs agains Italians and Jews in his letters, but the author of the texts of the song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ is the Jewish Alois Jeiteles. B’s later publisher was the Jewish Schlesinger. And the 6th movement of string quartet opus 131 has a melody very close to the Kol Nidre. B had Jewish friends and admirers. The negative comments about Jews and Italians made in passing, are the usual suspicions common at the time, and do not carry holocaustic overtones; they are comparable with the irritated remarks made by locals about foreign tourists passing-by with their rambling suitcases on wheels.

      As for the enlightened society: this is still in the making, and the process has its ups and downs, to put it mildly.

    • Allen says:

      “hardly surprising given that he was a German”

      Attacking one form of prejudice by introducing another.

      Happy New Year.

    • Alan says:

      Early contender for dumbest comment of the year!

    • klavierBWV988 says:

      I would rather call it anti-Judaism, which was quite widespread all over the Europe at that time. The American historian David Nirenberg wrote an intersting essay about the difference between the two concepts.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        I am not sure what the difference is, but imagine it must be something to do with religion rather than ethnicity.

        Of course, conceiving of the Jews (or any other group) in ethnic/biological terms can only come about after the middle of the 19th century. Hence Beethoven could not have been anti-semitic in the late 19th/early 20th century sense of the term.

    • Stuart says:

      An oddly negative way to start the new year. It was a fine well articulated post by Norman, and this is your response? Based on your comment you seem to know little about what constitutes an enlightened society. I have not always seen eye to eye with the comments from John Borstlap, but read his two longer replies to this post (one of them a reply to your prejudiced comment) as they are models of how to positively interact with this blog. If all you are trying to do is get the largest number of thumbs downs to your nasty posts, you have started the new year well. Not much of an accomplishment.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      What complete and utter rubbish. You are a mono-obsessive. Give this site a rest.

    • The Seeker says:

      Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), a practicing Jew, was one of Beethoven’s most important friends in his later years. He even entrusted him with the preparation of the piano score of his opera Fidelio. Get your facts straight before slandering one of music’s undisputed giants.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    I’ve been a regular reader of SD for years and this tribute is certainly the best thing I’ve read here. Really looking forward to this project and happy new year to all !

    • Ross Amico says:

      It is refreshing, More of this, please, and less tabloid. Tabloid makes everything feel so… nasty. Happy New Year, everyone.

  • piano lover says:

    A very good idea M.Lebrecht.
    I will invite myself(sorry) saying my first encounter with Beethoven was his fith symphony then sang by a modern group of the 1960s.My dad showed me the real,music…conducted by Eugen Jochum.Since then..Beethoven was thus my first musical discovery with the “great” music.
    Thanks for letting me write about this.
    I will follow your examination with enthusiasm.

  • Robert Roy says:

    A very noble project, Mr. Lebrecht.

    One tiny point. I would argue that George Szell’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle is very well known in Europe.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      Add to that: not every American regards it highly, either! For my taste, the best set ever made in the US from that era remains Walter/CSO. The best European set of that vintage: Leibowitz with the Royal Phil.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Carl Schuricht’s set with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra is of this vintage as well.
        It has remained after all these years one of my favorite sets.
        “The best”? One man’s drink is another man’s poison.

  • Paul Randall says:

    I agree that Beethoven was a key figure in the history of Western art. However, I’m not sure he was even the greatest composer in the town – when he was young, Mozart was around and in his later years, Schubert lived just down the road. Discuss.

    • Stuart says:

      Not sure that “greatest composer in the town” is a useful concept. I love Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and don’t need the comparisons. They were all great and my appreciation of their music isn’t enhanced by pitting one against the rest. All excelled in piano sonatas, string quartets and symphonies. Mozart and Beethoven wrote great piano concertos. Mozart blows the other two away on opera. Why choose just one to follow?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Beethoven, however, had a far greater influence on music history than anyone else. It is because of Beethoven that we have full-time orchestras playing music for the past (19th century orchestral music was only written so that these orchestras had something extra to play).

  • geoff says:

    It was Otto Klemperer too that introduced me to Beethoven, when i went to the Royal Festival hall in the 1950s, this was before his heart attack that made him so fragile. He did the piano concertos with Arrau, still stuck in my brain after all these years.

  • Escamillo says:

    Beethoven was a man with faults and foibles like any other, and he doesn’t need romanticising. His genius was for musical composition and, beyond question, his serious works were sublime and inspirational. But his nephew Karl would have had a very different view of his uncle’s personality.

    Much is made of Beethoven’s supposedly lofty reasons for removing Napoleon’s name from the dedication page of the Eroica. However, in 1809, six years after the Eroica’s composition and four years after its first performance, Beethoven was seriously toying with the idea of moving to Paris, and he even asked the Baron de Tremont whether, if he did move, the Emperor might summon him to a meeting. The clear implication, the Baron recorded, was that Beethoven would have been flattered by any mark of distinction from Napoleon. He also seriously considered dedicating the Mass in C, Opus 86 to Napoleon and recorded this in a notebook of 1810. In the end he dedicated both works to local Vienese patrons. Prince Lobkowitz paid 400 ducats for the Eroica dedication. Also in 1809, Beethoven accepted an invitaton from Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, to become his court composer for 600 gold ducats a year, until three Austrian princes made a better financial offer to persuade him to remain in Vienna. Vienna fell to Napoleon’s armies in May 1809.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It should not be forgotten that, even for Beethoven, Vienna was not a truly ‘ideal’ place. He often complained about the superficial tastes of the Viennese, and he was bitter about the relative ‘flop’ of his one opera. Also, he had to organise his own premieres and that must have been quite an ordeal, management talents were not his.

  • Pedro says:

    I first heard a Beethoven LP before I was ten. It was the Emperor concerto by Gieseking ( my father’s favourite pianist ) and Karajan. When I was 13, I heard live an all-Beethoven recital by Serkin, ending with an unforgettable Appassionata. A few months later, Arrau did the Emperor Concerto with a third-rate orchestra and conductor but I still remember his superb playing as if it was yesterday. Then followed Solti and the Orchestre de Paris in the Seventh, too brutal for my taste. Finally, Maazel and the Philharmonia came to my then provincial capital for an excellen Missa Solemnis. Meanwhile, Gilels and Annie Fischer included Beethoven sonatas in their recitals. Not a bad start in 1973/74. My mother took me to a Karajan/BPO Beethoven fifth when I was 9 but I don’t remember anything. J had to wait another 20 years to hear it live in Berlin.

    • Ilana Wallach says:

      Also the Gieseking Emperor for me, 8 or 9 years old. I was a little ballerina at the time, and I choreographed a whole ballet to it – or maybe just the 3rd movement? – in our little suburban living room. Somehow never kicked over any lamps or other valuables… Never became a grown-up ballerina, but that piece still sits deepest in my musical soul.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    My first Beethoven, as I’m sure was the case with many others of a certain age, was the Fifth Symphony with Bernstein.
    We saw him brilliantly present the work on the “Young Peoples’ Concerts” on TV then we went out and bought the record.
    I still have my original mono LP.

  • David Drasin says:

    I don’t think much of his op. 91, but this essay beautifully captures in better words than I about how total a musical experience Beethoven gave. He could take the most trivial melodies and never fail to produce gold. There are composers who come close to him in some categories, but his quartets, piano sonatas and symphonies still over an overwhelming oeuvre. Thanks again, can for a good 2020

  • Nijinsky says:

    And since there’s so much talk about Beethoven’s house keeping, and whether the tree was involved, which probably still outside dwelt, although it might have had a few battles with the house, itself.

    Why is there no clear record on how he picked his nose?

    1) Did he gobble down what he could extract?
    2) Did he go quietly in a corner and indulge while no one was watching.
    3) Did he flick the findings around, and if he did, did he do that in:
    a) a discreet manner
    b) an indiscreet manner
    c) a very arrogant manner
    d) slightly arrogant but still considerate
    e) violently and is known to have smothered a few ants when in the mood.
    f) very quietly placing them down wherever appropriate like one does with a dear baby.
    g) first jab whatever available finger there was in like a lobotomy and then scrape an incredible amount out.
    h) did he wait till he was thoroughly detested with the feeble jokes people were making and then use his boogers a weapons against them?

    hmm?

    • John Borstlap says:

      At least it is known that B had a custom of spitting through windows into the street – in summer time, I assume. At one occasion he spit into a mirror, thinking it was a window. It is known that he was remarkably clumsy, in physical terms, broke chairs, objects, dropping things, cutting himself while shaving, etc. etc. (I’m not making this up). All of this is, of course, hotly debated in musicological circles, especially since Dr Susan McClaron extended the field of reasearch into the gender test territory. The nose picking subject has to wait until some gender-identity aspect can be detected.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Argerich “universal approval” in Beethoven????

  • Mr. Nice Guy says:

    Spot on. My first intro to classical music was a recording of the sixth symphony with Bernstein given to me for my sixteenth birthday. It sounded like Greek to me, but something pulled me to keep listening over and over, and then it clicked! I once asked my dad who his favorite composer was. He said, “I can’t say Beethoven; Beethoven is like the earth, it’s just there always!” And, like you, the piece that always calmed him was the violin concerto (He liked Milstein). But Beethoven wasn’t all work and no play. I think it’s his Olympian scope (unique to him) that lends a gravitas to his life and work, even if he wouldn’t have seen it that way.

  • Ilana Wallach says:

    I keep hitting the link for your Beethoven series on Idagio, but I don’t see anything with your name on it. What should I be looking for?

    • Yikes, what happened? Did your comment awaken folks to the realization that they weren’t really interacting with the Idagio/Lebrecht project and just slathering on their customary babble? Be consoled. Though there doesn’t seem to be any mention of Norman – at all – among those curating playlists at the Idagio site (even a Lebrecht search comes up empty), you can penetrate deeper if you click on the links embedded within Norman’s daily recommendations. Today I clicked on a link to the Jansons 8th and was rewarded with a full minute of each movement! Some Slipped Disc fans, however, might not find that satisfying.

  • joe says:

    Please stop shilling for IDAGIO. I know you need the money to keep being online. But this has become so smelly.

  • Carlos says:

    With all due respect to Emil Gilels and Martha Argerich – who are both wonderful artists – they are not true Beethovenians and it’s nonsense to claim that they “achieve universal approval” in this music. No one has ever surpassed the great Artur Schnabel in interpreting Beethoven, nor will anyone surpass him in the future. If anyone achieves “universal approval” in Beethoven, it’s Schnabel.

  • Allan Leicht says:

    Just catching up to this inspired idea, your introduction, Norman, is rhapsodic, and invokes in its beautiful simplicity Beethoven’s lifelong pursuit of truth and beauty in in the simple. The last piano sonatas are the seventh heaven of simplicity. Beyond bravo. Thank you.

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