Ludwig van Beethoven, born 220 years ago today, remains more lively than most composers now living. Theoretically, his music must have stopped growing and changing when he died in 1827, but it continues to generate surprises.
The most surprising Beethoven record of the year is Philips 426 487-2, on which the Canadian Brass, aided by colleagues from the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic, perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, "Egmont" Overture and "Wellington's Victory" in brilliant, specially commissioned new brass-and-percussion arrangements. "Wellington's Victory," which was originally devised for a sort of giant music box and describes a battle from the Napoleonic wars, predictably fits well into the brass medium, but so do the other two works, which were composed for full symphony orchestra. "How do you make a trumpet sound like an oboe?" asks trumpeter Ronald Romm in the program booklet. On the CD, he shows how. Note, particularly, the exquisitely played little oboe cadenza at measure 268 in the Fifth Symphony's first movement, where there remains a slight brass edge in the sound but the phrasing is wonderfully oboistic. This disc is as impressive for its pure musicianship as for its unusualness.
It is not, however, my favorite current recording of "Wellington's Victory"; that is the work of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on a disc (Philips 426 239-2) that also has a good if not earthshaking performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. What makes this "Wellington's Victory" unusual is its sound effects; not just the cannon and rifles that everybody uses but the sounds of a countryside before and after a battle: birds awakening, a rooster heralding the sunrise, a bugle sounding reveille, a dog barking in the distance, a cowbell tinkling and horses galloping past; later, a crow flying over the scene of carnage. I don't know whether Beethoven would have approved of these additions to his score, but Johann Nepomuk Maelzel would have. He was the one who invented the "panharmonicon," the gadget for which "Wellington's Victory" was composed, and gave Beethoven very detailed specs for the music. The birds, dog, etc. are very much in the spirit of the music.
Also in the (kaleidoscopically varied) spirit of the music is another Philips CD: pianist Alfred Brendel's recording of the great "Diabelli" Variations (Philips 426 232-2). Brendel gives each of the 33 variations in this masterpiece a special character, and he plays them with a sense of spontaneity that makes them sound like a dazzling series of improvisations.
If you have loved Beethoven's violin sonatas for a long time, it may take a while to get used to the new recording of the "Spring" and "Kreutzer" sonatas by violinist Evan Johnson and fortepianist Anthony Newman (Newport Classic NCD 60097), but the performance is worth the effort. It is done on historic instruments and in historic style, with gut strings on the violin, lowered pitch and very sparing use of vibrato. All this may sound strange the first time, but the ears soon adapt, and the sound and style have a special charm all their own -- not only the violin but also Newman's fortepiano, a modern replica of an 1803 Clementi. Listen to the opening of the slow movement of the "Spring" Sonata for a fair sample of the mellow sound that can be produced in this kind of performance. Like all Newport Classic CDs, by the way, this one is fully indexed, so that your player's readout can show you exactly where a recapitulation or coda begins.
Historic instruments are used with equally appealing results in a recording of the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Piano, Violin and Orchestra, Op. 56, that features pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, violinist Franzjosef Maier and cellist Anner Bylsma playing with the Collegium Aureum (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77063-2-RG). The sound is equally intriguing in the recording of symphonies 7 and 8 by Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century (Philips 426 846-2). Rhythms could be a little better-defined in the slow movement of No. 7, but the scherzo and the Eighth Symphony are a delight.
Beethoven's string quartets, once considered unplayable and incomprehensible, are now the cornerstone of the quartet repertoire, and complete or partial cycles exist in bewildering numbers. I have recently been impressed by the elegant complete cycle played by the Medici Quartet on Nimbus Records and the three Opus 59 ("Ruzumovsky") Quartets in the Vermeer Quartet's polished performance on a two-disc Teldec set, but for the late quartets I keep returning to the special power and warmth generated by the Guarneri Quartet in their cycle. The latest installment (Philips 422 388-2) has memorable performances of Quartets No. 11 and 15.
Two recordings of Beethoven's Mass in C, Op. 86, have appeared since his last birthday. This work suffers (quite rightly) in comparison with his Missa Solemnis but still stands out among Viennese masses of the classical era. The performance conducted by Robert Shaw (Telarc CD-80248) is sung with considerably more power and precision than the one conducted by Michel Corboz (Erato 2292-45461-2).
Reissues One of the earliest known stereophonic recordings is the "Emperor" Concerto performed by pianist Walter Gieseking with Arthur Rother conducting a radio orchestra, taped by German Radio in 1944 (Music and Arts CD 637; available from P.O. Box 771, Berkeley, Calif., 94701.) I recommend it not only because of its historic value but because it contains one of the finest performances of this work I have heard. Glenn Gould can be heard in the same concerto on the same label, with Karl Ancerl conducting a 1970 Canadian broadcast. The sound is not stereo or professional; the performance is good and relatively free of Gould's proverbial eccentricities, but not in the same league with Gieseking. The disc (Music and Arts CD 639) also has Gould performing the Op. 34 Variations and the "Ghost" Trio (with Alexander Schneider and Zara Nelsova) -- twice as much music as the Gieseking disc in terms of time elapsed -- but if I had to choose one I would choose Gieseking.
Notable for quality and quantity is a Gieseking disc from EMI (CDZ 7 62857 2) that contains the "Pathetique" Sonata, Op. 13; the two of Op. 14 and the two of Op. 27 (including the famous "Moonlight") in sensitive, superbly styled performances. There are many good contemporary performances on CD, including those of O'Conor on Telarc, Goode on Nonesuch and Gelber on Denon, any of which are more than satisfactory, but I find myself coming back to Gieseking again and again. Comparing his "Moonlight" with that of Horowitz (RCA 60375-2-RG, with the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata") is like comparing poetry with prose. Horowitz, who was so superbly attuned to Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, seemed to see nothing but the notes when he sat down to play Beethoven.
Finally, my favorite Beethoven reissue on this birthday is his opera "Fidelio" as conducted by Otto Klemperer with a cast that includes Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry and Gottlob Frick (Angel CDMB-69324, two CDs with libretto). There are several good recordings of this best-loved and most painfully gestated of Beethoven's works, but Klemperer catches its seriousness and idealism in a way that I find most convincing.
Now Playing The Folger Consort will have a new (nonseasonal) CD ready for its many admirers when it begins its Christmas concert series Tuesday. Titled "Showers of Harmonie" and issued on the Folger Library's own Bard label, the disc is devoted to dances and songs of Renaissance England. Tenor Mark Bleeke sings with distinction in repertoire that ranges from Campion's playfully erotic "It fell on a summer's day" and Weelkes' colorful "The cries of London" to the melancholy songs of John Dowland (notably "Flow My Tears," one of the most intensely emotional songs in the English language). The instrumental selections are enriched by the presence of several guest artists and by the artful recorder playing of Scott Reiss. Also well worth repeated hearing (and a good Christmas gift for the right kind of taste) is the consort's exquisite "A Medieval Tapestry" issued on the Bard label earlier this year.