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My Best Beethoven

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

A selection of my personal preferred recordings.

Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 for cello and piano - Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Baremboim (Warner Classics)

32 Variations in C minor, Wo. 80 for piano - Glenn Gould (Sony Classics)

Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 for piano and orchestra - Martha Argerich and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra cond. Claudio Abbabo (Deutsche Grammophon)

Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 for piano and orchestra - Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classics)

Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67 - Ensemble Modern cond. Péter Eötvös (BMC Records)

Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 for piano - Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

I personally cannot recall a piece of Beethoven's music for which I have not felt some kind of deep awe and utter reverence. Of course given his prodigious output, some of his music is less "memorable" than the more famous and revered icons of the concert and broadcast world we all know so well, but I do not think any of his music suffers from a lack of "complete" musicality as does, say, the juvenilia of the boy wonder Mozart or the staidness of the mature Mendelssohn or the tragic insanity which afflicted Schumann before his demise. Instead, I always get the sense that Beethoven arrived on the music scene with a fully formed and highly original style which only proceeded to further scale the heights of musical inventiveness and ingenuity as the years went by. We must also appreciate that these were not years of easy success and the prosperity afforded someone basking in universal acclaim: like his contemporaries, Beethoven suffered his fair share of public struggle and personal hell. Of course it is now a cliche to mention his deafness, but it does nonetheless serve as the ultimate allegory for triumph over adversity. A musician and composer going deaf - to whatever degree now historically contested - is as cruel a fate as a painter losing his sight or a great actor being struck entirely mute and yet far from diminishing his ability, deafness only seemed to spur Beethoven on to even greater creative heights. I admit that part of the allure of Beethoven for me comes from appreciating the stubborn determination which festered within him. As this ironic tragedy struck, there was no option for him not to continue composing, just as for us mere mortals there is no option not to continue to breathe: the act itself is virtually mechanical.

The more you listen to a wider and comprehensive range of his music, the more you realise that even the simplest movement or minuet or miniature possesses those signature Beethovian qualities: instantly unique, utterly driven, intensely personal, intrinsically organic. These qualities are then cross-pollinated with Beethoven's Teutonic fury, his enlightened delicacy, his tetchy temperament, his complicated passions, often his reach for the truly transcendental. Trying to describe music in words and phrases is hopelessly limiting, but what one can express is the sensation or the feelings that truly great music can rouse within the human psyche. Unlike his court-commissioned and public-centered compatriots - Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt - you are never left with the impression that Beethoven held anything of himself back in order to please others or play the proletarian crowd; like his poet countryman Goethe, there is the suspicion that Beethoven left everything of himself on the stave and didn't deem to care who knew it. There was rarely anything very measured, politic or calculating in Beethoven. Consequently he was always doomed to be ahead of his time in terms of taste and invention: mark the genre-busting temerity of the Hammerklavier sonata or the stylistic audacity of the fourth piano concerto. The Beethoven mentality was seemingly to enter into the act of composition as variously an act of bravado arrogance, of desperate self-affirmation, of spiritual penitence. Sometimes I think it might have also been as a flagrant declaration of passion, as an atonement for the wrongs and insults he volleyed at people, and sometimes as a touch of self-flagellation. In Beethoven we have a totality of mind and soul. In this, the 250th year of his birth, his naked honesty and breathtaking ability to document and narrate the full spectrum of the human condition through music has never been more apparent or relevant. Like Shakespeare, Beethoven - an unlikely candidate for humanism himself if ever there was one - knew how to capture those indomitable qualities of human expression which are primal, antique, persistent, omnipotent and universal.

For this reason, of the several and varied pieces in the Beethoven repertoire I often listen to, there seem to be a few which I am drawn to time and again. People come to Beethoven for different reasons, just as one stands before a painting by Titian or a sculpture by Michelangelo and solicits from the work a different and differing response. Some artists allow you to project meaning onto their work while others supply that meaning for you. Or rather with some artists there is a malleable quality which proliferates meaning, which is generous to interpretation, which is resistant to definitiveness. It is an interesting personal revelation to me to cast my mind back and realise how my own personality has grown and developed in concordance with my listening and loving Beethoven since I was a youngster. When I was a boy I favoured the Mozartian assurances of harmonic gentility, the engaging playfulness and the sense of structured safety over the more brutal and unrelenting fervour of the Beethovian symphonic onslaught: I could not really grasp or penetrate the dense fury of his sound. But as an adolescent, Beethoven was the perfect partner in crime in fashioning a sense of skin-shedding inhibition, sly rebelliousness and a desire to break free of one's confines to engage with the fullness of a crude and thrumming world: just look at the inspired choice of the raging scherzo from the 9th symphony in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange as the perfect accompaniment to teenage indifference and malice. As a young adult, it was Beethoven's chamber music that I had the greatest affinity for: the violin and cello sonatas, the trios, the quartets, the solo piano music. Somehow their breadth and idiomatic inventiveness seemed the perfect condiment to my yearning intellectual curiosity, while in more recent years it has been that disparate spiritual brotherhood across all his music which has sustained and nourished me. In lonely and uncertain times, Beethoven can serve as the ultimate bedrock: the use of the Ode to Joy theme alone is ubiquitous with stability, unity, fortification, not to mention the Choral Fantasia and the finales to the fifth symphony and the Emperor concerto.

To pick out six single pieces and within those six pieces six individual recordings must ostensibly seem like the very definition of petty pickiness and obdurate redundancy. Just recordings the the 32 piano sonatas alone have produced several vintage crops. The list of artists to record some or all of them is a veritable "who's who" of the greatest pianists in living memory: Argerich, Attau, Ashkenazy, Backhaus, Barremboim, Biss, Brendel, Fischer, Gould, Giles, Gulda, Horowitz, Kempff, Kissin, Kovacevich, Leonskaja, Levit, Pollini, Richter, Schnabel, Schiff, Serkin, Wang. Similarly, the list of the great maestros who have waved their batons over the scores of the nine titanic symphonies is likewise indicative: to begin to name them would constitute an exercise in frivolity. How does one therefore possibly distinguish one great rendition of the sublime Op. 111 from another? Who's recording of the mighty ninth symphony is the best? Suffice to say, this small and painfully limited survey will need to be the very embodiment of furious subjectivity.

At some level, a choice of recordings from such a wide range comes down to a bizarre hybrid of personalities: Beethoven's, the performers and mine. For this reason, there is something quite visceral and revealing about the live recordings of the five cello sonatas which the married duo Daniel Baremboim and Jacqueline du Pré undertook. A really fine pianist he surely is, but I have never really warmed to Baremboim as a soloist. As a conductor he is one of the best and here, in duet playing, he is sensitive and articulate and very much in synch with his cellist wife. It may sound obvious, but there is abundant chemistry between the pair. The real magic in these recordings happens almost at an "extramusical" level: this is the equivalent of dropping into the Baremboim-du Pré household one balmy summer evening and observing a delicate and at times fraught conversation take place between husband and wife. Such is the textuality of Beethoven's duo writing that the piano is never subservient to the cello: the two instruments dive in and out of one another's expressions and opinions, picking up one another's threads, adding extra detail, sometimes contradicting one another, often confessing outright ardour, sometimes disdain. If you listen to the timbre of the Baremboim- du Pré recordings, there are touching instances where they sigh and breathe between notes or phrases or make odd little incidental noises which are normally erased by an engineer in a studio recording. Far from detracting from the "purity" of the end result, these incidental inclusions add dimension and texture to the playing: they cement the energy of live performance, they accentuate the domestic pragmatism of music-making, they add the intimate quality of the salon or the chamber room. Du Pré was always a slightly clumsy cellist (and this comment is not meant to project onto her later tragic diagnosis of multiple sclerosis) in that she sometimes knocked her bow against the cello's wood or music stand, but this just makes the recordings all the more endearing. She used to sway about a great deal, too; an aspect to her perfomativity which, although unorthodox, nonetheless crafted such distinctive resonance and rhythmic acuity. Her cello sounded at times a bit gruff, at others somewhat shrill but the music was always true and honest and very genuine.

For this very reason, I have always been immensely taken with Glenn Gould's Beethoven playing just as I am with his more synonymous Bach. The 32 Variations are a delight from start to finish. They demand an almost flippant style of playing and more often they reward pianistic dismissiveness rather than astute concentration. When played for serenity, grace and fluidity, I think they lose Beethoven's somewhat sardonic intention. Luckily Gould takes a decidedly combative and demonstrative line of attack into the variations. He signals his intention to play them for their bluster and bullying tonality and the result is a secret joy to behold: we all like to revel in the antics of the extrovert, the rebel, the mischief-maker. There is something about the visual image of Gould's signature playing posture and idiosyncratic style - uncomfortably sitting somewhat below the keys and leering up over them - which lends itself to this piece. At times you can hear him singing along with the more melodious strains while the coda is true perfection itself: for all the antics which preceded it, the last variation reaches for a sudden sense of the serious and the responsible and the descending octaves are played with a special gravity well earned now by Gould's earlier jocularity: as if the bullying boy has at last learnt his lesson and now shows genuine contrition for his misdeeds.

The two middle piano concertos of Beethoven's five are my sure-fire favourites: the third being a riotous heart-on-sleeve extravaganza balanced by a middle movement of wonder and grace, while the fourth is remarkably subversive and, like Beethoven at his best, rather genre-defining. Martha Argerich's ability to hone in on the specifics of the Beethovian sensibility in her rendition of the third C-minor concerto is revelatory. As usual with a pianist of her unsurpassed skill, her decision to notch up the tempo of the outer movements just a tiny bit is inspired: the true colour of Beethoven at his most engaged, upbeat and affirmative is brought to the fore without sacrificing a second of detail or precision. Argerich can differentiate a single note and imbue it with such startling attention or sudden change in tone that her playing brings out the full depth of the piece in a way other pianists can't quite muster, although Mitsuko Uchida comes close in her recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, as does the legendary Rudolf Serkin recording with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. In the fourth concerto, Leif Ove Andsnes' ability to create such cohesion and synchronicity between orchestra and soloist is what I find so remarkable. It is a more restrained and delicate solo part compared to the temperament of the third, and Andsnes' playing marries that perfect fragility of the melodies with the embracing almost paternal nature of the orchestration. All the while, the rhythmic ingenuity of the first movement, centered on Beethoven's obsession with the "da-da-da-daaa" motif is made to be continually enthralling: he turns it into a progressive narrative as opposed to a mere repetition; he moves the story on in search of unity and accord between piano and orchestra. The final movement is both tragic and triumphant and played with such deftness and depth by Andsnes: the conclusion of which is a truly magnificent alchemy of soloist and orchestra in ways which are startlingly touching and heroic.

Speaking of "da-da-da-daaa", the fifth symphony, when played with a bit of backbone and gumption, encompasses Beethoven the brutal. Beethoven the barbaric, Beethoven at his very best. I had never even heard of Ensemble Modern or Péter Eötvös before reading about a recommendation for this recording in The Spectator. What a find! It also makes me realise how, in music, the "less is more" dictum can often pay off in such staggering ways. This is an orchestra paired back to its bare bones, seemingly, and probably more in keeping with the size of ensemble Beethoven would have assembled in his own time. The revelation of hearing a symphony of such massive scale and bravado played as if their very lives depended on it by a small group of musicians is something truly quite astounding. The result is that you hear not just the music but the intimacy of individualism which each section of instruments adds to the symphony's overall whole - nothing is lost to the scale of any grandiose, pretentious concert hall design. This is music making in the service of the music alone. There are moments in this recording where I swear one can feel the furious swipe across bows, the exhalation of bloated cheeks into the mouths of cumbersome brass, the puckering of lips as they press against the cold surfaces of woodwind. It embodies the idea that music does not exist in a vacuum: that it is first and foremost an extension of human intention, of physical activity, of the fierce concentration of friction. The decision to allow the timpanist to basically blast his way over the rising tumult of the music is inspired: the drum echoes and booms away and truly jolts you into a sense of being alive!

Finally, as a piano fanatic, nothing in the history piano literature for me comes close to comparing to the collective brilliance of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. They are quite possibly the crown jewels of the piano canon. As Hans von Bülow once described them: "where Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is the Old Testament of piano music, Beethoven's sonatas are the New Testament." For me, all of them are wondrous, several are truly great, but one stands out as a very personal pinnacle: the 31st sonata in A-flat, Op. 110. It is not a loud or showy sonata. It lacks the technical voracity of the Appasionata or the Hammerklavier. It doesn't have the driving force of the Waldstein or the Tempest. It is not as lauded or revered as its successor, No. 32, Op. 111. But there is something about its flighty, ethereal, lilting, searching qualities which makes it the one piece of piano music I return to time and again whenever I am in need of sustenance, repair or regeneration. I know that the whole theory that it is Beethoven's confrontation with and contemplation of his own mortality has been largely denounced by musicologists, but to me when I hear it, I always hear someone engaging in just this sense of spiritual contemplation. The way the cadences of the second movement resolve into a mood of ghostly suspension followed by the materialisation from this landscape of the most emotionally penetrating theme must surely be the mind of someone who has such premonitions and preponderances on his mind? The development of the fugal section of the finale almost seems to personify a kind of separation of body and spirit; the way it climbs and climbs and breaks free at the very end encapsulates sublime expression itself. Igor Levit understands this, I think, as did Alfred Brendel who I first heard playing this sonata so perfectly when I was younger. But in his newer recording Levit brings a seriousness, a weight and profundity to it which is truly gut-wrenching. Few times in my life has a work of art so completely undone and rebuilt me so entirely; to surrender to the 31st piano sonata of Beethoven is, to me, the equivalent of a salvation from the outer fringes of purgatory.

Igor Levit plays the finale to the sublime Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 by Beethoven.


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