Beethoven 6 Redux : Turns out it doesn’t suck

Run, don't walk...

There are lots of orchestral works that make big demands on conductors and performers. A piece like Mahler 7, particularly the Finale, requires an incredible sense of structure and pace from the conductor (not to mention unparalleled virtuosity from the orchestra), and there are dozens and dozens of performances that cannot meet the standard. This, of course, makes the ones that can (I’m looking at you, Kondrashin/Concertgebouw on Tahra) that much more memorable and important.

But out of all these works, I’ve determined the Beethoven Pastoral to be the most difficult for a conductor to “get.” It was only three days ago that I said that I have a problem with Beethoven 6, specifically that it sucks. I would like to amend that statement slightly: Beethoven 6 CAN suck.

As I said in that post, I’ve performed the Sixth twice, and both times it was a dreadful slog, and I’m sure I contributed mightily to the shittiness. I’ve listened to countless recordings, and none of them helped (even my boy Otmar Suitner let me down). Ken’s comment hit me:

It is 95% your problem, and 5% Beethoven’s own fault for making the piece so challenging for listeners and players.

It’s interesting you mention Spielberg- both LvB and big Steve are generally very linear storytellers. That’s what makes LvB’s use of sonata form so compelling and Spielberg’s movies so popular. One thing people find hard to take about Schumann and Schubert’s large scale works is that they are not linear storytellers in the same way Beethoven is- they have completely different goals.

The Pastoral is Beethoven’s exception that proves the rule- it is like a Schubert or Schumann symphony, rather than a Beethoven. It’s about experience rather than goal. In the same way that a long Schubert movement forces us to walk the tight rope of tempo and direction to keep in from collapsing under its own weight, a conductor has to be really careful to not let things bog down (especially in the 2nd mvt, which is the toughest thing ever).

Nature’s Realm is obviously inspired by the Pastoral, and has quite a few little references (most obviously the key), so there’s a starting point.

Anyway, I envy you the chance of discovering why LvB 6 rules.

I’m pleased to report that the issues I had with the Sixth actually weren’t my fault (inserted comment from my girlfriend: “Of course!”). It’s more the fault of Karajan and Bernstein and the lot of conductors who, in my estimation, didn’t “get” it, as Elaine Fine suggested.

Who does “get” it? Osmo Vanska. His Beethoven cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra on BIS is highly regarded, and with good reason. I’ve actually had the set for some time, but never made it all the way through, and had never even turned on the Sixth (presumably because of my checkered past with it). An epic Pastoral was waiting right under my very nose the whole time, as it turns out.

So what’s Vanska’s great insight? He certainly seems to execute the score (with the new-ish Del Mar critical edition changes) with utmost sympathy for the composer’s intentions, which is always a good place to start. But to me, it’s more than that.

I was struck by Ken’s assertion that the Pastoral is the exception among Beethoven’s symphonies because of its lack of linear storytelling, instead focusing on the experiences the music describes. I wonder if the entire approach is what makes or breaks a performance of this piece; upon reflection, it seems that most of what I find so troubling about a lot of performances can be traced to this very thought. Trying to perform the Sixth, which is as formally coherent as anything else Beethoven wrote, anything like the rest of the bunch is fruitless.

Perhaps there’s a bit of hero worship in play; Beethoven symphonies are pretty sacrosanct (as they should be), and the temptation to highlight the Beethovenian characteristics as we know them seems pretty high.

The Vanska performance succeeds, to me, because he maintains the structural control, but it never feels tied down by the musical architecture. It is much more like a collection of tone poems than a symphony; more Ma Vlast than Beethoven’s Fifth. This is especially true of Vanska’s approach to texture and dynamics, two musical elements that can really spark music that may be repetitious (which the Sixth certainly is). The dynamic range is remarkable, with the softs being particularly amazing. The textures are really well-conceived and balanced beautifully. The tempi are also a real highlight in this performance; perfectly proportioned, expertly crafted, and just the right speed to allow a staggering range of expression from the band. One final point: the country dance in the scherzo sounds bad ass…rustic but fiery.

Thank you, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra. You have made me look like more than a fool than I normally do, but you have also shown me the Beethoven 6 light. I’ll be back for more.


7 thoughts on “Beethoven 6 Redux : Turns out it doesn’t suck

  1. That’s funny. I must be a weirdo in that I don’t “get” the Vanska cycle – tho apparently everyone else does. Maybe I’ll give that yet another spin (for the 4th time…). Starting w the 6th…

  2. I have yet to find a recent Minnesota recording that doesn’t have many redeeming qualities!! Don’t get me started on their Alpine Symphony… you know the one! I think they are great orchestra and even better now with Osmo. Can’t wait to check out this Beethoven 6. Thanks for the posts!

  3. @ Ed

    It’s impossible to think that two people could respond differently to something. That’s ridiculous. One of us must be a moron. I don’t want to find out that it’s me, though, so I’m going to pretend that different performances affect different people differently.

    Seriously, I think it’s a great cycle, not the least because the sonics are bloody incredible.

    @ Arlo

    I don’t know the Alpine Symphony recording you speak of, actually. Is it a broadcast? If so, I totally missed it. I’m intrigued now. Or is this pre-Vanska…the one with Edo de Waart?

    To give a balanced opinion…their Mahler 1 from the BBC Proms last summer was pretty dreadful. But on the whole, they’ve been on fire over the last few years.

  4. Me weirdo -> Vanska.
    It took me a year to like the Schnabel piano cycle as well…so many factors can affect these things. Maybe I have some phobia against pastel geometric shapes, who knows…

  5. Pingback: Turn, Turn, Turn…to Beethoven 6 | Everything But The Music

  6. I prefer period performances- The Hanover Band are an orchestra that play only with the instruments of the time of the composer, and they aim to play as closely as possible to the score. Often people today play Beethoven’s music too slowly! If you get a chance to hear any of their recordings of his symphonies I think you might get quite a surprise. They sound so much better! I’m gald you got to appreciate the 6th more. I find it quite a bost on a dark, cold day- it brings to me the atmosphere of a summer’s day in Vienna- which i hope I shall one day experience in person…

  7. Sorry meant to type boost not bost- I hope you can edit that!

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