Something to listen to: The Fifth

Beethoven mask

Life masks: when being self-important just isn’t enough.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is pretty popular, which you may already know. It is the most perfect musical work ever written, which you may already know. Combine those two notions in your head and it leads to a simple question: what the hell do you do with this thing? It’s already been performed to death, recorded to death, and damn near every man, woman, and child alive knows more of it than they think they do. It is the most ruthlessly efficient demonstration of symphonic form that exists, yet it’s full of genuinely musical ideas. The greatest conductors and orchestras in the world have had their go of it for 200 years now, so what’s left?

Lately what’s left has been the “historically-informed” performance, an exercise in willfully backtracking through decades of instrumental evolution in the name of trying to pretend that we could possibly hear what it sounded like in Beethoven’s own day. This, of course, is impossible, because we already know the musical revolution that Beethoven created in his wake – we know Schumann and Brahms and Mahler and the rest and we can’t really un-hear it at this point. I’d love to apply this idea to other fields, like war, using “historically-informed” muskets and bayonets as we wage war against the Taliban, or cinema, using “historically-informed” white people in blackface because Denzel held out for $25 million.In case I’m not being clear, I think the concept behind “historically-informed” performances is pretty dumb.

But that doesn’t mean that the performances themselves can’t be appealing and exciting. One of my favorite performances of Eroica, for example, is the John Eliot Gardiner one with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and the recent cycle with Paavo Jarvi and the Bremen Chamber Orchestra is generally quite remarkable. But the things that are good about these performances aren’t the textures and the brisk tempi – it’s the same shit that makes all good Beethoven performances good: control, command of the structure, energy and momentum, balance, clarity. You can accomplish these things with period instrument bands and you can accomplish them with large modern orchestras. And if you can accomplish these things with a modern orchestra, what’s the point of limiting your technical capabilities with keyed trumpets and steel strings and kettledrums made from actual kettles? I’ll tell you why: it’s easier than making it happen with a regular-ass orchestra.

Ken Woods touched on this a bit this past week, and it got me thinking about a performance of the famous and infamous Fifth of Beethoven that took place at the Proms this summer that I enjoyed thoroughly, featuring the amazing West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and their conductor, Daniel Barenboim. It’s what Beethoven should sound like. It’s focused and powerful, expressive and coherent, just flat-out fucking great music played by great musicians. Here is a very favorable review by Mark Berry to back me up (if you don’t read Mark’s reviews, you’re missing out. He’s what I would write like if I had intellect, ability, and an actual grasp of the English language). Apparently they’ve recorded a cycle for Decca, and if this performance of the Fifth is any indication, that Vanska/Minnesota set might have some company at the top of the heap here soon.

A massive shout-out to Bruno at Concert Archive for making this and thousands of other concerts available – that place is an international treasure. Enjoy.

BEETHOVEN Symphony no. 5
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
23 July 2012 (BBC Proms)
Royal Albert Hall, London


One thought on “Something to listen to: The Fifth

  1. I like John Elliot Gardiner a lot! I do have a preference for period performances as the instruments sound so much more alive. I adore fortepianos- such richness and colours in the tones, and in the case of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the emotional effects are much more visceral, alive and potent. I really like Ronald Brautigam, Paul Badura- Skoda, Jos van Immerseel.

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