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Of all the classical composers, Beethoven is by far my favourite. The drama and passion of his music, not to mention his genius, has ensured his place alongside Mozart right at the top of the classical tree. Although a composer of music generally regarded as being of the classical period, he's also considered to have been responsible for moving the musical genre forward by kick-starting the romantic era of composition and opening up the way for the likes of Chopin, Schubert and Brahms. In fact, when Brahms published his own first symphony, it was dubbed Beethoven's Tenth because it so closely mirrored the new structure of which Beethoven was both inventor and absolute master!
Beethoven produced many different classical compositions: piano and violin concertos, chamber music, oratorios and even an opera but his nine symphonies must surely be regarded as his best work. Beethoven himself certainly thought so, "Symphonies are the best representation of my true self. I always seem to hear within me the sounds of a great orchestra."
Over the years, I've accumulated a collection of all of these symphonies but it has to be said that the standard of these recordings varies from orchestra to orchestra.
Although the composer writes the music, interpretation of the notes is entirely down to the conductor and his orchestra and many modern interpretations hark back to how the music would have sounded originally and is frequently played on instruments of the day. Most conductors seem to have an affinity with one or two particular composers and many of the old school in the music world regarded the late Otto Klemperer and Herbert van Karijan, as being the leading exponents of Beethoven. Personally I find Klemperer's interpretations far too slow and ponderous and von Karajan though much more lively took quite a few liberties with Beethoven's original score for my liking. However, when Daniel Barenboim recorded a complete collection of Beethoven's symphonies, released in 2000, I think the definitive interpretation was created.
Daniel Barenboim's credentials are second to none. An Argentinian by birth, he first came to prominence as a pianist back in the 1950s whilst in his teens. This came about following his family's move to Israel and he has been recording and conducting ever since. During his early years as a performer, he was regarded as one of the leading interpreters of Beethoven's piano music.
On a more personal note, Daniel Barenboim is passionate about working towards peace in the Middle East and through his friendship with Edward Said, a Palestinian writer, the West-East Divan Workshop was devised which brought together young people from Palestine and Israel which has had both musical and political repercussions and still continues through the Barenboim-Said Foundation.
Barenboim seems to have found his musical home in Germany and is closely associated with both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskappelle Berlin, and it's with the latter that this recording was made. Daniel Barenboim hasn't reverted to playing the music absolutely as it would have been originally played neither has he added his own embellishments. What he has done, along with the excellent Staatskapelle Berlin, is produce some sublime music which lives in the mind long after the final note has played. For me at any rate, this has become the definitive recording of Beethoven's symphonies.
Beethoven wrote his nine symphonies over a period of twenty-five years and over the course of these musical pieces, it's possible to hear how his music changed from being almost completely of the classical era following in the tradition of Mozart and Haydn whilst beginning the introduction of more innovative musical ideas, all culminating in the dramatic 'choral' ninth symphony, written when Beethoven was completely deaf and incorporating Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' which has now become the EU Anthem.
These symphonic works were groundbreaking in their day and it's difficult for modern listeners to comprehend just how shocked 19th century audiences must have been by his innovative and passionate music full of swelling sound, huge drum rolls and discordant notes. There is a rule book by which music is scored and my understanding is that Beethoven threw the book away and began to write his own rules. Rock on Beethoven!
As I'm not a musician merely a listener the interpretation of the music of these symphonies is my opinion and may be as far removed from the truth as it's possible to be. So I offer my apologies in advance to Beethoven, Daniel Barenboim or anyone who cares, for any misinterpretations here.
Symphony No 1
Although this symphony follows along traditional classical lines, Beethoven started as he meant to go on by pushing the musical envelope and introduced his audience to his first innovations, slightly discordant jarring opening notes which were noted at the time as not being suitable but for which Beethoven was forgiven because of the work's originality. He further changed the musical format of the symphony by making the second, or dance, movement far more lively in tempo than either Mozart, whom he greatly admired or Haydn who had been Beethoven's tutor. Previously this second movement had always been a minuet and although he kept the movement's title as Minuet, it was most definitely a scherzo, being a much faster and livelier tempo.
Although the rest of the symphony follows more or less along traditional lines, it bears the Beethoven hallmark of passages filled with swelling strings punctuated by dramatic brasses and the odd drum roll.
Symphony No 2
This second symphony builds on Beethoven's initial innovations of the first although still retaining elements of the symphony as proscribed by Mozart and, in fact, it's possible to hear the Mozart influence in the first movement which begins in a fairly muted manner rising to a crescendo. Again, Beethoven has modified the symphonic form from its original concept and given it a modern twist allowing the music to flow in a more organic and passionate way rather than be confined by eighteenth century traditions.
Symphony No 3 'Eroica'
This is the symphony where Beethoven truly came into his own. Beginning with two dramatic chords the music then swells with all Beethoven's trademark passion whilst retaining a lyricism which wrenches at the heartstrings. This symphony was written in praise of heroism, hence it's nickname The Eroica, and was intended to be dedicated to Napoleon. However, Boney blotted his copybook as far as Beethoven was concerned when he crowned himself Emperor. Most of the music is dramatic and upbeat, however, there are several melancholy passages denoting that with war and heroism often comes death.
Symphony No 4
Although this symphony begins in muted and fairly sombre tone, it soon livens up and there is the inclusion of the bassoon, an instrument guaranteed to bring a smile to faces, playing a staccato counterpoint. This isn't one of my favourite symphonies, largely because none of the musical themes are particularly catchy. I'm sure a trained musician would appreciate the musicality of the piece and although I enjoy listening to the third and fourth movements, I tend to listen to them only seldom.
Symphony No 5
This is surely one of the most famous pieces of music in the world with the first four notes being those used to preface World War 2 broadcasts from the BBC because it formed the 3 dots and a dash which denoted V for victory in Morse Code. This was the first symphony Beethoven wrote in the minor key which gives the piece a sense of melancholia. Although an extremely beautiful work, its theme is a serious sounding one that lacks the more cheery notes heard in other of his symphonies.
Symphony No 6 'Pastoral'
This is by far and away my favourite symphony written to represent a Summer's day in the countryside complete with thunderstorm. This piece is filled with cheeriness and Beethoven has used the musical instruments at his disposal to musically create birds, rainfall, happy peasants dancing and the like, so much so that you can see exactly what he is telling the listener musically. He even wrote specific instructions "Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung, als Malerey"---"more an expression of the feelings, than painting;" There is drama too and the thunderstorm of which the first distant rumblings are heard in the third movement, develops into a full blown storm in the fourth. This is an absolute tour de force beginning with the first pattering raindrops and moving through all the 'sturm und drang' before emerging once more into a gentler world. Great stuff!
(YouTube version of the storm though sadly not Barenboim's: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk5sjooQOts)
Symphony No 7
This symphony could be regarded as the turning point in Beethoven's music career when he married together the classical with the new romantic elements he had been gradually introducing to the world. Building on the beauty, lyricism and innovation of his sixth symphony which had introduced an additional movement into the symphonic equation, this seventh symphony begins in a fairly traditional way gradually building the musical intensity with soaring strings and mellowed brass for emphasis into a soul wrenching piece of music of great sweetness and beauty. Franz Liszt is credited with calling this symphony 'the apotheosis of rhythm' and it certainly seems that with this symphony Beethoven paid particular attention to the introduction of wonderfully insistent rhythms.
Symphony No 8
There isn't any gentle introduction to this symphony, Beethoven gets straight in there with an almost dance-like first movement, followed by an unusually lively second movement full of cheeriness with a metronomic beat. (The metronome was still in its experimental stage but Beethoven, like most composers of the day, was extremely interested in its development.) The third movement could almost be termed 'retro' as it harks back to earlier symphonies with a slow, minuet-like tempo. Beethoven referred to this symphony as his 'little' eighth symphony and in terms of its almost cuteness, that would seem an apt appellation. But the eighth symphony is the calm before the storm of his magnificent ninth and in the final movement it's almost possible to hear snatches of musical phrases which will be used in that final great symphony.
Symphony No 9 'Choral'
This symphony is generally regarded as Beethoven's finest piece of work and I can't argue with that. This is one of the most dramatic and passionate pieces of music ever composed with several recurring musical themes playing throughout. Some of these themes have been 'borrowed' for films such as 'A Clockwork Orange' and, of course, the Ode to Joy has been adopted as the EU anthem. The drama develops throughout the movements to the final 'choral' crescendo with the Ode to Joy for which Beethoven's friend, Schiller wrote the libretto.
Personally, I'm not keen on oratorio or operatic voices and although the Ode to Joy begins well and dramatically with a single voice, when other voices join in, I like it less well. Maybe I'm just an operatic Philistine. One thing is certain, however, Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote this music and it's a testament to his genius that he could produce such sublime music without being able to hear it.
The three Overtures to Leonora and to Beethoven's opera Fidelio are also included here as extras to fill out the CDs but I'll not review those. I think I've probably bored you all stupid as it is!
I apologise for the length of this review but it was impossible to write merely a sentence on each symphony. Thank you if you've managed to read every word!
This boxed set of 6 CDs released by Warner Classics in 2000 and which was rereleased in 2005 has now become one of my most treasured possessions. It comes without any sleeve notes, merely the CDs in black card sleeves bearing details of the music and the length of time each CD takes to play. At £13.24 for over 7 hours of wonderful music, this is an absolute bargain by anyone's standards.
Beethoven died when he was only 57 years old but he has left the world a legacy of some of the most glorious music ever written and which, to my mind, has yet to be surpassed. These recordings not only showcase his genius but are also a demonstration of Daniel Barenboim's empathetic treatment of the music and the combined talents of the members of the Staatskapelle Berlin.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Beethoven : Symphony No.1 in C major Op.21 : I Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
2 Beethoven : Symphony No.1 in C major Op.21 : II Andante cantabile con moto
3 Beethoven : Symphony No.1 in C major Op.21 : III Menuetto - Alleg