Kentucky Center Stage: Louisville Orchestra Finale

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Don’t miss the last Louisville Orchestra broadcast of the season with Jorge Mester conducting Beethoven’s first and last symphonies, recorded in Whitney Hall with soloists Katie van Kooten, Rebekah Bortz Hardin, Daniel Weeks, Kenneth Shaw and the chorus which included singers from University of Louisville Cardinal Singers and Collegiate Chorale, Voces Novae and Louisville Chamber Choir.

And listen to this interesting segment from Radiolab on Beethoven and the metronome.

Beethoven’s Ninth

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Last week I recommended a “historically-informed performance” (HIP) recording of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Now it’s time to look at the “traditional” performances of the opus that are available.

To pick one recording out of the hundreds that are available as the greatest would be an act of folly, as any choice as “the definitive” performance would raise the hackles of almost everyone else who has an opinion on the matter. So please allow me to offer two recommendations from different eras from the history of recordings.

Herbert von Karajan recorded the entire symphonic cycle of Beethoven four (yes, 4!) times. It is generally accepted that the 1963 recordings are his best. Karajan uses spirited tempi where appropriate. Fine soloists shine in the finale of the Ninth.

Claudio Abbado’s 2000 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic stands out among others in its boxed set of the complete symphonies. Abbado had the unenviable task of taking over the reigns of the Berlin Philharmonic after decades of leadership from Karajan. But he led the group admirably during his short tenure. The Berlin musicians play sharper than before and Abbado leads them in fresh interpretations of the works.

Beethoven’s Ninth

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With the Louisville Orchestra’s performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony coming soon, I thought I would recommend a couple of recordings of the work. In the historically informed performance (HIP) category, I would recommend the EMI recording of the London Classical Players as conducted by Roger Norrington. Norrington’s group seems to capture the best aspects of HIP which includes the raw power of the original instruments and the faster tempi of the movements.

When the EMI Norrington recordings first were issued they were scorned by some critics and hailed as a revelation by many listeners. Much of the ire was aimed at the tempi, according to Norrington:

“The speed of the music was a particular problem. Beethoven had carefully given a metronome mark to every movement and every change of tempo in his symphonies. But almost every conductor ignored these speeds and performed the music much more slowly and ‘grandly’.”

The Romantic movement saw orchestras getting larger. At the same time, Beethoven’s shadow cast over music history like a titan. The orchestras lead by Gustav Mahler, Leopold Stowkoski and others performed Beethoven’s opuses with a sense of reverence. The larger group of musicians required slower tempi to accommodate the bigger number of instruments.

With the smaller historically-informed groups, performances of Beethoven’s symphonies became lithe, more supple works. The original tempo markings by Beethoven seem to suddenly make sense with the smaller ensembles.

Next week I’ll recommend a “traditional” performance of the work. In the meantime, enjoy this excerpt of Roger Norrington’s interpretation of the second movement with the London Classical Players:

Two Dramatic New Cello Releases

Cello-lovers everywhere rejoice! Here are two recent releases featuring cello music:

Beethoven Cello Sonatas

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The title pretty much says it all. This release on the Hyperion label covers all five cello sonatas written by the beloved German composer (as well as some of his variations on works by Handel and Mozart, plus an arrangement of his Horn Sonata in F major for cello and piano). The cello sonatas of Beethoven span all three of his composition periods, making this survey album not only a collection of great pieces for cello, but also an interesting look  at the musical growth of the composer himself. Beethoven’s sense of humor and drama remained constant throughout his career, and pianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis truly let these qualities shine in their interpretation of each sonata. Levin and Isserlis play dynamically together, making for a truly captivating performance. Both use period instruments, which allows for closer adherence to the score and greater expressiveness within the framework of Beethoven’s original intentions.

If you were looking to add quality recordings of the Beethoven cello sonatas to your music library in one fell swoop, this album is perfect.

 

Zuill Bailey-Britten

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The cellistic drama continues on this Telarc release. Along with the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn, Zuill Bailey performs the Cello Symphony of Benjamin Britten.  Originally written for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the work is intensely dramatic, beginning with an ominous rumble in the tubas before the cello enters, moaning. The most transfixing moment of the piece is the cadenza leading from the third to fourth movement, which is nothing but the lament in the cello and Bailey’s concentrated breathing.

Bailey also tackles the Cello Sonata in C major with pianist Natasha Paremski. This piece predates the Symphony and was the first that Britten wrote for Rostropovich. Like the Symphony, it is a virtuosic work which requires great technical precision from the performers as well as expressive playing. Paremski and Bailey meet both these demands, giving a tight yet moving performance.

Featured Album: Biss Plays Beethoven

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Bloomington, Indiana-native Jonathan Biss is working on recording Beethoven’s sonatas, and volume 3 is our Featured Album this week.  We’ll hear him play the Pastorale and Waldstein sonatas, as well as the unnamed Sonata No. 16. Did you know you can also take a class about Beethvoven’s sonatas taught by Mr. Biss? (Photo Credit: Benjamin Ealovega)