Performing Beethoven

Classic Arts Features   Performing Beethoven
Artists weigh tradition and innovation when interpreting Beethoven. How then does a conductor or a performer inthe 21st century interpret a work of such storiedsignificance without becoming mired in tradition?


Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, with its famous four-note opening motif, is surely the most famous work in western classical music. Goethe called it "merely astonishing and grandiose," and Wagner admired its "lyrical pathos." In the years since its first performance in Vienna in December of 1808, the Fifth Symphony has been subjected to a barrage of interpretation, commentary, reinvention, and myth. Beethoven's monumental opus, in other words, comes with a lot of baggage.

So how then does a conductor or a performer in the 21st century interpret a work of such storied significance without becoming mired in tradition? In January, concertgoers will have a chance to find out when The Philadelphia Orchestra focuses on Beethoven in a series of performances featuring interpreters hailed for their fresh takes on familiar repertoire.

The journey begins in early January (6, 7, 8), when conductor David Zinman leads the Orchestra in three concerts that include Beethoven's storied Fifth; then mid-month the German violinist Arabella Steinbacher performs Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, (January 12: 14); the celebrated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes later presents the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, which is coupled with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (January 19: 21).

The 75-year-old Zinman, who made his conducting debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1967, is now music director and chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich, with which he made his now celebrated recordings of the Beethoven symphonies in 1999. Praised for their exceptional clarity and brisk tempi, Zinman's interpretations of the nine symphonies may seem unconventional, but he says they're based on a close reading of Beethoven's scores. "One has to say to oneself, 'let's look at the music and see exactly what's there and what isn't, what is tradition, what is not tradition... and see how this can inspire looking anew at the music.'"

Zinman says his original interpretation became possible because he had the confidence to let go of the past, "the patina of tradition," to find his own voice as a maestro. "You're saying: 'I'm not going to do it the way Bruno Walter did it, or Toscanini did it, I'm going to see just what I can invent about the piece,'" referring to two of the greatest conducting titans of the mid-20th century. The conductor equates this act of invention to a combination of detective work and imagination, referring to the process as "a kind of wonderful sleuthing." With the Beethoven symphonies, for example, Zinman took into account the intensively researched and corrected New Barenreiter edition of the score from the 1990s, along with everything he'd read about performance practice in Beethoven's time, incorporating period instruments into his conception of the overall sound. This makes his performances sound different: turbulent, violent, breathless.

Zinman also takes Beethoven's original metronome marks, which indicate the tempo of a piece, "as gospel." Over the years, conductors have modified Beethoven's tempi, sometimes slowing a piece down to give it a more sweeping, romantic feeling. The composer Richard Wagner in particular developed a style of interpreting Beethoven as grand, ponderous, and more typically Wagnerian. In contrast, Zinman's breathtaking speeds can be exhilarating for audiences and musicians alike, but the conductor believes that's exactly what Beethoven intended.

The pianist Leif Ove Andsnes also seeks to understand the works he'll be performing through close study, but his approach is fundamentally intuitive. Andsnes is at the beginning of a three-year journey to perform and record all five Beethoven piano concertos: a challenge that the 41-year-old pianist has delayed until now. He's in accord with Zinman about how traditional misconceptions can lead to faulty interpretations. "Many people say that the first two Beethoven piano concertos clearly come from the Haydn-Mozart tradition, and only by the third one is Beethoven starting to find himself. I just find that so wrong," says Andsnes. "He's just so himself from the beginning. There's this stubbornness in the music, so much humor, and this unmistakable sign of provocation that just grabs you by the throat and says 'Listen!'"

For Andsnes, this fact changes his approach to Beethoven's music, which he characterizes as "spacious," distinct from the "very elegant, bel cantooriented style" of Mozart. "What I like to avoid is thinking of these first piano concertos as small," says Andsnes. "Some people play them in a rather timid way, but they have such freshness and openness from the start."

And yet the pianist doesn't find it helpful to think in terms of whether or not Beethoven's music is Romantic: a concept that now brings in cultural baggage that can clutter up a piece with what one critic called "superficial heroics." "I seek clarity of expression," says Andsnes. "I don't know if that can be called anti-Romantic, but I know I like a full piano sound: but also one that is transparent." By that, Andsnes means he tries to articulate all the different voices in his Beethoven performances: not just the obvious melodic parts: without blurring the composer's harmonic texture. It's a subtle but crucial difference.

His awareness of voicing (the modern piano's tonal colors) also has an impact on his approach to performing a Beethoven concerto with an orchestra. "One has to take into consideration that I'm playing on an instrument that is very different from the one Beethoven had, which gives other possibilities and a different picture of the music," says Andsnes. He mentions the "very interesting woodwind lines" in a section of the Third Piano Concerto that can easily get obscured by passages played on a louder modern piano, "if you just follow Beethoven's dynamic markings."

Of course, Beethoven's piano concertos have been recorded many times by the greatest pianists of the past and present. Does Andsnes ever feel influenced or intimidated by this legacy of brilliance? "I think with some composers' music that [legacy] can be intimidating," he says, citing a particularly perfect rendition of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major by the late Italian virtuoso Arturo Michelangeli. "But with Beethoven I rarely have that feeling that a recording can close in on the music. You can hear something wonderful, but the moment you start working on the piece, possibilities open up."

Musing further on Beethoven's musical muscularity, Andsnes adds: "The wonderful thing with Beethoven is that his music survives a lot of different performances. Even through a relatively mediocre performance, you can still hear that it's great music."

Beyond the technical challenges of performing and conducting such major works, are Zinman or Andsnes ever conscious of trying to tell a story when they perform? Do they have a programmatic idea of what the piece of music says? Well, they do, but it's a bit more abstract than a fairy tale. "The Fifth Symphony is a piece about tremendous energy," says Zinman. "In a way, it's about noise: after all, Beethoven uses trombones, drums, and piccolo in the last movement. It's a revolutionary work about liberty and enlightenment."

When Andsnes talks about learning the Piano Concerto No. 3, which he'll be performing with The Philadelphia Orchestra, he acknowledges the C-minor drama of the work but certainly doesn't impose a narrative onto it. Instead, he's "looking for possibilities, diversity of feeling... within the dramatic undercurrent which runs through the movements." He's aware of the various overlapping motifs that Beethoven has developed, and tries to imagine why the composer layered them together in that particular moment. "So I'm asking myself, 'What do they mean and why are they there at the same time?' I'm thinking of those kinds of things to make the music contrasting and rich."

For Zinman, Steinbacher, Blomstedt, and Andsnes: and indeed any classical performer: Beethoven's music exists like a continent to be explored again and again, each time offering up new mysteries and revelations. "Every time I read something new about Beethoven it influences how I approach him," says Zinman. "It's an ongoing thing. It's not set in stone. So the recordings I made 10 years ago [or more] are certainly part and parcel of what I'm thinking, but they're not the end. So whatever I do in Philadelphia is part of an ongoing process."

Likewise with Andsnes, performance is a fascinating journey, a musical evolution. He cites Anton Rubinstein's maxim that one has to always "reinvent" Beethoven. "And that really sounds strange to our minds today, but there's some truth in it. The feeling must be very much that one is inventing Beethoven in the moment when one plays."

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