A New Beethoven
March 15, 2001
Im not one to inflict my musical tastes on my readers. I love
music, as a consumer, but its not a subject I excel in, as my poor
piano teacher could attest, had he not leapt off a bridge some years ago. But
I know what I like. As Bottom the Weaver says in A Midsummer
Nights Dream, I have a reasonable good ear in music.
Lets have the tongs and the bones. Thats me.
But today I cant contain myself.
Ive been listening to Beethovens symphonies for forty years
now, and Ive finally heard them played right. This is not to disparage
the many excellent conductors whose recordings Ive enjoyed since my
teens imposing names like Toscanini, Klemperer, Von Karajan,
Walter, Szell, Krips, Marriner, Haitink, Hogwood, Solti, Norrington, Goodman,
and Harnoncourt, to name a few. Im grateful to them all.
I thought Id heard every
possible way of playing these wondrous symphonies until last night. I
was shopping for a set of Beethoven for a friend, and I found a budget
recording by a conductor Id never heard of: David Zinman, with the
Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. At $23 for five compact discs, it was so cheap
that I wondered whether it was one of those inferior recordings you
sometimes get when you try to save money.
reviews quoted on the box made it sound interesting, though. Many I
think will gravitate towards Zinmans zest, directness, and
clarity, said the critic of Gramophone. The real
attraction, said the New York Times, is Mr.
Zinmans brisk, earthy, and often electrifying approach.
Stereo Review called the set irresistible to first-time
listeners and a welcome restorative to veteran music-
lovers. Since my friend is a first-time listener, this sounded like just
the thing. You dont necessarily have to start with the finest (and
most expensive) recordings.
A few hours later, when I should have
been in bed, I found myself sitting up listening to Zinmans recordings
in sheer ecstasy. It was like hearing Beethoven for the first time. The
familiar sounded new fresh, quick, thrilling, and just plain fun. As far
as I was concerned, the critics raves were mean-spirited
Zinman catches a quality in Beethoven
nobody else has fully captured: levity. After hearing his performance, you
feel that even the best of the other conductors have been far too solemn.
And that Beethoven really meant his music to be played in this spirit. Never
has the joyous humor of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies been so
beautifully highlighted. (The Fourth and Seventh are my own
pet symphonies. The Eroica may be greater, but these two
have an endless variety of invention.)
Late in his life, Beethoven acquired a
new gadget: the metronome. This toy fascinated him. It enabled him to
specify just how fast his works should be played, and he accordingly left
notes. But until recently, most musicians have felt that his tempos were far
too fast: a somewhat ponderously reverent tradition of playing the
symphonies had already set in. So Beethovens explicit intentions have
usually been ignored.
This began to change in the 1980s,
when Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, and Roy Goodman led a new
movement toward authentic recreations of classical music,
with smaller orchestras playing on original instruments. This approach has
been controversial, since some musicians and scholars believe the great
composers of the past would have preferred modern instruments if
theyd been available.
Zinmans orchestra uses modern
instruments, but plays rapidly and lightly, eschewing the grand style. Yet, to
my ear, the symphonies gain greatly in energy and purpose by this approach.
Time and again, a familiar passage, played at a faster pace, seems to make
more sense than ever before. You may have heard the Fifth Symphony
hundreds of times, but youve never heard it done with such a light
and loving touch. And it loses none of its power; just the opposite. Beethoven
is like a boxer who doesnt need to put lead in his gloves. As he seems
to have realized, he gains impact with speed.
So, thanks to Maestro Zinman,
Ive fallen in love with Beethoven all over again. I always knew he was
incomparable; I didnt know he could be so delightful.
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