Sunday, August 7, 2011

Korea’s first Beethoven Symphony cycle

It is nearly impossible to find anyone more knowledgeable about Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) than Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, who will deliver Korea’s first-ever complete symphony cycle of the German composer from Aug. 10 through Aug.14 at the Seoul Arts Center.

A full cycle of monumental works like Beethoven’s nine symphonies is an extraordinary cultural occasion usually reserved for the more mature classical music markets in Europe and in Japan.

There is very little of Beethoven’s enormous compositional output that Barenboim hasn’t played or recorded, either as conductor, pianist or chamber musician.

“The Beethoven Symphony cycle is probably the most important (musical) statement of a great genius,” Barenboim said in a promotional message through Credia, the concert’s organizer.

“It is astounding that, although he died in 1827, his music is still of concern for us today,” he added. “It brings to us an important message of the strength of the human being.”

Barenboim brings with him the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO), a mixture of some 90 young talented musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, among other countries.

The 1999 establishment of the orchestra stemmed from Barenboim’s firm belief that music can serve as an efficient tool to promote understanding between clashing cultures.

Beethoven’s works have been central to the WEDO, which has evolved into a ensemble of global stature through Barenboim’s impeccable musical leadership.

The orchestra played Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A major during its debut concert. For the last three years, it has played the full cycle around the world, reflecting Barenboim’s devotion to the ground-breaking composer.

“Only a handful of composers in the history of classical music have had the capacity to summarize and even culminate the development of an entire era of composition, while at the same time pointing the way toward a radically different new paradigm or style, and Beethoven and Schonberg are undoubtedly among these few,” Barenboim wrote in a concert program.

His first visit to Korea in 24 years is particularly meaningful, as the U.N. messenger of peace will perform a peace concert on Aug. 15 in Imjingak, which is near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. The concert coincides with the national Liberation Day, marking Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).

“Our orchestra symbolizes the possibility of entering a real fruitful dialogue between people who have different ideas. I’m particularly happy to come in my capacity as the messenger of peace for the United Nations,” Barenboim said.

Pioneering symphonist

Beethoven created nine symphonies throughout his life.

The earlier works, Symphony No. 1 in C major (composed 1799-1800) and Symphony No. 2 in D major (composed 1801- 1802) reveal influences from Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the definitive Austrian symphonists of the Classical period (1750-1830).

It was with the Symphony No. 3 in the lovely key of E-flat major (composed 1803) often known as the Eroica, that Beethoven the symphonist had fully arrived.

“The piece changed entirely the idea of what a symphony could be and 200 years later, its message is still resounding throughout the whole world and it remains one of the supreme tests of a symphony orchestra,” said Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, in the “Keeping Score” video series on pioneering symphonies.

“In this symphony, Beethoven began to use broad strokes of sound, to tell us exactly how he felt to be alive,” Tilson Thomas said. “The Eroica is a contest between emotion and reason, in a search for what it means to be human. And that’s a search we all understand.”

After the Eroica, Beethoven had virtually lost the ability to hear, but his musical genius only prospered in the years that followed.
His symphonic legacy influenced masters that had come after him like revolutionary Austrian symphonist Gustav Mahler, or the German composer Johannes Brahms, one of the leading musicians of the Romantic period (1815-1910).

Beethoven was a bridge between the Classical and Romantic schools.

The Eroica, for example, is often cited as the piece that ushered the beginning of the Romantic period. The piece is much longer and covers more emotional ground than earlier works.

Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are not as famous as the odd-numbered ones, but the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major (composed 1806) and the Symphony No. 8 in F major (composed 1812) are full of beauty and energy.

The Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastoral” (composed 1804) and Symphony No. 7 in A major (composed 1811-1812) are extremely popular and staples for symphony orchestras. At its debut, Beethoven was noted as remarking that the 7th was one of his best works. Its emotional second movement “Allegretto” is one of the most famous movements in symphonic history.

The final Symphony No. 9 in D minor “Choral” (composed 1817-24) is one of the greatest musical compositions ever written.
This towering masterpiece was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony, thus making it a “choral” symphony.

Penchant for cycle playing

Barenboim has set records on stage and in recording studios as a Beethoven specialist. The 70-year-old musician was playing all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by memory in his teens.

He has recorded all of Beethoven’s five piano concertos three times and all of the composer’s 32 piano sonatas twice. In 1999, he released the widely-acclaimed Teldec cycle of the symphonies with the Berliner Staatskapelle, where he serves as music director.

He will complete a new symphony cycle with the WEDO on Deustche Grammophon.
In 1998, the maestro played the Beethoven piano and orchestral cycle over a period of 12 days with the Berlin Staatskapelle.

“One’s view of each individual piece is broader and deeper if one has the breadth, the knowledge of the complete cycle,” Barenboim said, explaining his penchant for full cycles.

The last time Barenboim visited Korea was in 1984. This was around the time when he was redirecting his focus to conducting from an illustrious solo career as pianist.

Since then, the world’s most respected orchestras like the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Chicago symphony and many others have rushed to engage him.

Amid a rigorous conducting and recording schedule, Barenboim continues to prepare his own piano recitals and master classes.
This sets him apart from most soloists-turned-full-time-conductors like pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy (Russia), Mikhail Pletnev (Russia), Chung Myung-whun (Korea) and Christoph Eschenbach (Germany), among others.

Listening guide for beginners

Michael Tilson Thomas

Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), is one of the most active conductors in introducing classical music to the young.

Through the “Keeping Score” video series now available on DVD and on YouTube, he guides audiences through a journey of the marvels in the history of classical music. One of them is Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

The film takes the audience to Vienna, where the masterpiece was composed. The young Beethoven was fighting rage and frustration at his increasing loss of hearing when he was working on this piece.

Maestro MTT, as he is affectionately known in San Francisco, provides the narration in locations in Vienna and by his Yamaha piano at home, sometimes improvising the main themes.

The narration is easy to follow and full of insights into one of the milestones in symphonic history. The DVD also includes a complete live performance of the piece at the Davies Symphony Hall, the residence hall of the SFS.

Konstantin Scherbakov

Hungarian-born pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a firm believer in the capacity of the piano to emulate an entire orchestra.

An admirer of Beethoven, he transcribed all of the composer’s nine symphonies.

In a rare recording by Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov on Naxos, Beethoven’s symphonies are transformed into brilliant piano pieces.

Liszt inherited spiritually from Beethoven the idea of a piano as an orchestra, according to U.S. Liszt expert and pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

This year marks the bicentennial of Liszt’s birth.

Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan (1908 -1989) from Salzburg, Austria, is perhaps the most popular conductor among fans of Beethoven symphonies in Korea, along with Wilhelm Furtwangler (1952-1954).

Karajan is certainly the most accessible, since he recorded the whole cycle four times. This 1963 recording is his very first with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which he led for 35 years until his death in 1989.

Many music critics and fans alike have agreed that Karajan's first cycle with the Berliner was his finest. This budget version contains one of the most compelling performances of the 7th and 8th symphonies in recording history.

Claudio Abaddo

Italian conductor Claudio Abaddo’s 13-year tenure with the Berliner Philharmoniker culminated in these extraordinary Beethoven cycles captured both on video and in a recording.

He first made a studio recording on Deutsche Grammophon in 2000, left, but after a full cycle recorded live in Rome the following year, DG released the DVD and CD versions of the performances due to their immense popularity.

Since the release of the Rome performances, the original 2000 studio version from Berlin has ceased to be published, but some Abbado fans have chosen to own both as they are both a special testament to the conductor’s profound musicianship at its best.
The live performances are partially available on Youtube.

Source: The Korea Times

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