Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #4

I challenge anyone to sit quietly and attentively through a Beethoven symphony--any Beethoven symphony--and not get both engrossed and emotional.

George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony #4
Symphony #7

Sony Classical, 1992
Today we'll talk about Beethoven's 4th Symphony, and how the 4th seems to get overlooked--even forgotten--in the context of Beethoven's best known works.

Granted, everything is relative in life, and it's hard to compare favorably to titanic works like Beethoven's 1st, 5th and 9th Symphonies (we'll eventually get to all of them in this blog). It's like being the youngest kid in a family, getting straight A's and going on to a great career as a doctor or lawyer or whatever, but because your older brothers are Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Michael Jordan, nobody notices you. Even Beethoven, by definition, has a least successful symphony.

But it's also true that Beethoven's "worst" symphony is still better than almost any other composer's best.

While I'm on this theme of overlooked great symphonies, let me also talk about overlooked orchestras.

Everybody always seems to focus on the "big-city" symphonies as if they're so superior. You don't hear about the Cleveland Symphony that often; it seems to get overlooked much like Beethoven's lesser symphonies. But in the few recordings I have of Cleveland, such as today's work, the orchestera sounds tight and clean--in contrast to many of my other recordings of better-known orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the (unfortunately named) Wiener Philharmoniker, or the London Symphony, where I'm often wincing at missed notes or off-key woodwinds, or brass sections that sound underfed.

And I've been disappointed on occasion with the performances of the NY Phil I've seen over the past several years. Of course it's not fair to compare a studio recording to a live performance (the coughing from the audience is distracting enough), but you just shouldn't hear more than a handful of mistakes per performance from such a vaunted city's orchestra.

But just like it's a pleasant surprise to discover an overlooked or unappreciated classical work from a great composer, it's also a truly pleasant surprise to hear an overlooked or underappreciated orchestra really nail a symphony. We had just such an experience last year when we decided for once to skip crossing the river into Manhattan, and instead went to an excellent performance of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Why pay up for the so-called top-of-the-line orchestra and have your ultra-high expectations go unmet when there's a great classical music experience waiting for you locally? And why limit yourself to the so-called top-of-the-line classical music canon, and only listen to Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symponies, when there are amazing works like his 4th Symphony just sitting there waiting to bowl you over?

Related Links:
The Cleveland Symphony
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra


Anonymous said...

the Vienna Philharmonic, the (unfortunately named) Wiener Philharmoniker, or..

Umm, the Vienna Philharmonic is the same as the Wiener Philharmoniker. Wien is German for Vienna.

Daniel said...

Ha, thanks for the correction--I thought I had fixed the instances where I had said this--I figured that out on a recent trip to Austria. For the life of me I thought I was on the road to Vienna, but all the road signs said "Wien".... :)

Thanks for reading.