Friday, October 3, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #3 and Leonore #3

The most commonly told anecdote about Beethoven's Third Symphony is the story of its dedication. After completing the symphony in 1803, Beethoven initially dedicated it to Napoleon as a representative of the freedoms and ideals of the French Revolution.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony #3; Leonore Overture III
Deutsche Grammophon, 1966/1977
And then, of course, Napoleon crowned himself emporer.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say Beethoven literally wigged out when he heard the news. He flew into a rage and tore up the title page of the symphony manuscript. And as told by his longtime friend and assistant Ferdinand Ries in the book Beethoven Remembered, Beethoven shouted:

"So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will trample the rights of man, indulge only his ambition. Now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!"

And yet this symphony's historical significance goes far beyond a mere anecdote about Napoleon. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the Beethoven's Third established the modern conception of the symphony.

Certainly this work represents a break from the "Classical era" of classical music, the period from the early 1700s to the early 1800s which featured more modest, though no less beautiful, symphonies by brilliant composers such as Mozart and Haydn. However, in the expansive emotional range of Beethoven's Third, we begin to see the first stirrings of classical music's Romantic era. The symphony was leaving the 18th century--and it would rarely look back.

In fact, of all of the music written in the prior century, perhaps only supra-symphonic works like Mozart's Requiem or Handel's or Haydn's oratorios cover as much emotional ground as Beethoven's Third Symphony. In some ways, the Third has such broad scale and scope that it makes even the most beautiful Haydn symphony seem like a trifling amuse-bouche by comparison. But the Third also stumbles at times (as we'll see below), as Beethoven hadn't quite yet found the voice that would ultimately give the world his greatest work, the Fifth Symphony.

Listener Notes for Beethoven's Third Symphony:
1) The first movement is almost too much to take. There's such power and triumph in just the first few minutes that it overloads the senses. Just the other week, I wrote that the first movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony felt like an entire symphony. Same here.

2) And yet the second movement feels like another full symphony! Indeed, composers like Haydn wrote entire symphonies that were shorter than just this one movement.

3) Shrill clarinet alert: listen at 8:05 in the second movement for the clarinets bleating out a nasal-sounding unison part.

4) I particularly like the fugue-like section near the end of the second movement (runs from about 13:55 to 14:30 in my recording), where the strings and woodwinds answer to each other.

5) The french horns really blow it during their key part in the third movement (begins at about the 2:48 mark). Not only are they off-key, but they fail to play the part in tight unison and they play the part weakly.

6) While I'm on the subject of the brass, let me make a general comment on the caliber of the overall brass section in the Berliner Philharmoniker. Frankly, I'm not impressed. No power, poor intonation and no spirit. The trumpets in particular have a tendency to veer out of control at key, high-volume parts throughout the performance. I should have bought a recording of Beethoven's Third Symphony as performed by my idols from the Chicago Symphony.

7) Listen to the extremely technically demanding flute solo at 3:37 in the fourth movement. Our flutist nails it here.

8) There is at least one instance in this recording where the french horns really nail a big part: at 7:55 in the fourth movement, when the horns state the key theme.

9) Honestly, I was disappointed with the structure of the fourth movement, and in particular by the sudden and surprise finale, which starts off with a sudden loud chord at 10:46 and races off to an equally sudden finish less than two minutes later. It seems like every critic and commentator is quick to celebrate the inexorable logic inherent in the structure of Beethoven's symphonies, including the Third. To me, however, this conclusion sounded (dare I say it?) abrupt and almost random.

Listener Notes for Leonore #3:
1) Nobody really thinks of Beethoven as a composer of operas. In fact, he struggled mightily to write just one, Fidelio. The opera premiered in 1805, but afterward Beethoven heavily revised it three more times. This work, Leonore #3, is the best known version of the overture to this opera. And despite being named #3, it was part of the second version of the opera, performed in 1806.

2) Isn't the main theme, when it gets introduced by the full orchestra at 4:18, absolutely inspiring?

3) I've played the off-stage trumpet call back in my playing days (on this disc it begins at 7:51 in track 5). It's more difficult than it sounds. It's one of those parts that is quite easy to play in a small practice room, but it's another thing entirely to play it off-stage in a concert hall with an appropriately big but controlled sound.

4) At 9:39, can you hear the bassoonist bungle that run in the duet with the flute player? Whoops.


Chantal said...

I have that CD too. Not really thrilled with it, either. I stupidly lent an AMAZING recording of it to some schmuck in music school, and never got it back. Levine, leading the Metropolitan Orchestra. It also has Schubert's Unfinished symphony on it too, and both works are splendid. (in my opinion, of course!)

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Chantal,
Yep, the mistakes in this recording were pretty distracting.

Thanks for reading!