Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #8

Many classical music writers seem to want to group Beethoven's Eighth symphony together with his Sixth (the "Pastoral") and his Seventh symphonies. Perhaps it's because there are some musical traits common to all three works (peasant dance themes, for example), or perhaps it's because he wrote the Seventh and Eighth symphonies at the same time and the Sixth just a few years before that.

Or maybe it's just that these symphonies are afterthoughts, grouped together arbitrarily by virtue of the fact that they are bracketed by the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies, works that are of such importance in the world of classical music that they dwarf nearly everything else Beethoven wrote.

Let's never make the mistake of overlooking Beethoven's "overlooked" symphonies.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 8 / Fidelio Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

Listener notes for Beethoven's Eighth Symphony:
1) Note how brief this symphony is: just 24 minutes for the entire thing. And people say they don't have time to listen to classical music.

2) This symphony opens with a real attention-grabbing bang. It's reminiscent of the Third Symphony. Also, at several points throughout this symphony, you can hear hints of the overwhelming force that would explode out of Beethoven in his final symphony, the Ninth.

3) Listen very closely at 1:14 in the first movement and you'll hear the flute let out a really bad note. You can barely hear it, fortunately.

4) It's funny, but this recording seems a lot more "full" and more dramatically played than the staid and weakly played performance of the Fifth that I was complaining about in my last post. This is the same darn symphony, and they may have even recorded these two symphonies on the same day. Yet for some reason the lower brass just don't show up during the Fifth.

5) The ending of the first movement sounds almost tongue-in-cheek, as does most of the second movement. It sounds almost like a throwback to classical era symphonies by Haydn or Mozart, doesn't it? The entire second movement, at a very brief 4:37, also shares the typical length of a Haydn symphony movement. What a far cry from some of the Bruckner or Mahler symphonies I've written about this year, which have "short movements" lasting three to four times as long.

6) Bad intonation alert: at 2:20-2:23 in the third movement, the clarinet veers wildly out of tune during a duet with the bassoon. Ouch. I'd give anything to not notice these things.

7) Our man on the clarinet has another solo at 3:54 in the third movement which ends in a really high note at the extreme upper register of the instrument. This is a classic time where a bad mistake could happen, especially in a live performance. This guy gets out of it okay, although who knows if they had to re-record this portion of the symphony a couple of extra times to get it right? If you ever get the chance to hear this symphony performed live, sit up and listen closely at this point and see if you hear an inadvertent "FREEEP!" come out of the clarinetist. This sounds like a tough note to play.

8) One thing particularly interesting about the fourth movement of this symphony, and about many of Beethoven's works in general, is how he cycles a motif or a musical theme through different keys. Listen to an example of this at 4:34 where he plays one of the central fourth movement themes in one key, then at 4:46 where he changes the key, then at 4:53 where he changes the key again, and then yet again at 5:01. Listen to this portion of the fourth movement a few times and see what you think.

9) A final comment on the last track on this CD, the Overture to Fidelio: because of the mediocre intonation and generally uninspired performance of the orchestra here, it would have been better if the Deutsche Grammophon people had just left this work off the CD.

10) A final note about collecting a full set of Beethoven symphonies:
One of the annoying things about the classical music recording industry is how difficult it can be to gradually acquire a complete collection of symphonies by a given composer. The only reason I have two copies of Beethoven's Fifth is because I needed a copy of his Eighth Symphony to complete my collection--of course, the only recording of the Eighth I could find had the Fifth on the same CD.

My advice to new collectors is this: if you find a symphony that you particularly like and you decide you want to hear more symphonies by this composer, just buy a complete set and get it over with. It will save you the trouble of playing "symphony jigsaw puzzle" later on. This collection would be an excellent to buy to get all of Beethoven's nine symphonies in one shot.

Finally, today's CD is bit of a milestone of sorts: it leaves us with only one more Beethoven symphony left: his massive, earth-shattering Ninth. I can't wait to get to that one!

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