Saturday, July 23, 2016

When Facebook Becomes Blogging - Szell Conducts Beethoven's 9th

Joshua Bornfield asked me to do my part to get rid of negative news on facebook by sharing some music that starts with "G". As one of facebook's prime bearers of bad news, I'm going to try to redeem myself and cheat somewhat so I can share what I've been listening to today. It's of course cliche, but...
Between playing it, hearing it live, CD's, LP's, cassettes, napster, spotify, and youtube, I've probably listened to a few hundred interpretations of Beethoven's 9th Symphony over the years (beat me up later). There are even times when I've gotten sick of this piece which I think Debussy called the "universal hangover." But Beethoven 9 is more than that, it is the piece that does what music does best - it is a piece that is literally about bringing us all together. Pacifying our suffering, finding our voice, and adding it to the voices of others so that we can feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
In all those performances I've heard, this is the one I turn to most often. It is, detail for detail, pound for pound, the closest to ideal it gets in what's generally regarded as the definitive piece of music. From Mengelberg you get high drama and fire, from Furtwangler you get epic breath and harmonic tension, from Toscanini you get rhythmic punch and a singing line, from Klemperer you get iron control and every detail, and from later conductors like Gunter Wand and Herbert Blomstedt and and Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein and Klaus Tennstedt and Kurt Masur and Rafael Kubelik and Sergiu Celibidache you get many other wonderful qualities, but from George Szell (G), you get all of those qualities held in a virtually perfect balance.
Szell was a Hungarian-Jewish conductor who led the Cleveland Orchestra for twenty-five years after World War II. 45 years after he died, there's still no orchestra in America that plays better - if silver has an aural quality, then the Cleveland Orchestra sounds like a silver plate facing toward the sun. Szell was as much a drill sergeant as conductor - a musical martinet with a hair trigger temper who rehearsed orchestras so exhaustively that it was said that he 'even rehearsed the inspiration.' Some of his Cleveland performances feel like technical exercises, but when he wasn't overly fussy, his explosive temperament poured through the music like volcanic lava. This performance, from London in 1968, a year much like our own, is Szell at his best, when he was better than virtually anybody. Szell's Beethoven in Cleveland was extraordinary, but not more extraordinary than any other great conductor. But when Szell played Beethoven with other orchestras and whipped them up with the kind of broken baton and tossed down music stand frenzies that Beethoven himself made in his personal life, he created Beethoven that seemed absolutely perfect. Exploding with apocalyptic intensity at virtually every moment, yet with not a single detail out of place.
Beethoven used to mean more to us than it does today. If you go to classical concerts, you probably know that Mahler occupies the central place in the orchestral world that Beethoven used to. In our neurotic, exhausted age, we need a composer who understands what it's like to be from a culture that has little hope for the future. Granted, anyone in their right mind would rather live now than fifty years ago, but the postwar era was different in that it had hope for us in a way that we often can't find our hope for our children. In classical music, that hope seemed to find expression in Beethoven. The whole world knew what it meant to feel grief, suffering, hope, and redemption in a way that most of us never will. Today, performance of Beethoven is a question of style, not substance. The question of historically informed performance (using the instruments and style of the musicians of the composer's era) has done wonderful things for many composers, but it's made the way we listen to Beethoven go from pondering life's mysteries to pondering questions of fashion. Older performances of Beethoven may not be what Beethoven wanted, but they are the Beethoven we need.
Beethoven's Ninth is regarded as perhaps the ultimate piece of music, and I suppose this is the closest I find to its ultimate performance. So if you're new to classical music, I guess you won't get a better introduction to what classical music is than this. Play it on your earphones at maximum volume.

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