Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Most Difficult Base Camp on Mount Beethoven

It is often difficult to confront the almost self-evident proposition that not every composition by a "great master" is de facto a "masterpiece" (using scare quotes to acknowledge that the very use of this word is questionable). In the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, I have addressed the issue that not everything he committed to musical notation was necessarily intended for musical performance. This is less of a question where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is concerned, but we still labor under the assumption that exhaustive cataloging motivates exhaustive listening, even when that listening extends to the juvenile expression of scatological texts set to perfectly acceptable vocal writing. More interesting, perhaps, is the case of Johannes Brahms, for whom diachronic listening provides us with insights as to how he "found his voice" as a result of a variety of attempts in a variety of performance media, some of which worked out better than others.

Finding myself now working through the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection of Ludwig van Beethoven, I am reminded of the number of times I have returned to the observation that Beethoven's writing for the human voice leaves much to be desired. This is best captured in a highly-opinionated observation I made last March:

As far as I am concerned, he hit the top of his game with the first act quartet in Fidelio, "Mir is so wunderbar;" and the down-slope on either side of that stunning moment is pretty steep!

Note that, for better or worse, I include that "ultimate warhorse," his ninth symphony, on that down-slope! Thus, the prospect of "covering" the last 25 discs in the collection has been a bit disconcerting, far more than my traversal of 26 discs of vocal music in the Brahms collection. The problem may be that much of the vocal writing might be described as "day job" work, which was just not as absorbing as other projects; and this can probably be said just as easily for Bach, Mozart, and Brahms as it can be said for Beethoven. In Beethoven's case, however, we have works such as his settings of Scottish and Irish folksongs (a performance of which had provoked the above contentious observation), where the documented evidence is pretty clear that his heart just was not in his work. Furthermore, even if that one quartet from Fidelio is his best effort, the path to the opera itself was an arduous one of try after try to "get it right" (although one interesting thing about the Brilliant collection is that it includes the first of those attempts, the 1805 Leonore, which includes the "first draft" of that quartet). Needless to say, I shall persist through the Brilliant collection. (I am not yet half-way through those 25 discs.) Hopefully, I shall encounter at least a few pleasant surprises along the way, perhaps among the songs that were not based on folk material from a country thoroughly alien to Beethoven's own culture!

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