Thursday, December 29, 2016

Back to Beethoven

One of the nice things about this time of year is that I do not have to worry about a queue of recordings that require listening attention sooner rather than later. The result is that I have a chance to take stock of the entire collection, which has now grown to a size that makes the task almost impossible. One result is that it may seem to some almost banal that, given such “freedom of listening” opportunities, my choices should take me back to Ludwig van Beethoven, particularly since Beethoven did not figure at all in my recent articles about memorable concerts and recordings.

It goes without saying that there was no shortage of exposure to Beethoven in this year’s listening experiences. However, I think that what may be important is not that Beethoven is a composer “for all of eternity,” as the monument-worshippers would have us believe. Rather, as the best of both seasoned and emerging performers tend to recognize (and, more importantly, to communicate to listeners), Beethoven remains a composer “for the immediate present.” This is because, like many (if not most) of the composers that are still part of our “world of listening,” regardless of distance in the past, the music itself still admits of “present-based” interpretation, rather than nostalgia for the past. It is too often forgotten that, in Beethoven’s own day, that immediate present was all that mattered; but that was clearly the case whenever Beethoven himself was involved in performance, even after his hearing began to deteriorate.

Looking back on my own listening experiences, I realize that, even as a student, when it was almost impossible to get me to pay attention to anything other than marks on paper, I had been fascinated when one of the earliest collections of all the Beethoven piano sonatas came out when the Musical Heritage Society released the recordings made by Friedrich Gulda. It did not take me long to learn that Gulda was playing as significant a role in European jazz as he was in the classical repertoire. This may be one reason why, decades later, I had no problems encountering recordings of Keith Jarrett playing both Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Preservation may be a major priority as far as marks on score pages (in both manuscript and published forms) are concerned. However, when one is talking about creating a listening experience for an audience sitting on the other side of the proscenium, preservation is far from a primary issue. If anything, it tends to get in the way of the performer thinking for himself/herself about just what sort of experience (s)he wants his/her listeners to have. Isn’t that the primary essence (if not substance) of “music appreciation?”

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