Sunday, July 6, 2008

From Mozart to Bach to Beethoven

Having first introduced myself to Brilliant Classics through their collection of the complete works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and then received their Bach Edition as a gift (as I previously observed, in the close quarters of a condominium which already housed the Teldec Bach 2000 collection), I have now decided that, given their economies of both price and space, that it is worth investigating similar Gesamtwerk projects. Thus, having now made two ascents of "Mount Bach," I am now in the midst of my first expedition into the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven. This is a case where I have already covered most of the major categories, such as symphonies, concertos, and large portions of chamber music; but, as I did with other Brilliant collections, I am working my way through the CDs in the order in which they are packaged.

Before getting into the music itself, I wanted to make one comment on the idea of dispensing with printed liner notes and providing a data CD instead. I already observed that this CD was almost essential for finding any specific cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, since there is no systematic order to how they have been assigned to the CDs in the collection. However, the CD for the Mozart collection allowed me to pursue a specific question far more thoroughly than I could with my other resources and, in the course of that pursuit, turned up an interesting missing item. At a time when I was trying to address the phenomenological question of how the ear deals with the interplay of sequencing and simultaneity in complex contrapuntal structures, such as fugues, it occurred to me that, while I had written about this issue in the performance of Bach, I was not quite sure just how many fugues Mozart had actually written (not counting his arrangements of Bach). Since all of the files on the Mozart CD were in PDF, it was easy enough to have Windows search the entire CD for the text string "fugue." This gave me more "hits" than I found when I consulted "fugue" in the index of Louis Biancolli's Mozart Handbook; but, as I anticipated, it still left me with a rather modest number. What surprised me, however, was that I did not get a hit for the K. 546 Adagio and Fugue for string quartet (or string orchestra); and I confirmed this was a second search on the string "546!" The fugue was there in its two-piano version (K. 426); but the adagio seemed to have fallen through the cracks! My guess is that this happens to just about every project that tries to be "complete;" so I was more perplexed that it took me this long to notice the omission!

Of course recognizing that something is missing has a lot to do with the size of the search space. The Mozart collection has 170 CDs, making it the largest of the Brilliant projects. The Bach Edition clocks in with 155 CDs (which happens to be two more than in the Teldec project). The Beethoven collection is far more modest by a binary order of magnitude, with only 85 CDs; and, as I have previously observed, there are many settings in which he is clearly not at the top of his game. Nevertheless, thus far this has been an interesting journey, due in no small part to the number of "familiar and favorite faces" I have encountered among the performers. I was aware of this from the very first CD, since the symphony recordings are those of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under the baton of Kurt Masur, who remains one of my favorite conductors and whose visits to San Francisco I always treasure. I was equally delighted to encounter Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson providing the "solo trio" of the Opus 56 "Triple Concerto;" and, since I already had his recordings of the piano sonatas, I was glad to have the opportunity to hear what Friedrich Gulda made of the piano concertos.

What is more important is that these are performances that acknowledge and appreciate the degree of wit that Beethoven could bring to his compositions, particularly in the years before he had to confront the prospect of deafness as a "lasting malady." In purchasing this particular collection, my greatest fear was that too much of it was going to be "Beethoven the monument," rather than a Beethoven composed of a broad spectrum of human emotions. Now, while I am in the midst of the performances of the piano trios by the Borodin Trio, my only real worry will be with the contributions by Alfred Brendel, who does not monumentalize the music he plays but usually turns me off (both in recital and on recordings) with an intellectual perspective that ignores the forest by concentrating on too many trees. So, as they say, watch this space for further developments!

Another further development will be the arrival of the Brahms project, which is also now on the market. This one drops to only 60 CDs, and I hope it will compensate for all of the big boxes of the Deutsche Grammophon Brahms Edition that I gave up when I no longer had space for them. Truth be told, there were a lot of uneven elements in that collection, particularly when it came to Daniel Barenboim's accompaniment of the complete collection of all of the songs for solo voice. Meanwhile, the Beethoven collection should provide me with an abundance of ways to think about listening to this music while the Brahms collection is on the way!

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