Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Deserted Island CD: Ashkenazy & Philharmonia do Beethoven's 5th & 7th

You would need to have been born deep in a jungle and die young to not be familiar with the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. And though his 7th Symphony isn’t all that popular among those who don’t listen to classical music regularly, its 2nd movement shows up in surprising numbers of film (though non-classical-music-fans would likely be unable to identify it). That naturally means that there are bus loads of recordings of these two pieces... Though if you have experimented with different recordings of the same piece of classical music before, then you would realize that such a notion that ‘the goal of classical music is to intone the music exactly as written by its composer’... or 'to replicate the ideal sound of the piece,' as if anyone aside from the composer can actually claim to have the perfect knowledge of what this ‘ideal’ sounds like, is completely preposterous. Any ‘objective’ notes written on the sheet of the music inevitably takes on a subjective quality the moment it is played by a living musician.

Just exactly how loud should the note be played? Or how long? At what speed? And how should the music be phrased to convey ‘what’ feeling? Or to portray ‘what’ emotion? Unless you are the composer, you don’t really have the final word on it... And I am willing to bet that many composers would find that their ideas about their own music can actually change upon returning to it after having gone off to experience something else for a while. Every performer brings his/her own experience and perspective to the piece of music they play... And this performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy resonated with me so much when I first bought a cassette tape of it back in the mid 90's that no other recordings of the Fifth Symphony would satisfy me when I lost the cassette during a move in 1998. I spent years listening through all the recordings of this symphony at various music stores until finally stumbling on this Decca Label CD of it... Aside from my first encounter with Vesselina Kasarova’s Rosina in 2005 which converted me to an opera-fanatic, no other piece of music had affected me so much as this one.

Symphony No. 5 in C-minor, "Fate"
Allegro con brio
2. Andante con moto

3. Allegro - Scherzo
4. Allegro

(Recorded in 1982)
The first movement, Allegro con brio, is famous for its 8 jolting opening beats from the heavy strings (basses and cellos) that are thought to symbolize ‘fate knocking on the door.’ The imperious pounding that calls its listeners to gather up their arms and prepare
for war (or revolution... or an uprising against tyranny), propels the music forward into a storm as the lighter strings (violins and violas) answer the call and pass the words around. The same opening call transforms itself into a less insistent but even more persuasive melody that alludes to a higher, nobler calling that makes it practically impossible for anyone to refuse to follow Beethoven’s music in its drive into the sinister bank of dark clouds gathering up ahead. The woodwinds provide an assuring glow of light from behind the clouds that render the prospect of a heroic death on the battlefield welcoming.

Being cut down in this divinely inspired combat doesn't even seem a possibility anyhow, thanks to Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia’s sleek no-nonsense approach to the piece. Every note counts as if everything has been taken care of, leaving no room for philosophizing or melodramatizing... We’re heading off to battle, and we couldn’t care less whether we’ll come out of it alive or not!

The melancholic second movement, Andante con moto, perhaps my all time favorite chunk of symphonic music, sees us all in the calm before the storm. All the military preparation has been made. Now we have a bit of quiet time to reflect on things a bit, to anticipate what would happen, and to pay a brief tribute to Death... who is surely watching over the battlefield eager to reap our heroic offerings. Ashkenazy does a wonderful job in not letting this movement turn melodramatic or lapse into self doubt or pity. The ‘hero’ is fully aware of his mortality and 'how quiet it can all get when the crickets die', but... like Albus Dumbledore and those other wizards who don’t think that death is the worst possible thing in life, he isn’t afraid of it.

This performance haunted me for years with its beautiful balance between the brighter theme of the hero's determination and the insistence of the fate (basses) that awaits its fulfillment. Ashkenazy's no nonsense vision jived so mesmerizingly with the Missourian electrical storms I had to drive through while going to work in the middle of the night that when I finally found this CD of the same performance after many years of listening through entire shelves of Beethoven 5th at music stores (was too dumb to note the names of the performers when I had the cassette), it was like Christmas in July!

The final two movements, Allegro- scherzo and Allegro-finale are connected. The settled strings opening finishes up the contemplation over the prospect of death before the hero is called back by the horn and brass calls, in a variation of the ‘fate’ theme of the first movement, to focus more on the presence as active battle draws near. The agitated double-basses stir up the charged atmosphere with a sonic adrenaline rush before it all settles into a watchful quietness that gives way as the battle commences with the drum rolls and the swiping strings under the watchful eyes of Fortuna, who hovers over the scene in the form of the French horns. The triumphal outcome is never in doubt in the sound of the Philharmonia under Ashkenazy, whose phrasing of each musical statement draws such vitality out of Beethoven’s heroic score that the air in my den turns electric every time I put this CD on the stereo. Everything is done just right (well, for yours truly, anyhow... which was why I kept hunting it down for years after I lost my first recording of this performance).

Symphony No.7 A-major
Poco sostenuto - Vivace
2. Allegretto
3. Presto
4. Allegro con brio
(Recorded in 1984)
In a stark contrast to the previous symphony, which to me, is a romanticized vision of war by someone who has never participated an armed conflict in real life and who is so brimmed with the conviction of certain victory as to exude the air of invincibility. The 7th Symphony was composed by a man who has known sufferings, who has experienced the gore and has smelled Death as it brushed past him to snatch the last breath from the fellow he was standing next to... and who is now determined to make the time that he has count. The opening movement, Poco sostenuto - vivace, with its pastoral dance beginning, will likely remind some of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral.” Unlike that work, though, the 7th doesn’t come with a composer-provided program specifying exact ‘images’ being depicted in the music... which is one of the reasons why I like this work more.

The pastoral opening dance graduates into a burst of enthusiasm 5 minutes into the movement, and it is a different sort of enthusiasm than the one heard in the 5th Symphony. It is sustained by the unsinkable oboe, whose perk rubs onto the other instruments. It is like watching a mellow crowd of drinking buddies in a pub taking turn ad lib-ing a tale that one had started, with each new improvisation in the story introducing another orchestral modulation... Each one more fantastic than the previous, until they somehow land back on the E that leads everyone back to the original idea that started the whole thing in the first place. From then on any illusion of incoherence is banished in a blaze of glory.

It is to Ashkenazy and his Philhamonia Orchestra’s credit that one doesn’t feel a distractingly abrupt gear-change from the end of the first movement to the very dark premonition that begins the second movement, Allegretto. If you have seen the film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, this is the thing you hear in the movie as the devastated Mr. Holland describes the deafness that Beethoven suffered as he penned this composition (devastated because his son has just been born deaf). With the strings intoning the subdue and poignant main melody which then weds with the violas’ hovering theme as the basses pulse beneath them as if they are night creatures lurking just outside of the ring of the campfire, intending on swallowing the little blaze of light whole. But the little fire inside the ring of darkness is a persistent one. I don't know what exactly sustains this weary soul so that it would dare to overpower the suppressive bout of a depression as the one this music demonstrates, but this music really shows how to brood properly. You can indulge in the dark mood a bit as long as you refuse to let it rule your life!

Even the brooding Beethoven doesn't stay immortally depressed and 'snaps out of it' by the energetic third movement, Presto. It begins without much conviction... As if the weary soul is strong-arming himself out of the funk by manufacturing a burst of enthusiasm out of thin air. But it works, as the horns pick up the cue and the artificial quality of the enthusiasm turns vivid and real. Though there are several mini-relapses, the music wills itself out of it, dispatching the reeling demon (horns) with the strings’ final decisive chords.

Victory! Bright and sweet taste of victory snatched from the terrible jaws of defeat (as depicted in the 2nd movement)! The final movement, Allegro con brio, is literally a victory dance... and perhaps a slightly drunken one at that! The Philharmonia under Ashkenazy never lapses into incoherence, however. It is a victory well earned. Considering that this symphony was first performed in 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon, I can just imagine the crowd of audience getting up from their seat and dance around to celebrate their escape from tyranny all over again.

If you are still awake after all this rambling, then perhaps I don’t have to tell you if I recommend the purchase of this recording or not. The sound is beautifully well balanced and clean. And though there are equal performances of the 7th Symphony, Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia’s reading of the 5th is nothing short of definitive for me.

Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 & 7 (Ashkenazy/Philharmonia Orchestra)
CD. Play-time: 77:05 min. Case-lining includes track list and a brief note on the conception and premiere performance of the music (in English) by Kenneth Chalmers.


berenice said...

ah mister Smorg wonderful post indeed! i studied classical piano when i was a child and my studio's name was Ludwig Van Beethoven, so you can only imagine how professor loved him... masterful pieces indeed!

hey!! aren't we having some Beethoven here in San Diego soon?

Kim said...

It was so cool to see you write a post on this recording because I ADORE this recording and I didn't know how much I loved it until recently. I grew up on this recording - it was the first one I ever remember listening to (at about 8 or 9 years old) and it's the only one I heard until I came to college. I heard other recordings of these symphonies and thought, "Why isn't it as good as I remember?" This is truly an incredible recording and I took it for granted for almost ten years! I'm happy to see that someone else discovered it and loves it as much as I do. :)

Smorg said...

Hola Bere: You're right indeed. We have a Beethoven festival coming up at the Symphony this April. Maybe I'll see you at one of the concerts, ay? :oD

Hiya Kim: I'm delighted that you love this recording, too! It doesn't seem to be as well known compared to other CDs (like the Karajan ones), but the way the 5th goes in this performance is really magical. :oD I can listen to the 2nd movement on repeat all day long!

Thanks a bunch for dropping by, maties. Hope your weekend has started well! :oD