Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven 5 at Printworks

It’s my second time to Printworks. I’m here to see Aurora Orchestra’s Beethoven 5 theatrical ‘set piece’. I don’t necessarily feel like the target audience for this but I want to experience different formats – a useful way of seeing how the product is being packaged up for different audiences. Everything about that format is fair game. I want to be challenged.

I’ve written before about the experience of going to Printworks. The venue remains deeply frustrating. The walk from the entrance on the main road to the box office, security, toilets, and main venue takes as long as it does to go from Waterloo East train station platform to the stalls in the Royal Festival Hall. The gangways are nonsensical, the ticket checking process unnecessarily rigorous, and the bar and toilets a stupidly long way away from the performance area. In the former print hall (soon to be closed down because the surrounding area is being redeveloped) members of the Aurora Orchestra stand distanced from one another. Curly haired chisel jawed Nicholas Collon presides wizard like over the assembled musicians and crowd beating time, bathed in orange down light. The audience is considerable, filling out most of the space in the print hall. Everyone seemingly stands motionless looking reverentially at the instruments in directly in front of them. There is a sense that we’re looking up on (or down from the balcony) the conductor with an air of deference, this at odds with the egalitarian aspirations of the event – disciples paying homage to those magicking up the vibe. The acoustic is boomy, the audience oddly still, and the floor just a bit too sticky for me to move around. Given the relaxed vibe Aurora is looking to capitalise on here, I feel surprisingly tense.

Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven 5

People whoop appreciatively at the end of each movement of Beethoven’s 5th. Interspersed are ambient tracks written by multi-disciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie who in the pre-publicity blurb seeks to create an experience that ‘changes people’. As the orchestra steps off their plinths for a 15 minute off stage break, the audience murmur increases. Nwando Ebizie new music assumes background status. It is as though the audience is taking advantage of an interval, some heading out to the bar.

When the band returns for the second movement there’s a sense of relief. The audience quietens itself perhaps unsurprisingly given that the players are so close and to ignore them would be a bit rude. In this way I perceive a correlation with the more conventional concert space. Humans are oh so predictable.

Nicholas Collon conducts Aurora at Printworks

Closer to the conductor the flabbiness of the live ensemble is exposed a bit. This is understandable – the orchestra is distanced further apart than they during COVID. But this is disappointing as though one of the spectacular miracles about orchestras is being sacrificed in favour of theatrics. Through this prism the musicians are actors playing roles, the audience too, to a certain extent. We’re all of us contributing to a vibe rather than marvelling at the wonder of live unamplified orchestral music.

It reminds me of the experience TV studios – the surgical process of pre-recording an entertainment TV show in front of a live audience. The atmosphere in the studio always felt artificial to me. Nothing spontaneous. Everything commanded and directed. Enthusiasm and appreciation turned on and off for the TV cameras. The audience never really seemed they were to see the entertainment, they were to contribute to it.

That’s not entirely the case here at Printworks, not by any means. There is live music here but amplification counter-intuitively distances me from the players. Contrary to the billing you cannot easily walk around the orchestra as they play because as this gig is sold out the pseudo mosh pit is full. And people it seems get far more irritated far more quickly when you keep saying ‘excuse me’ and walk in front of them. There is an etiquette here just as there in a conventional concert hall.

Nicholas Collon

There’s a sense from some I talk to that people are here for the experience of Printworks. I’m reassured by one regular that the barrier-lined walkways and the endless grim faced security guards are all part of the ‘live experience’ people come for here. I’m not immune to the club experience. In my youth when I was thin, better looking and far more open to self-induced experiences this might have been an experience I’d have sought out. But my time stripped to the waist sweating on the dance floor is long gone. At 50 I value efficient ingress, clear signage, and an easy route home.

Aurora are good at marketing events. They know how to create a spectacle and how to get people talking. A big dystopian looking interior, clever lighting and epic sounds creates a potent theatrical sight that makes every photograph taken powerful heart-stopping stuff. But I’m not convinced the experience lives up to the imagery.

The view from the balcony

For me this isn’t Aurora at their best. Memories flood back of their St John’s Smith Square gig. Strauss and Brahms with the most playful and engaging set of programme notes. And the book they sent out to friends, supporters and journos packed full of stories to accompany their new season of concerts. Or Symphonie Fantastique partly choreographed with stylised costumes. That was innovation – it made me figuratively gasp in response. Putting a gig on in a theatrical space that is difficult to enter, where the acoustic is flabby and the front of house staff belligerent makes me sad. I hope this wasn’t conceived as an event to demonstrate relevance to a funding body – I get that it leads to fantastic imagery and that’s still valuable from a marketing perspective. On the plus side it’s an event where musicians are being paid (I hope including a bonus payment for them having to learn from memory). People are hearing Beethovens music who may not have heard if before (though I’m not sure he wrote it in such a way that it needed players being distanced in order for new listeners to appreciate it). Is it something that, as SBC claimed in a social media post, represents what classical music ‘could be’? I’m not convinced.

Community and connection at a Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concert

Just over two and a half hours on the train southwest from London sees me reach my destination in Weymouth. I’m here fo a 24-hour trip to see and natter with classical music pal (Fran Wilson) and hear a performance at the Weymouth Chamber Music series.

It’s easy to get distracted by big brands, international names and plush seating I find. These elements are of course important in providing a guarantee for a classical music experience. Kind of. Coming to Weymouth for a chamber music concert in St Mary’s Church, I’m reminded that those other brassier urban events represent only a small proportion of the wider cultural scene. There is insight (as well as joy) to be found everywhere. Sometimes you just need to look in the opposite direction.

Weymouth Harbour

It’s my first time in Weymouth. It’s cold. The mist hangs around the bay that skirts the town. Tiny waves crash determinedly on the beach along which a treasure seeker swings his metal detector. Couple amble along the shoreline. Dogs leap after tennis balls. The esplanade that skirts the bay and the line of Victorian terrace of townhouses that sit behind declare some of Weymouth’s illustrious past.

These sights and sounds are a treat for the ears, neutralising the London chatter and preparing for the concert ahead – a sort of refreshing pre-concert dip in the sea without having to shed clothes and set foot in it.

Searching for treasure on Weymouth beach

On the bill at today’s Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concert is Irish American violinist Columba Dromgoole-Cavazzi with pianist Duncan Honeybourne. She’s a recent master’s graduate of Trinity Laban in London, before that an undergraduate from Southampton University. And I learn after the concert, it was also Columba’s first post-study recital. A big deal for her. A musician at the beginning of her career.

St Mary’s Church, Weymouth

Her training route is reminiscent of peers of mine at Lancaster University – broad music studies first in a University environment followed by a specialist performance course at a conservatoire. Many friends who are now players, soloists, band members, administrators, and artistic directors followed this route. What followed was a hard slog as they took their first tentative steps in the industry, establishing their network, testing their limits, and fleshing out ambition. In this context, this concert is not only about listening but supporting. Not only a performance but a vital development opportunity. And at £5 a ticket – a small amount of money to gain access to St Mary’s Church – it’s a no-brainer of a contribution that guarantees a warm fuzzy feeling as a result. It’s also the first time I’ve handled cash in an absolute age.

From my seat upstairs on the balcony I observe bobble hats and thick winter coats obediently lined up in the pews below me. Warm extended applause greets the performers when they step onto stage. The sound of appreciation is full, hearty and sincere. I feel at home.

The programme combines the familiar (Beethoven’s Spring Sonata) with the unfamiliar G minor Violin Sonata by Debussy. Where my attention is really focussed is on the piece in the middle of the programme by Cecilia McDowall’s Strange Violin written in 2008. Highly atmospheric, the eery solitary eeriness is captivating. In places I hear bells ringing out in the piano part. It feels personal. There’s a sense of jeopardy in the music. Even though its completely new to me, there’s a sense that it’s constantly moving forward (reminding me of what my plus one at the LPO concert said about the Brett Dean work being packed full of a range of musical ideas that don’t linger).

I realise one other aspect of this concert experience. I’m not looking for elite performance, I’m looking for a sense of connection with the music and the instrumentalists. I undoubtedly get it in the McDowall piece, and so too in the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata when there are moments when everything in St Mary’s Church is utterly still. This sense of stillness – fleeting – is created because of the presence of the audience. We are collectively witnessing something. These are the moments I crave.

After the concert, I am introduced to Columba and Duncan Honeybourne. Warm appreciative smiles are exchanged before we all collectively head off to lunch. Columba’s mother joins us. Potted histories are shared before the mains delivered.

It turns out there’s an unexpected thing that links us at the table. Duncan who teaches at Southampton University (in 2020 Southampton was ranked the top university to study Music, now occupying seventh place ahead of Royal Academy and Guildhall School) speaks warmly of Lancaster University (where I studied) before recalling that a Lancaster Music alumni had in recent years played at Weymouth. Neil Aston was in the year above me, was the conductor of the Wind Orchestra I took over when he graduated and was along with the mighty fine clarinettist. Sickening in fact. It is a joy to hear he is still playing. I must make a point of seeking an opportunity to hear him play now.

In this moment of connection, 30 years have collapsed into what feels like only a few months. Memories flood back of me and my peers leaving Lancaster to embark on our fledgling careers unaware of quite what it would entail or how much determination would be required. And here we are at this table in a Weymouth restaurant with another fledgling member of the classical music family about to embark on a similar journey. Had I had the presence of mind I would have whispered ‘one step at a time’ to Columba. But I didn’t. I imagine she’ll figure it out herself.

As I head back to London I reflect on the experience I’ve had. Not just going to a church and listening to three pieces of music by a musician setting out on their career, but powerful connections made in listening and amongst people. It is another consistent and reliable aspect of the classical music experience I overlook.

London Mozart Players, Leia Zhu, Leslie Suganandarajah and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at QEH

Last night’s jaunt to QEH was my first concert of 2022. Sixteen-year-old violinist Leia Zhu was very much front and centre, taking the audience’s collective breath away with a staggering performance of Beethoven’s epic Violin Concerto. The vibe was relaxed beforehand at the pre-concert foyer chinwag. Even Leia stepped up to the microphone extending warm welcomes and heartfelt thanks before her performance, the epitome of fearless youth.

The London Mozart Players conducted by the sweet, charming and dashing Leslie Suganandarajah played with a precision I’ve not heard before. Part of that might be down to the QEH acoustic, which favours a small band and an attentive audience. The detail emanating from all of the players was discernible. The ‘thumb in the air test’ comparing the distance the bow moved at the front of the violins compared to the back suggested everyone wanted or felt compelled to put the same effort in. A gratifying sight that paid dividends in an electrifying Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Vicky Haircut was my plus one for the evening and at various points in the second half was observed wiping her eyes. This brought attention to how I was feeling throughout the first and second movements – an underlying sense of tension that had crept up on me almost unawares. Across the aisle, I saw other audience members dabbing at their eyes, presumably triggered in the same way I was by Zhu’s delicacy, precision and sparkle. I was not alone, nor Vicky Haircut.

The music that resulted was something that was bold, courageous and honest. Zhu’s rendition was a slow burn. I just didn’t realise quite how tense I felt until the beginning of the stress-relieving third movement, moments before the conclusion of which my plus-one involuntarily said out loud (quietly but audibly) ‘fucking hell!’ Heads turned. A special moment. Not only had I finally appreciated this epic work but my plus-one had submitted herself to the performance – the first time she’d heard the concerto.

All this delivered by someone who only half an hour before subverted on-stage conventions and led the pre-performance chat inviting contributions from the conductor before she played the work. A sparkling evening concluded by an unequivocal standing ovation.

Make no bones about it. Zhu is a phenomenal talent. She is reassuringly self-assured. The complete package. Everything she does with or without her violin gently reminds you that there is in amongst the darkness in the world a resolute sense of hope. There aren’t many who achieve that. Even fewer have that effect in their teenage years.

If you weren’t present, haven’t experienced the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or if you were and you fancy something similarly electrifying, you might try a recording by Vilde Frang with conductor Pekka Kuusisto and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen released by Warner Music in 2022.

Leslie Suganandarajah conducts the Ulster Orchestra at Ulster Hall in Belfast on Thursday 19 January in a concert with horn player Ben Goldscheider.

My new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto

Meet my new pal: Beethoven’s violin concerto. I was originally a little unsure of it when I first came across it. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky. Or Mendelssohn. Or Brahms. It seemed heavier, laden with I don’t know what. Much deference seemed to be paid to it. And it was long. Very long.

Something has changed in the intervening years.

It’s still epic. Other worldly. Beyond comparison. The only difference now is that the way it basically shits over everyone else’s concerto, makes it the go-to work. The preferred work.

A lot of that is down to perhaps the most powerful insight I acquired during a symposium I attended in Oxford last year (or was it this year?): that Beethoven is the master of variation.

Right up until that point it hadn’t even dawned on me that at its heart, put in its simplest terms, Beethoven takes the smallest musical idea and runs with it, ringing as much out of it in as many permutations as he can possibly muster. And, when you stumble on that its very difficult not to see that every time you hear anything by Beethoven. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is confirmation bias. Yay.

The London Mozart Players performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto directed by soloist Jonian Ilias Kadesha was a daring endeavour it seemed to me. Such an epic work surely demands more than chamber forces and insists upon a conductor to ensure cohesion?

Not so it seems. Such slavish attention to convention in terms of orchestral forces is a reflection of the very deference rife in the classical music world which perhaps will in years to come be seen to have been eradicated by the pragmatism stoked by a pandemic-driven economic crisis.

Kadesha’s topline strategy was making a virtue of these reduced forces, utilising extreme dynamic contrasts to draw the listener in closer and closer to each individual statement. Placed deep in the heart of the strings (far further back than would normally be the case in a performance with a conductor), sometimes it felt like we struggled to hear Kadesha.

No matter. Kadesha’s secret weapons were his cadenzas. The first: a sort of rock odyssey pulling in various composers (Tchaikovsky’s concerto was without doubt referenced, though the rest moved so quickly I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were). The second (in the third movement): amounted to new material with inventive orchestrations for the upper strings that widened the eyes and delighted the soul.

Kadesha and the LMP’s performance was exactly what was needed. Cruelly well-timed too. Before the concert (which also included a cracking Coriolanus Overture by the way) LMP director Julia Debruslais stood up to speak to the small but perfectly formed audience, who informed us of one subscriber who had, in the weeks since buying her ticket, died.

Jonian Ilias Kadesha’s performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the London Mozart Players is available to watch from 15 November 2020. Ticket and season subscription access information available on the LMP Classical Club website.

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast with violinist Maxim Vengerov.

Biss at Wigmore

I’m 47. I didn’t ‘go out on a Saddurday night’ until my second year sixth. I didn’t understand the appeal of pop music for a long while after my contemporaries (by which I mean years), and it wasn’t until I was 20 I understood why women needed to use more than one tampon a month.

I blame my parents for all of this. My father adored the music of Glen Miller (and latterly Syd Lawrence), my mother considered even the televised diaries of Adrian Mole risqué, and the family never really talked about bodily things either.

Similarly Beethoven. As a result my perception of Beethoven is misty. It’s shrouded in a cheap net curtain that diffuses the true image underneath.

There’s so much bollocks assumed about Beethoven. The tropes, trite phrases and cliches mask the detail. It is the detail in Beethoven’s music that yields the pleasure. If only we could trust ourselves and others to focus in on that detail.

Jonathan Biss’ Wigmore Hall recital pulled back a lot of that net curtain for me.

It wasn’t ‘on paper’ perfect. Sometimes the breakneck speed resulted in a momentary lack of clarity in the right hand. Sometimes I wanted to hear more of the gaps in between the semi quavers. And yet, it was terrifyingly taught and controlled. It wasn’t flabby around the edges by any means. It was a firework display.

Ten days of stomach flu had prompted a last minute change of programme. Biss shared this news with the audience before the second half. I’d argue it wasn’t necessary to be quite so transparent to explain at the beginning of the second half: a more cynical individual than I would describe such an act as an apology. Or better, ‘managing expectations’.

There really was no need. Biss is a consummate storyteller, pinning you against the wall with a statement he probably wasn’t aware he needed to make until an hour or so before the recital got underway. In that way these Beethoven sonatas were short stories or librettos all given a set, a cast, an orchestra and a conductor for a ‘flash’ production. Electrifying. Hutzpah. Gripping.

There were errors. Two. Maybe three. That feeling one gets when one thinks there might be an error was prevalent, but it did rather make it exhilarating.

The errors didn’t matter because the emotional connection between music, interpreter, and audience member had already been established. The errors triggered a sense of jeopardy, which in turn made us feel for him, and when he’d recovered, a sense of relief.

In that way Biss was captivating. Ridiculously fast (even when it said Andante). Sometimes it felt like it might even be out of control – on the brink of falling apart. But that still didn’t matter. Because at such a pace we saw Beethoven composition in a different way – dramatic statements, constantly shifting material, and relentless variations. And we had to cling on as we listened.

That is what live performance is all about. If only I could have learned that twenty years ago.

Thoughts arising from the Oxford Philharmonic Beethoven Festival Symposium

The only way to learn stuff is to immerse yourself in it. Just don’t ask any questions.

My Beethoven odyssey continues.

I’ve been in Oxford today at the Beethoven Festival Symposium at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in St Hilda’s College.

It was the first time I’ve been in amongst academics for a long time, so too in a conference style atmosphere – listening to papers read out, discussed, challenged, and picked over. Lots of hand-shaking. Warm smiles too. Some odd hair. Mild unnecessary curmudgeonly-ness at times. Fascinating. And one or two unexpected tidbits, highlights of which I share below along with a few thoughts.

Beethoven and numeracy

During a delightfully detailed presentation about the numbering and mis-numbering of variations, one tidbit surprised me: Beethoven wasn’t terribly good at multiplication it seems, but was stronger instead adding and subtracting. We know this because of his ‘conversation books’, books he scribbled down his exchanges, notes and ideas (?) with his friends once his deafness had taken hold.

Academics aren’t necessarily great presenters.

Some of the delivery styles masked the academics’ considerable knowledge and expertise.

Some might see that as me poking fun or being mean-spirited (come get me), but there is a surprising twist to all of this.

Just as people like me (and considerably better people with much bigger networks) are called upon to articulate the art form in a manner that suits a particular audience, so I’m reminded how academics can sometimes need their ideas articulated in slightly plainer or, in some cases, slightly more engaging language. So we all need each other. Which is nice.

Beethoven 9 as four movements plus a conflated symphony

I have always struggled a little with Beethoven 9. It’s never really hung together in the way I assumed a symphony should be. There are jarring moments.

I know that’s a bit presumptious. I mean who the actual fuck am I to dare question Beethoven’s greatness?

But Professor David B Levy – the best speaker of the bunch by far today – offered a useful primer in his survey of the origins of the symphony, and the way its been ‘used and abused’ to meet a variety of cultural and political agendas.

In addition to simply describing the five movements in terms of the emotional content each touches upon, ie first movement – tragedy, second movement – farce, third movement – lyricism, and the fifth movement – joy (where the ‘fourth movement’ is a transition sequence), he also pointed to a range of other analyses of the last movement that depicted it as symphony in itself. You may not necessarily buy into the view. And let’s be honest, I may not necessarily have grasped the finer points of his presentation because this was an academic paper, but it was quite a neat look on the work.

Keyboard maker guillotine inventer

Turns out that piano maker Tobias Schmidt was also the inventor of the guillotine, and realised quite quickly that he was going to make more money from the patent for the guillotine than any piano he made and sold. Tut tut.

Was Beethoven a better businessman than he realised?

If I’ve understood Elaine Sisman’s paper correctly, Beethoven was quite focussed on making sure he got credit for his own work, so much so that the discussion around opus numbers for his work (normally a retrospective labelling of a composer’s output after death?) was robust whilst he was alive. Does that mean that Beethoven had an eye for his own legacy? More reading necessary I suspect.

A new discovery: Piano Sonata No.32 (and No.24)

This was a free lunchtime recital given by one of the speakers – William Kinderman – who provided an annotated introduction before performing the extensive two movement sonata.

I’m fascinated with those moments when I connect with something unfamiliar. What was the element in Kinderman’s performance that pulled me in? The opening of the second movement . The word ‘repose’ had been used a great deal during Kinderman’s introduction. The stillness of the opening arietta signifiied repose – a musical depiction of utopia? And it had that effect: time slowed down; stillness; completeness; serenity. It wasn’t twee: we weren’t listening to a fine tune which went through a series of permutations. It was a musical argument expressing a complex series of emotions. There was chromaticism. Nothing settled. But my attention was completely hooked. I ended up listening to No.32, No. 23, and No.24 from Brendel’s landmark collection on Decca on the way home. I think I’m hooked.

Emotion not melody

This seems a bit of an odd observation to share on the face of it. But I’m increasingly of the mind that maybe a way of appreciating Beethoven as a newcomer (ie me) is to think of the emotional quality of his music first. If one were to listen out for melody first – ie listen to Beethoven like one might approach Mozart on a first listen, then Beethoven’s unorthodoxy, especially in his later works, is going to make Beethoven perhaps seem like a tall order. There is so much emotion in it, as in the piano sonatas, and so much narrative, that to only listen out for the mechanics of constituent parts is to miss the point of Beethoven entirely. This thought is essentially the musical equivalent of the advice a playwright friend of mine gave me before I watched an unfamiliar Shakespeare: “listen for the gist – be very light touch about it”.

Why so much attention?

Obviously, I get it’s Beethoven 250 this year. We all love an anniversary. But a question arose for me part way through the day: why do so many study the man and his music so closely and so much? Is can’t be just because he’s widely accepted as a genius. That doesn’t really account for the fervour or the range of views contained in the endless tomes. Is it possibly because there’s a lot of evidence to pick over? Is Beethoven a musicologist’s Aladdin’s Cave?

I like it though. I like the forensic attention. I like the year long immersion. And I’m reminded that what hooks me in is the three dimensional world that a musicologist exists in and, through their work, perhaps unintentionally creates.

The turning point in the day was seeing one of Beethoven’s early sketches for Eroica. Nothing especially moving in and of itself. Rather, the sight of his initial ideas for a work that is so very well known brought a man known from a bust careering into the present day. The handwriting made the herculean effort of a man from the past, a more human thing. The evidence made it real. In a split second, two hundred and fifty years didn’t seem quite such a long time ago.

And when those things from the past arrive in the present all shiny and new, there’s an electric charge. Exploring Beethoven further has all the addictive qualities that soaking up the life and work of Benjamin Britten in the early 2000s.

In our on-demand time-poor attention deficit world, it seems so tragic that something so wonderfully absorbing and enriching is going overlooked because of a false assumption that no-one is interested in detail. We really must try harder.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify