Beethoven's Nine Symphonies Featured this Fall on Symphony @ 7

Oct 16, 2017

This fall on Symphony @ 7, Thursday evenings on Classical 101, I'm presenting all nine Beethoven symphonies (one each week), culminating with the Choral Symphony at the end of November.

To round out the hour, I'm also featuring some of Beethoven's contemporaries — composers who were relevant to Beethoven and his music: Ignaz Pleyel, Muzio Clementi, Johann Hummel, Luigi Cherubini and, of course, Haydn and Mozart.

For the symphonies, I chose a single orchestra and conductor, the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vanska, to provide a kind of consistency in the sound and interpretive approach. My hope is that this will allow the changes listeners hear in the sound of the symphonies to perhaps reflect more the evolution of Beethoven the composer, rather than differing interpretations by various conductors and orchestras.

I know it's not a perfect solution because, with all the historical knowledge now available, a particular conductor can have differing ideas on how to approach a particular symphony. For instance, should Nos. 1 and 2 be played in such a way as to emphasize their connection to the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, or to bring out the bigger, more Romantic "Beethovian" sound of the later symphonies?

If you listen to recordings by early music groups like Tafelmusik or the Academy of Ancient Music, you'll hear something very different from the now "old-fashioned" sound of the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan or the Philharmonia and Otto Klemperer.

Today, fortunately for us, there are lots of ways to go when deciding what recordings to listen to, and people will have differing criteria depending on their opinions and tastes. I think that's part of the richness and fun of classical music now. There is such a treasure house of music out there.

There may be no "one way" to play Beethoven, or any other composer's music, when you to stop to think about it. But there are things to be considered.

In addition to the period-instrument movement, with its historically informed practices, there has been, for some time now, serious thought and study given to performing music of the past on modern instruments as well. 

The very fine Minnesota Orchestra and Vanska seem to have settled on an approach to performing Beethoven that has now become the standard: using modern instruments but incorporating some performance practices based on historical scholarship in regard to tempos, phrasing or articulation of bowing for the strings and so on.

They blend old and new as well as anyone — and perhaps better than some — not to mention that this set of the Beethoven symphonies by the Minnesotans received some great critical reviews, too. If you are new to Beethoven and his nine symphonies, this is a good place to start.

To hear the rest of the cycle of Beethoven's great masterpieces, join me at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19 as I continue the series with Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, the Eroica on Classical 101's Symphony @ 7.