Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Weekend in the Country: Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven, walking in the countryside
Hard to believe the end of the season's already here, but here’s Stuart Malina talking about the three works on May’s Masterworks Concert: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Millennium Fantasy” and Franz Liszt’s 1st Piano Concerto (both with soloist Jeffrey Biegel) and the Sixth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Pastoral Symphony, which starts off with a movement called ‘Pleasant Impressions on Arriving in the Countryside,’ continues with a ‘Scene by the Brook,’ a ‘Merry Gathering of Country-folk’ (interrupted by a thunderstorm), then concludes with a ‘Song of Thanksgiving After the Storm.’

The performances are Saturday (May 18th) at 8:00 and Sunday (May 19th) at 3:00 in the Forum with a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert. Don’t forget Student Tickets are available at a 50% discount (and this is a great concert to take young listeners to) and Student rush tickets are available for $5 a half-hour before the concert begins.

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Last fall, Stuart Malina offered a “pre-season preview” at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore where he talked about each concert on the up-coming Harrisburg Symphony season. After talking about the three works on the last program of the season, Stuart responded to a listener in the audience who said this music was “like heaven” and that he was listening to a recording of it in his car.

“As great as it is on a recording,” Stuart responded, agreeing with him that this was indeed “heavenly” music, that, still, “nothing can compare to hearing it live.” Turning to the rest of us, he continued, “if you like what you’re hearing, you need to come to the concert – because it’s apples and oranges. There IS no recording as good as a performance… doesn’t exist… even if it’s a great performance. Once it happens, it’s over. You make the recording and that experience of ‘creation in the moment’ is gone. When you’re in the audience, you’re an active participant in the creation… or rather the re-creation of art… Every time we re-create it and breathe human life into it, that’s when the magic happens. And the audience is part of that.”

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I wasn’t able to find a recording of Zwilich’s Fantasy on-line but Stuart plays enough of the opening during the video to give you an idea what to expect.

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto probably needs no introduction: it’s often played and very much liked, though a lot of Liszt’s critics didn’t care for it at first – one took exception to the [over]use of the triangle and called it a Triangle Concerto; a famous art-loving lawyer in New York wrote in his diary in 1870 that “the Liszt [first piano] Concerto is filthy and vile.” Since he went on to write “it suggests Chinese orchestral performances as described by enterprising and self-sacrificing travelers” (considering what sense Westerners could make of music from China at the time), here is a performance of the concerto with Yundi Li and the Beijing Philharmonic conducted by Zuohuang Chen:

To us, it may not seem at all problematic, listening to it today, but in the 1850s, Liszt’s “Music of the Future” was a far cry from what most people thought music ought to be – given that musical tastes in much of Europe were far more conservative than we’d think given Wagner’s popularity today (keep in mind, Liszt premiered his concerto five years after Wagner’s Lohengrin first saw the light of day).

While we might think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” is a “kinder, gentler” symphony than his dramatic 6th or his titanic Eroica, there is one comment I found in Nicholas Slonimsky’s excellent collection of bad reviews, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, that in 1823, a couple of years before the premiere of his 9th Symphony, thought the 6th was too long:

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“Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long. The Andante alone is upwards of a quarter of an hour in performance and, being a series of repetitions, might be subjected to abridgement without any violation of justice, either to the composer or his hearers.” (anonymous critic in London, June 1823)
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For those people with shorter attention spans, perhaps this version of the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral – which introduced many young listeners to the beauty of Beethoven’s symphony (myself, included) – seen through the eyes of Walt Disney’s amazing animators, will suffice. It may take the countryside around Vienna which inspired Beethoven’s music and places it for some reason in mythological Greece, it is still beautifully choreographed animation: I always smile when the little pegasuses – pegasi? – dive into the water at 3:44 to 4:04).

LvB6th: Fantasia – 1st Mvmt

For a complete performance (it is so difficult finding a decent performance and recording on YouTube to embed in these posts, and this would not be my top choice for “definitive performance”) here is the legendary Carlos Kleiber with the Bavarian State Orchestra recorded live in 1983:

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One can argue about taking Beethoven’s own metronome markings so literally (the metronome being fairly new and apparently not very consistent technology at the time), but it still better than many performances out there.

Dick Strawser

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