Beethoven is not Enough…Apparently

Growing up, when my sister and I would fight, my mother would trot out the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So when this bizarre and inexplicable recording of the Beethoven 9th Symphony + narration landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago, my first instinct was to quietly push it into the corner where it could begin collecting dust. Unplayed and still in its shrink-wrapped jewel case, it wouldn’t bother anyone and I wouldn’t be tempted to say anything bad about it.

Then I remembered another old adage: “Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.” That one’s not my mother’s–it’s from the longtime Notre Dame footballer Frank Leahy. Considering Leahy won two national championships as a player and four more as a coach, I’m inclined to give a certain amount of credence to his wisdom.

While I refuse to call any artistic pursuit “stupid,” pairing the Beethoven 9th Symphony with 90 seconds of prose (Where have you gone, my revolutionary friend?, by the acclaimed author Yann Martel) giving it a fancy title, and releasing it as some kind of grand piece of theater is just silly. Beethoven: Human Misery – Human Love, the album is called. In it, conductor Kent Nagano tinkers with Beethoven. He opens the recording with the first 10 seconds of the final movement of the 9th Symphony, followed by the aforementioned brief narration read by Martel, then a complete performance of the 9th Symphony, and finally the Martel narration translated into French, presumably to satisfy any pretentiously bilingual Québécois who might otherwise get offended. In total, you get Beethoven’s 9th (63:22), plus 3:31 of filler.

Nagano, in his program notes, has the audacity to say this qualifies as an “expansion of the symphony to a symphony-cantata,” and that it “means not just a marginal expansion of the esthetic space, but also implies a more essential change in the place music occupies in regard to society.” This has all been accomplished by simply adding a 90-second narration (plus French translation) to the Beethoven 9th Symphony. Yeah. Right.

But then, Nagano has been doing this for years. In 2009, he and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal released an updated version of the composer’s Egmont incidental music, substituting Goethe’s text for something by critic and musicologist Paul Griffiths about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nagano has released other recordings of Beethoven symphonies with the OSM under the titles Le Souffle Du Temps (In the Breath of Time) and Gods, Heroes and Men.

So this re-contextualization of Beethoven is an ongoing multi-year project. Which means early on, someone, somewhere said, “You know what Beethoven’s music really needs is a bit of a remodel. That’ll really spruce it up.”

But Beethoven’s music isn’t a tired old kitchen in need of granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. To me, adding anything to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the ultimate act of egotism. Is the work not good enough to stand on its own? Brahms sure thought so. He spent more than 20 years quivering in the shadow of Beethoven before he finally mustered up the courage to write his own first symphony. Do we really need 90 seconds of third-party “emotional context” to fully understand this highly personal valedictory musical statement?

After justifying the inclusion of Martel’s essay in his program notes, Kent Nagano goes on to write about the earth-shattering influence Beethoven’s 9th Symphony exerted on “subsequent development of symphonic music and the cultural practices of middle-class society. No work,” Nagano writes, “has had to stand its ground as this composition has done in the clash of opinions and judgments.” In other words, IT DOESN’T NEED HELP. Nagano says nothing further about Martel’s words or why he (Nagano) felt it necessary to “upgrade” Beethoven in this way.

The music is why we buy recordings. This particular performance is interesting in that it’s the inaugural concert from the OSM’s new hall, La Maison symphonique de Montréal. Nagano (formerly of LA Opera) leads a solid, but uninspired performance. I won’t fault the conductor or the concert hall for this as much as Sony’s recording and mixing engineers, but at times the singers (62-strong from the OSM Chorus and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir) are nearly completely swallowed by the orchestra. A single voice pops out here and there. The vocal blend is just off. Also, I’ve listened over and over to the entire performance–both with and without the ridiculous “bonus” material–and I keep hoping to hear some excitement there. But each time it just sounds like it’s a symphony they’re playing for the 127th time. At the end, even the audience barely manages polite applause.

Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. But a lukewarm Beethoven 9, plus the confounding inclusion of this extra filler material left me asking the question, “Just what the hell were they thinking?” If you simply must check out the performance, fortunately a basic function of any CD player is “program” mode. You can cue up tracks 3-6 and at least filter out the detritus.

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One thought on “Beethoven is not Enough…Apparently

  1. Bingo. Last week, I listened to the entire performance on headphones late at night (on CD!) Just a flat-out boring, uninspired, traditional performance — with de rigueur ‘stylized’ HIPP accoutrements (but not ‘all in’) — and a wonky recorded mix. The poem was stupid, and Nagano’s pretentious drivel booklet notes seriously bummed me out. The whipping cream of irony is amazing: to wit, in the closing paragraph he writes, ‘…music has often managed successfully to resist this sort of exploitation and abuse.’ Pas ici.

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