La Scena Musicale

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Illuminated by Kovacevich

by Paul E. Robinson

American-born pianist Stephen Kovacevich has made his home for many years in England. He must like it there because he rarely visits North America these days. He made an exception with Nagano and the OSM last summer and last night again at Nagano’s invitation – and with Nagano and his family in the audience - he gave a recital at the Knowlton Festival in Québec. The performance confirmed Kovacevich’s reputation as the ‘thinking man’s pianist’.

For the first half of the concert, Kovacevich chose Bach’s Fourth Partita and Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). In both pieces he appeared to be probing the music deeply, without necessarily inviting listeners to share his thoughts.

The dynamic range adopted in the Bach was extremely limited and in the Schumann, Kovacevich confined his playing to mutterings and murmurings. But there were compensations. I have rarely heard the two contrapuntal lines in the Allemande movement of the Bach played with such lyrical beauty in both parts. And in the Schumann one was reminded that these may be scenes from childhood but they are not intended for children. This is a man looking back on childhood with a great sadness; those dreams he had so long ago are gone now, crushed by the weight of the real world of adulthood. The piece is often played with a sense of nostalgia but rarely with the disheartening melancholy Kovacevich gave to it.

After intermission came the mighty Beethoven Diabelli Variations. Before playing this daunting piece, Kovacevich spoke briefly to the audience. He pointed to the work’s experimental quality, and suggested that this is a ‘mysterious’ composition in the sense that its meaning is not altogether clear. Does it end on a hopeful note or only an illusion of hopefulness?

Since this is a late work and as Kovacevich pointed out, Beethoven had lived a very unhappy life - especially with respect to the opposite sex - one might expect all the late quartets, piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations to be full of sorrow and despair. This is not the case at all. What all these works do share is the experimental quality - evidence of the composer at the height of his powers, creating new forms and using the piano and other instruments in a myriad of new ways. One could argue that the older Beethoven was preoccupied with creativity rather than despair.

The Diabelli Variations have been at the heart of Stephen Kovacevich’s repertoire for his entire career. He made his European debut with the piece in 1961. He recorded it for Philips a few years later and just last year – forty years later – he recorded it again for Onyx Classics.

Kovacevich’s Knowlton Festival performance of the Diabelli Variations was far more extroverted than his Bach and Schumann. He does not dazzle the listener with his technique; rather he concentrates on tone quality and what one might call the soul of the music. Other pianists can play faster and louder. What Kovacevich gives us instead is a look inside the music and inside the composer’s psyche.

Many composers were invited to write variations on Diabelli’s banal little tune. Beethoven knew as well as anyone that the tune was superficial, but then went on to demonstrate that every element of it could be used as the basis for development, that one thing could lead to another, and another. Ultimately, as Beethoven showed us, one could end up with something rather profound. Put it all together and you have a master class in compositional technique and a window into Beethoven’s soul.

Many of the variations in this work are abrasive and some are downright gloomy. Some quote Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Mozart (Don Giovanni). As Kovacevich pointed out in his remarks, after the monumental fugue, Beethoven ends up with music resembling late Mozart. Was this an ironic commentary on Diabelli’s tune? Is Beethoven suggesting what a great composer like Mozart could have done with Diabelli’s mundane material? Or was this Mozartean minuet tacked on to leave the listener with classical repose after the storm and stress of what has come before? The mystery persists.

This is why works such as the Diabelli Variations are infinitely engrossing. No single performance can ever reveal all its facets. Stephen Kovacevich has spent a lifetime exploring the piece and it was a privilege to hear his latest thoughts. He is one of the supreme interpreters of the piece.

At the age of 69, Kovacevich remains a unique and important artist. Given the infrequency of his North American appearances – watch for a recital in Chicago next season – his recordings are invaluable. Many of his older Philips recordings are still in the catalogue and his traversal of the complete Beethoven sonatas for EMI is readily available. There is also a recent EMI DVD containing live performances of the Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111.

Coming Next: Tonight (Thursday) soprano June Anderson gives a master class at 5 pm and at 8 pm Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. On Friday, prizewinners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia are featured with the Festival Orchestra under Nagano in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

BEETHOVEN: Ideals of the French Revolution

Maximilian Schell, narrator; Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, OSM Chorus / Kent Nagano

Analekta AN 2 9942-3 2CDs (108 min 15 s)
Musically, The General is essentially Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play Egmont. But the original Goethe text has been set aside and replaced by a new one created by the Welsh music critic Paul Griffiths. The General is based on the Rwandan experiences of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, as recounted in his book Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire was head of the ill-fated UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-1994. The world simply wasn’t interested in preventing the massacre and Dallaire returned to Canada a broken man.

For some reason Griffiths decided to tell the Rwanda story without mentioning either names or places. But without any mention of Rwanda, Dallaire, Tutsis and Hutus, Griffiths’ text is almost meaningless. This recording has been issued in both an English and a French version but neither one includes the text.

On the positive side, Nagano and the OSM play Beethoven’s music with great intensity. And the same goes for their performance of the Fifth Symphony on the second CD. Nagano’s performance indicates he has been strongly influenced by the period instrument specialists. He takes all the repeats and very quick tempi in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings. He has the strings play with little or no vibrato much of the time. The opening of the slow movement sounds strikingly different with this approach. There are some inconsistencies: why eliminate vibrato in the strings but allow it in the bassoon solos? And one can’t help wondering what the Fifth Symphony has to do with “the ideals of the French Revolution.”

Some fine music-making on this set but lots of questions too. Fans of Kent Nagano – and there are a growing number of them – will want to have this album as the first recorded documentation of his work in Montreal.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 2 & 7

Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
BIS SACD-1816 Hybrid SACD (75 min 49 s)
***** $$$$
It has been a banner year for collectors who aim to acquire fifty or more recorded cycles of the Nine. Boxed sets have been arriving steadily and most of them reflect an advanced level of Beethoven performance even if the interpretations seem to be increasingly generic. This is the concluding installment of the Minnesota cycle and it is plainly a cut above the rest. Instead of recording live concerts in rapid succession, BIS took the traditional route to excellence: rehearsal followed by concert performances and then into the studio. Symphonies Nos 2 and 7 come out sounding as fresh and vital as previous issues. All credit is due to Osmo Vänskä for taking the Bärenreiter Urtext Edition to heart while eschewing idiosyncratic stylistic trends. The result is fundamental Beethoven, never lacking in profundity and never neglecting the robust good humour of its creator. The orchestra deserves as much recognition. The playing is exemplary throughout but the ability to render perfect piano passages (as here) is something that is embedded in an ensemble’s musical DNA. There have been fine Beethoven cycles from New York (Bernstein/Sony), Cleveland (Szell/Sony) and Chicago (Solti/Decca) but taken as a whole, Minnesota can now claim the US national title on the basis of consistent inspiration, dedicated musicianship and the highest quality of recorded sound.

- Stephen Habington

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Naturally Beethoven

Les Vents de Montréal / André Moisan; David DQ Lee, contre-ténor; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, piano
ATMA Classique ACD2 3004
***** $

Atma Classique lançait récemment la collection Naturally, une série de six disques présentés dans un emballage éco-responsable de carton recyclé. Si ce soudain élan vert est prétexte à la réédition à prix modique d’excellents disques du catalogue, tant mieux !
Naturally Beethoven propose du maître allemand une sélection hors du commun, en majorité des œuvres arrangées pour ensemble de neuf instruments à vent (hautbois, clarinettes, bassons et cors par paire, et contrebasson). Autorisée par le compositeur lui-même, la présente version de la Symphonie no 7, op. 92 révèle ce chef-d’œuvre sous un jour nouveau. L’ensemble à vent s’avère le véhicule parfait pour capter l’énergie, la fièvre de cette musique que Richard Wagner a appelée une « apothéose de la danse » et Romain Rolland, une « orgie de rythme ». Il met en valeur toute une variété de dynamiques et de timbres que l'oreille a normalement du mal à distinguer dans la masse sonore du grand orchestre. Les bassons et contrebasson, entre autres, émettent des sonorités d’outre-tombe qui colorent parfaitement la marche funèbre du deuxième mouvement. Rarement aurons-nous entendu une 7e si bien rythmée, si enlevée, si acrobatique !

Le Septuor, op. 20 pour vents et cordes (ici dans un arrangement pour vents seulement) s’inscrit, avec sa structure en 6 mouvements, dans la lignée des divertimenti de Haydn et de Mozart. Voilà un Beethoven jeune, imaginatif et confiant, dont la musique ne laisse en rien présager le compositeur tourmenté des années ultérieures. Les Vents de Montréal, sous la direction d’André Moisan, montrent ici leur folle virtuosité et un sens de l’ensemble et de la justesse remarquables. Une mention à Simon Aldrich pour la belle cadence du finale. En complément de disque, on trouvera deux mélodies pour contre-ténor rarement entendues. David DQ Lee et Yannick Nézet-Séguin, qui l'accompagne au piano, s’y révèlent de sensibles interprètes. Lee possède une belle voix, bien conduite dans les piani, et Nézet-Séguin réussit à tirer de la partie de piano relativement simple une singulière profondeur.

- Louis-Pierre Bergeron

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beethoven’s Symphonies: A Guided Tour

John Bell Young
New York: Amadeus Press, 2008
224 pp. plus CD
ISBN13 978-1574671698
**** $$$$

John Bell Young begins Beethoven’s Symphonies by proposing to change his tune. Instead of his usual technical jargon, Young offers to follow the melodies and rhythms.In the first installment of the Unlocking the Master series, he approaches Beethoven’s nine symphonies methodically. Each symphony has its own chapter and each movement has its own section. True to his introduction, Young spends the majority of the text explaining shifts in tempo, form, and key signature. This information is important to understand the symphony, but it lacks deeper analysis that would articulate the wonder of Beethoven’s music. The meat and potatoes are there, but where’s the flambé? Young’s book makes up for its analytical gaps by introducing the reader to the world of classical analysis. While discussing the symphonies’ history, Young references important works from Theodor Adorno, Heinrich Schenker, and Leonard Bernstein. The book also gives essential historical context to the compositions and performances. Although Beethoven’s Symphonies lacks analysis, with the CD of excerpts it makes a fair introduction to Beethoven’s symphonies and the wide world of musical appreciation.

- Andrew Buziak

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Beethoven : Intégrale des symphonies

hr-Sinfonieorchester, Hugh Wolff
hrmj 039-07

Le meilleur moyen de se plonger dans l’œuvre d’un compositeur et de pouvoir suivre son cheminement reste l’écoute d’une bonne intégrale. Dans le cas de Beethoven, probablement le compositeur le plus influent de l’histoire de la musique, une intégrale de ses neuf symphonies s’avère absolument indispensable; c’est le genre (avec les sonates pour piano) dans lequel son langage musical et expressif s’est le plus développé. Dans ses premières symphonies, on entend clairement l’influence des grands maîtres classiques, Haydn et Mozart, mais on peut déjà sentir une énergie colossale qui gronde et qui ne demande qu’à exploser. Alors Beethoven explore, élargit la forme, enrichit sa palette expressive de sonorités robustes et dissonantes. Dès sa troisième symphonie, et à chacune des suivantes, Beethoven réinvente le genre : introductions plus élaborées, remplacement du menuet traditionnel par des scherzos impétueux, musique à programme, utilisation de la voix; toutes des innovations apportées par Beethoven et qui contribuèrent à l’émergence du romantisme. Les symphonies de Beethoven eurent une influence énorme sur ses successeurs, notamment Schubert et Brahms.

La présente intégrale est digne d’intérêt et saura faire sa place parmi les grandes de la discographie (Philharmonique de Berlin/Karajan, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner, entre autres). Le chef américain Hugh Wolff a mis au service de la musique ses connaissances acquises en interprétation d’époque : on retrouve avec joie cors et trompettes naturels, petites timbales et cordes jouant avec un vibrato minimal. Ceci, sans rien enlever à l’expressivité de cette musique, en rehausse les timbres; voici certainement ce que Beethoven avait en tête lorsqu’il composait ses chefs d’œuvre. Les cuivres ont beau être éclatants (quels effets de bouché aux cors !), ils ne sont jamais écrasants. Ceci permet aux bois de jouer à l’aise sans crainte d’être perdus dans la masse sonore. Wolff fait ressortir le caractère si personnel de chacune des symphonies et tire de son orchestre une énergie impressionnante. Dans la 9e symphonie (Hymne à la Joie), la seule à être captée devant public, les voix sont solides et justes; on ne perd rien du chœur.

Le livret inclus dans le coffret constitue une belle surprise. On y trouve quantité d’images d’archives, de portraits du compositeur et de textes informatifs : chaque symphonie est décortiquée et son contexte éclairci. On comprend donc mieux le cheminement de Beethoven. Seul regret : le texte n’est qu’en anglais et en allemand.

-Louis-Pierre Bergeron

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Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; Paavo Järvi, dir.
Sony/BMG 88697129332 Hybrid SACD (69 min 23 s)
*** $$$

"Järvi the Younger" kicked off his Beethoven symphony cycle with vivid, high impact recordings of Nos. 3 and 8 (RCA Red Seal 88697-13066-2). Therein, he nailed his colours to the mast: swift, sure, deft articulation and a special bag of tricks for the kettledrums (Järvi is a percussionist by trade). Grandeur and rugged good humour in the tradition of Furtwängler and Klemperer are not on board for the voyage. The present issue is cast in the same mold and brings a palpable hit and a near miss. Volume 1 earned high praise in some quarters for the originality of the interpretations. After exhaustive comparisons it can be reported that Järvi is not doing anything that Carl Schuricht and Hermann Scherchen (among others) weren’t doing fifty years ago. What Järvi has going for him is a first class chamber orchestra and a state-of-the-art Direct Stream Digital recording.

The Fourth Symphony fits the conductor’s concept hand-in-glove. It is a very convincing reading and an exciting listening experience. The Seventh is another matter. After the fireworks generated in his account of the Eroica, it really seems underplayed. The lack of grip may be due to patching from recording sessions two years apart and wholesale changes in orchestra personnel during the interval. In terms of other recent recordings, Paavo Järvi is outclassed by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Oehms), Sir Charles Mackerras (Hyperion) and Mikhail Pletnev (DG). One disc will neither make nor break a Beethoven symphony cycle but a weak Seventh is a serious obstacle to success. If SACD surround sound is an absolute necessity, a safer recommendation would be the continuing cycle from Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS).


Carl Schuricht and Hermann Scherchen defied the stereotype of the old-fashioned German conductor by infusing their performances with freshness and flexibility. Their recorded Beethoven traversals from the 1950s exemplify musical qualities normally associated with developments of recent decades. The CDs (5 disc boxes - mono):

-Schuricht: EMI CZS 7 62 910 2 - Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. The conductor really gets his Paris orchestra "punching above its weight" in this stirring set. It may be hard to find but still keeps its place in EMI European catalogues at bargain price.

-Scherchen: Archipel ARPCD 0201 - Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Archipel re-issued the set in 2005 in a 24-bit re-mastering and virtually no documentation. Terrific performances at a modest price.

-Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5

Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
EuroArts 2056778 (2 DVDs - 298 min)
Produced by Paul Smaczny
Directed by Michael Beyer
***** $$$

Most conventional maestros will tell you that it is extremely hazardous to attempt to conduct a symphony orchestra while operating heavy equipment (like a piano). Evidence to the contrary already exists showing that Daniel Barenboim can both direct and play to superb effect. His 1995 performances of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (with the BPO, Ma and Perlman) and Choral Fantasia are available on an EMI DVD (4 91473-9). If that occasion was a triumph, the present issue is the crowning glory of Barenboim’s Beethoven. This is something really worth seeing, a rare example of imagery reinforcing the power of the music. This soloist/conductor seems to have the scores embedded in his soul. And it is quite obvious that the Staatskapelle-Barenboim partnership is an all-round mutual admiration society. He leads the orchestra with a minimum of gesture, fleeting expressions and, as the piano keys become more slippery, something akin to group telepathy. The last means of communication is probably necessary because no matter how well rehearsed the works might be, spontaneity from the keyboard is as common here as it was in Barenboim’s first recordings of the concertos with Klemperer and the Philharmonia forty years ago for EMI.

These thrilling concerts were filmed at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr over three days in May 2007. The venue was the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, which looks like a converted industrial space. Any acoustic challenges were overcome by EuroArts sound engineers. Sonically, in surround mode, it really seems as if you are perched on the piano bench right next to Barenboim. Director Michael Beyer manages his eight cameras with great dexterity to provide a satisfying viewing experience.

Catch Daniel Elsewhere: EuroArts offers three other Barenboim concert events on DVD:

- Europa-Kozert 2004: Barenboim, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle (2053658). An outdoor concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Athens, Barenboim performs the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1. The BPO also play the same composer’s Piano Quartet No 1 in its orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg.

- Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 70th Anniversary Concert 2006: Zukerman, Barenboim, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Mehta (2055878). Pinchas, Daniel and Zubin: something of a three amigos reunion. Zukerman performs the Bruch First Violin Concerto and Barenboim offers Brahms No 1…again. Ravel’s La Valse is also on the programme.

- Concert at the Palacio de Carlos V, Alhambra, Granada, 2006: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/ Barenboim (2055538). Any appearance of Barenboim’s youthful Arab-Israeli orchestra is a special event and they do not disappoint in this spectacular, open-to-the-stars venue. The programme begins with a rousing account of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No 3. A charming Bottesini Fantasia arranged for cello and double bass and orchestra follows. Last, a blazing performance of Brahms’ Symphony No 1.

-Stephen Habington

Buy this DVD at

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