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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Free Beethoven Now

By Norman Lebrecht / May 5, 2005

In the first week of June, the BBC will broadcast the complete works of Beethoven, from the juvenile piano trios to the climactic string quartet in F major, opus 135, with many fragments and oddities besides. The exercise is being initiated, as you might expect, by high-minded Radio 3 which is clearing its decks of all other music for six days and nights. But television is also playing a serious part, with a drama-doc over three nights on BBC2, a Daniel Barenboim masterclass and a meditation on the five piano concertos by the media-reticent Murray Perahia.

There is no Beethoven bicentenary this year, no obvious reason to splash out on the most important composer of all - the first to write music of social and political resonance and one of very few who strides further into terra incognita with nearly every work. Beethoven is, like the Arctic, always worth exploring, but the BBC’s venture is ground breaking in several aspects.

Domestically, it signifies an unmistakable breach with the philistine ethic of Birt and Dyke which all but erased culture from terrestrial telly and replaced it with the home-and-garden makeover school of arts programming – look, isn’t that lovely, anyone can do it with a set of coloured pencils. Beethoven, whole and unexpurgated, marks the beginning of Michael Grade’s mission to put public broadcasting back to rights.

Globally, there is a new dimension, the untapped interactive. In a daring innovation, listeners the world over will be invited to download and collect live performances of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Here’s how it will work. The BBC Philharmonic will play the cycle with chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda over two weekends at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester – remarkably, the first time Manchester, a metropolis with two resident orchestras, has heard the complete set in almost half a century (the last was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli in 1958/9).

These concerts will be aired on Radio 3 and ‘streamed’ for a week on the website ( Anyone from here to Hong Kong can slip a disk into the hard drive and download a set for keeps. Allow five minutes on broadband for symphonies one to eight, ten minutes for the momentous ninth. This, as never before, is Beethoven for free – a gift to the world, just as the longsuffering composer might have wished.

So radical is this departure from all prior conventions of broadcasting and distributing works of music that the consequences are simply uncalculated. No-one knows if ten people or ten million will download the Beethoven symphonies and whether, if kept, they will form the cornerstone for a new habit of hoarding classical music, a surrogate for record buying. When the week is over, says Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3, ‘we’ll share what we’ve learned with the unions, with other orchestras and with the music industry.’

Expect that symposium to be oversubscribed, for what we are entering is a portal to the future of music - live, recorded and increasingly virtual. Whatever that future may hold, Beethoven is a useful starting point since his music means most things to most parts of humanity. It has been adjudged simultaneously heroic and humble, peasant and intellectual, individualist and collectivist. The Ode to Joy of the ninth symphony has served as a rallying call at communist conventions and insurance sales meetings; it is the unifying anthem of the European Union and, to diehard nationalists, the emblem of German musical supremacism. Beethoven represents peace in a Nobel-winning novelisation of his life, Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland, street violence in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

To impose some kind of order on limitless licence, musicians through the ages have delivered Beethoven in large doses – two symphonies in the same concert, all-Beethoven quartet evenings, subscription cycles of the 32 piano sonatas. The notion of integrity is applied to Beethoven as to no other composer, the noun itself being understood in both of its meanings: truth in Beethoven equals completeness.

Nowhere has this split idea found deeper root than in the minds of orchestral conductors, who regard the nine symphonies as their personal message boards. Each, amid protestations of authenticity and textual accuracy, presents a subtle ego take on aspects of the work. Bruno Walter’s benign recording of the Pastoral, for instance, is a mindworld apart from Wilhelm Furtwängler’s foreboding-filled account or Otto Klemperer’s overwrought outpouring, all equally valid and intriguing.

For the past half-century, the summit of a conductor’s contribution has been a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, shrink-wrapped by a major label. Herbert von Karajan, who set the trend, recorded the cycle four times, Leonard Bernstein twice. Solti, Haitink, Abbado, Muti, Barenboim, Harnoncourt, Hogwood, Rattle, all got their chance until, as distinctions diminished and audiences shrank, the big labels ended their infinite repetition of the universally familiar and closed the history of recorded interpretation, seemingly for good.

Now the BBC has prised it back open. Noseda is no Karajan, that’s for sure. He is an conspicuously unruthless Italian who served a tough apprenticeship with Valery Gergiev in St Petersburg and has come on nicely in three Manchester seasons, manifesting a deft, unsentimental touch in German romanticism, alongside his Russian and operatic specialisms.  Noseda, at 41, is younger, less experienced and less established on the international circuit than any of his recorded predecessors.

Yet – and I leave space here for th obvious disclaimers – it may well turn out that Noseda’s Beethoven becomes the household version to computer-literate millions in China, India and Korea who have never heard of Karajan or Klemperer and could, in any event, never afford the price of a DG or EMI shrinkwrap. To them Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil are the bringers of light and arbiters of art. And when, two or three decades hence, China is the world’s largest industrial power, it will be Noseda’s Beethoven that couples recall over pre-concert double-lattes as their formative revelation, as our grandparents once savoured Toscanini’s over instant.

Such, no less, is the potential magnitude of the BBC’s magnanimity. And to those politicians who want to clip the wings of public broadcasting and yoke it to their social agendas, the Beethoven week is a robust reminder that there is life yet in the Reithian principle: that broadcasting must educate and inform, and that there is no better way in the 21st century for nation to speak peace unto nation.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001