Beethoven at 250.
Aside from the two other points in the eternal triangle, Bach and Mozart, has any artist contained such multitudes, expressed so much in ways that are ceaselessly challenging and rewarding? Maybe Shakespeare? Perhaps Hendrix or Coltrane had they been given more time? Suffice it to say, the list is exceedingly short, and while it’s a fool’s errand to single out one human being, I have no problem putting Beethoven at the top of the list. (Maybe because, or despite the fact that I’m a writer, I believe even the most profound and inventive writing ultimately suffers when compared to the best music; it’s like comparing vast oceans to infinite galaxies).
How to summarize such an output? How to get a handle on the scope of this achievement?
If the symphonies are novels, the operas screenplays, the concertos and quartets short stories, the piano sonatas are poems. One human being, one instrument: an entire universe of feeling and emotion. I would never want to be forced to choose what represents Beethoven’s “best” work (although the 3rd and 5th piano concertos would be impossible to dispense with, the late string quartets, of course, plus the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th symphonies, all the overtures, and so on).
It’s with the heft of a full, engaged orchestra behind him that Beethoven seems most godlike, each individual instrument another arrow in his quiver (or cannon in his artillery); it is while conducting — or even composing — these sweeping masterworks that we envision the stern, mercurial, heroic genius gazing down at us mere mortals. For me, it’s the sonatas that reveal Beethoven at his most human, not merely because it’s just him and a piano, but his mind and the creative tension and exploration of the at once limited and limitless sounds those keys can make.
The sonatas, with titles that seem so mysterious and exhilarating: Pathetique, Appasionata, Mondeschein. My first exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas was courtesy of the great Daniel Barenboim’s initial recordings (from ’67; he revisited the cycle many years later). It was that time in my life (age 17); it was that era in general (1987, one of the very first compact discs I owned) but mostly it was the music. Indelible and unforgettable. Then, and now. Bottom line: this is my favorite music in the world, and if there was one title I had to take with me to that clichéd desert island, it would be Barenboim’s set of Beethoven sonatas. If the person sending me to this imaginary island was particularly sadistic and insisted it could only be one disc, it would be the one pictured.
I’ve heard — and tend to believe — that a person falls forever in love with the version of a particular classical piece they hear first. I know that to be true of virtually all the classical music I’ve become infatuated with over the last few decades. Still, there are the more famous pieces (think Beethoven, Mozart and Bach) of which even non-fanatic followers may inevitably own more than one version. Having heard (intentionally, insatiably) and owned multiple copies of Mozart’s last two symphonies (40 and 41)I only have ears for John Eliot Gardiner’s pellucid collaboration with the English Baroque Soloists (from ’92). Regarding the Beethoven sonatas, no one comes close to Barenboim, for me. Perhaps it’s in part because when I first purchased the CD, I thought the picture of the young man on the cover was supposed to be Beethoven himself; and not the wizened, unapproachable demigod of later years, but a younger man; an ambitious and driven artist, insatiable with his compulsion to set the world to sound. There’s much I admire in virtually all the famous renditions of these sonatas (and I own more than ten of them), but for me, it seems — in terms of tone, technique, energy — it’s Barenboim’s renditions that most closely approximate what the great composer wanted these works to sound like.
Barenboim was already many decades older, by ’87, and now, in 2020, he’s added several more (as have I, as has Ludwig van Beethoven). Spending a day, as the snow falls outside, listening to the sonata cycle on shuffle seems as ideal a way as possible to acknowledge and celebrate the artistic gift I’m most grateful for.