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Another Beethoven Symphony Cycle? Why?

Why do we have yet another Beethoven Symphony cycle? Its is, in fact, a fair question as well as a good exercise to answer it.

The question is important only if there is a willingness to answer honestly and critically what this question implies. Implicit in this question  is the place of importance we have given these works in our culture. New recordings are only justified if the music has something to say to us the 200 some years after their composition. For me, that was the one of the questions I was asking when I started listening to this series of  on demand concerts from CBC Radio 2 and the Vancouver Symphony orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra have always been a fine band of musicians. Like all good orchestras, they shine brightly when they have good leadership and sound dismally bad when they do not. Over the past decades there have been a number of missteps in the choice of leadership. The current choice is not one of theses mistakes. Bramwell Tovey is undoubtedly the best conductor this orchestra has had in decades. In the past three years I have heard the orchestra all to infrequently live. But on those occasions I was impressed. The season closer a number of years ago spotlighted a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” which was nothing short of brilliantly played. It is a difficult piece for the players, difficult for the audience. If it is not well played it is incomprehensible to the audience. That performance was a winner on all counts!

We come to 2008 and its cycle of Beethoven symphonies; which I am sorry to say I did not hear live. However, the CBC recorded them and they are currently on the CBC Radio 2 Concerts On Demand site. There are five concerts in all and they run consecutively. So I decided I’d listen to them in that order just to follow Beethoven’s creative process as it developed chronologically.

Beginning with the First symphony, as I listened more my interest grew and rather than wearying with the task of listening to some 8 hours or more of music, I found myself listening more attentively. The more I listened the more I realised that I was listening to an important musical event. It is rare for a cycle of anything you name is fabulous across the board, but this won comes pretty close to doing just that. There is an infectious bristle and excitement in the orchestra’s playing. When you have playing of this high caliber from and orchestra you become increasingly aware of the music’s inherent worth, its inherent value spanning two centuries.

By the time i got to the second symphony I was completely won over. This music and this performance made me laugh and smile. This performance almost makes you want to get up and dance!  Wait! This is a clue for us to note in judging this cycle.

The classical symphony in its most clearly defined examples, like those of Johann Christian Bach, is clearly a development of the Baroque dance suite and its rhythmic vitality comes from dance, music and movement.  The two early Beethoven symphonies are more closely aligned with those of the 17th century, but clearly far more extensive and serious works. None the less, they retain this link with the past. Bramwell Tovey and the VSO let his quality shine through. It is always cleanly executed, rhythmically sprung and if you’re not careful, you may end  up dancing. The last movement of the 2nd symphony in D major, with its hick-up opening theme… made me laugh. I thought instantly of the “YEEP” when someone sits on a whoopee cushion. More laughter and this Beethoven Symphony cycle shows promise!

Symphony No. 3 in E flat major was another special performance! The orchestra is again in fine form again and every note is in place! These are turning out to be performances to remember. The horn section fo the symphony shines in the second movement. The audience is as quiet as you could expect, clapping at the right spots and only once clapping between movements. When the final notes of the Eroica sound, the audience bursts into a more than enthusiastic applause. I am guessing at this, but I thinik there is an especially loud and noisey response from the audience when Tovey acknowledges the French Horns. I emphasize the guess work here, this is not a television production and so I can only go on what i would expect from a performance like this one.

The sound engineering on these recordings is superb. Sound engineer Don Harder seems to get better and better at his craft as time goes on. Engineering is really a science, but good sound engineering seems to be somewhat of a black art or wizardry which not everyone who has the knowledge seems to be able to master. There is more than simply getting the equations and calculations correct. One has to be able to understand the sound of a room, how to place microphones to overcome or take advantage of its idiosyncrasies. Harder is one of these individuals.

There is much more to talk about here, but i’ve said enough for one post. I’m going back to listen to these broadcasts again! You should to — these are a special performances.

I started writing this post a week and a half ago. The Monday I had started listening at home then was going to continue whilst I imaged some of the iMacs at the Education Centre where I do volunteer work. The school has a fibre optic connection to the Interent because they have designed and host most of the online courses offered by the Vancouver School Board. Of course the bandwidth is just fine and I managed to listen  to a good portion of the  cycle.

I was quite excited about the fact that this material was available to students here in Vancouver. However when I returned the following Wednesday, I found CBC Radio 2 ‘s site blocked with a red band across the screen saying “Access denied Reason: Internet Radio”. Huh? Yes, the Vancouver School Board has blocked students from listening to the Radio 2 on demand broadcasts.

It is just to much of a coincidence that on Monday I listen to some on demand broadcasts from the CBC and then on the following Wednesday the site is blocked by the VSB’s filters. Slowly but surely the VSB’s filters are blocking access to some of the most useful things on the internet. Do you know why? I do not have any idea who or why anyone would do such a thing. Surely this is not a carefully thought out decision on their part! How much more close to George Orwell’s 1984 can you get? Oh! right! we past that years ago but just how much more Orwelian can you get?