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On CD: Two ways of hearing Beethoven

Some people say they don't want classical music to become a museum. My standard answer to this is that we should hope classical music becomes like a museum, because museums have learned how to adapt to the 21st century, opening up to different kinds of shows and different ways of presenting themselves, in a way that a lot of classical music institutions have not.

But David Hardy and Lambert Orkis's new Beethoven CDs (Beethoven: Past and Present; Dorian 90910) show the very best side of what classical music's museal function can look like. This beautifully curated set presents Beethoven's complete works for piano and cello, not once but twice: once in 21st-century style, on a new Steinway and with Hardy's cello strung with metal strings, and once in a fine approximation of how Beethoven might have heard it, on three different replicas of late 18th- and early 19th-century pianos (a Dulcken and a Nanette Streicher, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf, and an instrument built on the lines of 1830's Vienna by R. J. Regier), with Hardy's cello (the same 1694 Testore) strung with strings of gut.
(read more after the jump)

By offering the cycle twice, on four disks -- two "past," two "present" -- the artists avoid what one might call the political implications of historically informed performance: there is no assumption that the performances on the replica instruments are any more or less correct that those in 21st century style. The focus is on fine performances, in both idioms; and the "modern" performances are completely satisfying in themselves. Hardy, the principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra, has a beautiful singing tone, and Orkis, the orchestra's pianist and a long-time performing partner of string players from Rostropovich to Anne-Sophie Mutter, brings hints of the delicacy of the early Classical style to the smooth power of the contemporary piano.

But having the comparison is ear-opening in terms of understanding what Beethoven was hearing -- or what sounds were available to him -- when he wrote the pieces. The contrast is, naturally enough, particularly stark in the early sonatas, which in the "past" version are coming out of a place that is essentially tinkly and delicate: the slightly finicky, very precise piano supporting the rich warmth of the gut strings. The phrasing is slightly more episodic; the scale, more intimate: in the "present," the same works take on an assured muscle and heft that some ears may prefer. (The comparison incidentally highlights the aggressive buzz of the metal strings; through these, the contemporary instrument acquires a brash swagger.) The contrast does not represent a clear-cut evolution from primitive to improved; rather, the goals of the two performances are different. It represents not Little League to the majors, but rather baseball and football: two different sports.

The project was presented in Washington in a concert at the Terrace Theater in February under the auspices of the Kennedy Center Chamber Players. It's not the first such comparison offered by Orkis, who a couple of years ago recorded Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata on three different instruments (two of them, I believe, the same used here) to provide a similar illustration of sound evolution.

Carefully crafted as the instruments are, of course, they still represent only one good guess at the sound of the evolving piano in the classical era; and Orkis and Hardy don't claim otherwise. But the recordings are a reminder of the effect different sounds and different ways of hearing have on the same music. The performers' detailed liner notes are an additional enhancement to a set that can stand up to a lot of listening; I'd say it's an invaluable addition to anyone's Beethoven library.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 30, 2009; 9:08 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Comments

“Some people say they don't want classical music to become a museum. My standard answer to this is that we should hope classical music becomes like a museum …” (Anne Midgette, Washington Post)

Don’t mean to tweet, but I agree -- 100 per cent….

… Truly, the Kennedy Center should be more like such local beloved world-institutions as the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian, and the … U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Has everyone seen the six or more major new temporary installations of 21st century visual art on display at the National Gallery, the Sackler Gallery, and the Phillips Collection?)

I think that it will fall to the next, visionary President of the Kennedy Center to change the dinosaur on the Potomac into one of our great, living museums on the expanded National Mall.

Students, tax and financial industry bailout paying citizens, and visitors from around the world should have performances, workshops, films, and master classes to experience at many times daily between 10:00 and 18:00 – and not only at 18:00 and 20:00 daily; as well as a multi-media and professionally-curated performing arts museum experience. Just like at museums, there should be handouts listing daily events.

The National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera could start by opening their final rehearsals – either for a nominal charge (say $15 and $10 – less than the $18 at the San Francisco Symphony) or paid for by taxation or a small charge on short-term global financial transactions – to everyone, and not just to donors of often relatively small amounts of money (especially given the tax-benefits of contributing).

http://www.hausdermusik.com/en/2.htm

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 30, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Classical music today is far from being a "museum" in the negative sense of the word. It's more diverse than ever before;old and new music coexist, as they should.
We have an unprecedented accumulation of
repertoire available to us today ranging from music written centuries ago to the latest works by living composers. I fail to see anything wrong with this.
We must get rid of the ridiculous notion that old and new music are mutually exclusive. We need them both and can't do without either.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | December 1, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

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