Listening diary: Learning to love Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820When I was an undergraduate student, away, way back in the dark mists of time, I was a snob. A total and utter snob. I wouldn’t listen to anything that could possibly be termed standard repertoire. I did enjoy playing Bach’s flute works and Mozart’s simpler piano sonatas, but I never felt listening to ‘the obvious stuff’ was really worthwhile, or that I could ever really learn anything of use from it. And Beethoven? I LOATHED Beethoven. Not as much as I loathe Mahler but he was definitely next in line.

So I’m not sure why I bought his complete string quartets shortly after I moved to the UK. Something about being music I *should* listen to, I guess, but I suspect also that moving overseas liberated me a bit from my own narrow ideas. It gave me licence to try stuff I hadn’t thought about before. I also think the limitations of there being few record shops around that would actually let me listen to stuff before buying it, coupled with HMV on Oxford Street having an evil habit of putting box sets of complete works by excellent performers on drastic sale, and having to pay to borrow CDs from the library here, all these encouraged me to throw caution to the winds and just try new stuff.

Obviously, not everything I dared myself to try worked out, but there’ve been enough significant discoveries to completely change the way I think about standard repertoire.

But Beethoven. I am somewhat aghast to find myself totally enamoured of Beethoven. My early experience of him was based largely on Herbert von Karajan’s interpretations of his symphonies, and that led me to believe that Claudio Abbado’s delicate and delicious 6th symphony must be an accident. As was John O’Conor’s recording of the piano sonatas 30, 31 and 32 which sat in the bookcase beside Claudio Arrau’s more solid versions. *Obviously* these were glitches among the heavy stodge of the rest of Ludwig’s output.

So I surprised myself when I bought The Lindsays’ recording of his string quartets. And then I surprised myself even more when I discovered that I REALLY LIKED THEM. And not just the early ones, but the late ones too! And then I was hooked. I now have the complete symphonies (Mackerras), complete violin sonatas (Kremer & Argerich), a couple of piano concertos (Argerich) and – at last, for Christmas – John O’Conor’s interpretation of the complete piano sonatas.

These last are sublime and a total revelation for me. Treated with such a delicate touch, even the Waldstein ceases to be heavily Germanic and instead becomes full of light and shade and meaning.

Download the MP3 (442.4KB): Download fragment of John O’Conor’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata

Every disc so far is full of beautiful treats with none of that bone-jarring thumping that is, alas, so often a feature of recordings of Beethoven’s piano music. I can’t wait to spend more time with them and really explore every nuance and see what I can glean from them to use in my own music.

Have you ever experienced a complete turnaround with a composer’s music? Tell me about it in the comments!

10 Replies to “Listening diary: Learning to love Beethoven”

  1. I've not so much had a turnaround with a single composer, but up until about 17 I ONLY listened to classical music, and mostly late-romantic. Couldn't stand 'modern' stuff.
    Then I started learning guitar, and my teacher introduced me to YES. It took me a few months, and some slow working ear-worms, but eventually it really changed things for me.
    Then a couple of years on, at Uni, I took free improvisation modules, post modernism, cold-war history etc etc and this opened me up from 'tonal' classical, rock, jazz etc and into a this big world of avant etc.
    Of course… this is a stupid comment really. Every time I stick my library of music on shuffle and discover something new I have a turnaround moment. That's the whole point of listening.

    1. Wow, Francis – that's quite some journey. And yes, shuffle mode gives new perspective to everything we listen to – great point!

  2. I didn't 'get' Brahms until I'd experienced genuine grief and suffering myself. Then I became addicted and he shot to the top of the pops for me. Still love him.

    1. I think I'm borderline with Brahms. I love his first symphony but haven't really clicked with anything else of his. Always feel like I'm on the brink of understanding him though…

  3. I await the day I can discover a reason to really love or even like Berlioz, Bruckner and Liszt. However, I really do hope you've relented with Mahler. If you listen to nothing else of his, try the slow movement from his Sixth Symphony. Sublime. And then the Ninth.

    1. You don't like Berlioz??? Wow. SO with you on Bruckner & Liszt though (although if I'm fair, I've not really given Liszt a good chance). And no, I've yet to be convinced by Mahler. I came close with a performance of his 4th symphony by Alex Briger, but not quite. My father says that one day I'll come to Mahler, but I maintain that the best thing Mahler ever wrote was by Berio 😀

  4. I see we're heading into Desert Island Discs country. I'd happily do without Mozart and Haydn but would absolutely insist on a host of less illustrious names – Ravel, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch – as well as several undeniable A-Listers: Bartok, Bach, Debussy, Brahms, Beethoven.

    Returning to Mahler – have you tried his songs? They should have a special resonance given your own quirky contributions to the genre! And that's without mentioning his Song of the Earth which grabbed my attention when I were but a lad.

    1. Heh. I think that's a whole other blog post in itself! I will give Mahler's songs a go because, no, I've never tried them, only his orchestral works. I will be brave!

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