Thursday, April 30, 2020

My Beethoven is not your Beethoven


My music is not your music, so my Beethoven is not your Beethoven. For me the cycle of symphonies from the Belgium ensemble Anima Eterna conducted by Jos van Immerseel provides profound insights into Beethoven's genius. Anima Eterna play on period instruments but at modern pitch (A=440), which research shows was used in Beethoven’s Vienna. Period instrument performances can sometimes sound emaciated, but Anima Eterna produce a startlingly full-bodied sound despite using small forces: for example forty-two musicians in the Fifth Symphony.

Anima Eterna's performances are captured in the orchestra's home in the Concertguebouw Brugge - the venue for the 2008 John Cage happening which I attended. These are not new recordings - they were first released around fifteen years ago - but they exhibit exceptional clarity due both to Jos van Immerseel's meticulous orchestral balance and the accommodating acoustic of the Concertguebouw Brugge. Also deserving praise is Jos van Immerseel erudite booklet essay about the challenge of performing 'authentic' Beethoven. In this he discusses the acoustics of the various venues that Beethoven's music was first performed in. He points out that the composer's comparatively small forces performed in venues ranging from the 2,200 seat Theater an der Wien to the tiny - 15 by 7 metre - Palais Lobkowitz; calculations show that the reverberation time of these venues varied from 0.6 to 5.5 seconds. Which just shows that today's insistence on 'acoustically perfect' concert halls is a contemporary affectation.

This Beethoven cycle is released at mid-price on the Zig-Zag Territoires and the label deserve praise for artwork that is distinctive without being gimmicky. Also highly recommended are the orchestra's cycle of Schubert Symphonies and Mozart interpretations. That Anima Eterna and Jos van Immerseel are off the radar of the classical music influencers is simply more evidence that the classical taste radar is facing the wrong way.



Sophia perennis (perennial wisdom) is a school of philosophy which focuses on the timeless Truth and practices shared by the great knowledge traditions. The ability of great music to communicate timeless Truth has led to an exploration of the links between art music and knowledge tradition such as Buddhism and Sufism. This has led the pianist Shani Diluka, who was born in Monaco from Sri Lankan parents, to explore the links between Beethoven and Indian philosophy. Her research uncovered excerpts from now lost documents in Beethoven's hand uncovered in A. C. Kalischer's 1926 Beethoven's Letters with explanatory notes. In this Beethoven quotes from the ancient Hindu spiritual texts the Upanishads and mentions the Hindu creator deity Brahma - "He, the powerful one, is present in every corner of the universe".

This discovery led Shani Diluka to create her 'Cosmos: Beethoven in India' project which has been realised both in the concert hall and on CD. This juxtaposes and mixes Beethoven's Sonatas No. 14 ‘Moonlight' and No. 23 'Appassionata' with Indian ragas including specially composed gats; listen to via this link and view an explanatory video via this one. Purists will doubtless be horrified by what they will see as the heretical fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. But surely there are enough - too many? - 'straight' interpretations of these Sonatas to keep the purists in streaming heaven for perpetuity. Shani Diluka's project deserves praise because it is an artistically valid attempt to provide a fresh perspective and to reach new audiences: note that the project has been toured away from Western classical music's heartland on the Indian sub-continent. If all 'Beethoven in India' achieves is to make you hear the Sonatas in their original form differently, it is job done.

Warner Classics have released a CD of the project with sitarist Mehboob Nadeem and tabla player Mitel Purohit joining Shani Diluka. This is a refreshing contribution to the Beethoven Anniversary and deserves praise and attention. However I have two reservations about the CD release, one minor and one more serious. First the minor quibble - the cover artwork seen below. The unique selling proposition of this album is its transcultural provenance, which the cover art and typography singularly fails to convey. Do we really still need glamorous photos of women musicians to sell classical CDs? Some of Warner's other PR shots, such as the one above, do a much better job of conveying that this is a different and fresh multicultural perspective on Beethoven's genius.

More serious is the problematic recording balance, which favours the piano excessively. Sitars produce a very nuanced sound, which is why amplification is accepted by even 'serious' Indian classical musicians. It seems recording was the responsibility of Shani Diluka's production company Association Tagore, and the balance engineer and producer was Olivier Rosset, a name unfamiliar to me. (Is he the 'music entrepreneur' listed in Wikipedia?) It could be argued that the sound he captured at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria is the 'natural' balance between a sitar and a close-miked concert grand played with a modicum of artistic exuberance. But, that notwithstanding, I'm afraid the transitions between piano and sitar had me reaching for my amplifier's gain control; which is why Indian musicians judiciously amplify sitars. However my reservations are not deal breakers. In today's rigidly controlled classical comfort zones, doing tastefully different is far more important than doing perfectly. My Beethoven with period instruments or sitar and tabla may not be your Beethoven. Is there anything wrong with that?



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