Classics Declassified: Leon Botstein’s Tour of the Beethoven Symphonies with the ASO at Peter Norton Symphony Space, New York

For some reason that escapes me 2009 has become a “Beethoven year,” or at least a “Beethoven symphony year.” James Levine,* Leon Botstein, and Gerard Schwarz, to name only the conductors who immediately come to mind, have seen fit to begin Beethoven symphony cycles this year. 1809, however, was almost a fallow year for the composer. On the positive side of the ledger, he was able to parlay a job offer in Kassel into a secure contract from his chief patrons in Vienna. On the other, he was trapped in the city during the French siege and two-month occupation, cut off from his friends. The previous year he had finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy (and much else) and seen those works performed at a long concert held for his benefit on December 22, just five days after his thirty-eighth birthday. In 1809 he worked on only a few, but important works: the fifth piano concerto, the string quartet Op. 74, and the great “Farewell” sonata for piano. It is especially interesting that he composed quite a few cadenzas for all his piano concerti, from the very earliest, the second, Op. 19, which he had begun twenty years earlier, as well as the violin concerto. Was he looking back at his concerti as a finished body of work, codifying the group with cadenzas in his latest style? Was he looking forward to a busy concert schedule? In any case there’s not much to commemorate Beethoven-wise in 2009, other than his misguided proposal of marriage to his physician’s daughter, then nineteen, who was the last woman in Vienna to see Beethoven as anything other than a cranky, quite unhealthy fellow twenty years older than herself.

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