Beginner's Luck?

[Correction: The Masur performances mentioned below are from Brilliant’s Complete Music of Beethoven collection. In the 100 symphony box, you have Blomstedt and the Staatskapelle Dresden, which I have not heard. Brilliant also has complete editions of Bach and Mozart, all for exceedingly inexpensive prices, well under two bucks a cd, closer to one, in fact. Maybe you don’t need all the esoterica. I do, however…next semester we’re going to look at Beethoven’s cantata, “The Glorious Moment”, for example. When was the last time you heard that? I recommend these boxes. The performances aren’t uniformly excellent, but do maintain a general level of high quality, and a considerable number of them feature truly great performers. Even if you never listen to them, just think: you can pile the boxes on the mantel place and be assured when you step in the room that if you want to hear anything by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, you can. Or you can carry the boxes around in your arms while chortling, “I have the complete works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in my arms.” How cool is that? Those guys were pretty good composers, after all.]

Largely for archival purposes, I recently acquired the record label Brilliant’s giant box of 100 symphonic cds, including the complete essays in the genre by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, Nielsen, and Shostakovich. Except for the more infrequently played of the Haydn pieces, I already had plently of records of these pieces, but the incredibly low price of the set and the opportunity of finally having all the Hadyn as well as the Barshai cycle of Shostakovich lured me in, and I’m glad it did.

So, I had a lot of listening to do. I decided to listen in the dining room, because if I listen in the living room I have a bad habit of running to the piano in the middle of the recording and playing my favorite passages over and over again, at least in familiar pieces, and I wanted to fairly evaluate some performances that were new to me. Well, I can recommend the Adam Fischer Haydn cycle (what I’ve heard of it) and the Barshai Shostakovich. A delightful bonus, if not surprise, was the exceedingly fine Beethoven cycle with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Unless I’m hallucinating, this cycle is one of the very finest on record. Beethoven and Shostakovich’s respective first symphonies got me thinking. The Shostakovich is a well known teenage masterpiece, concocted by a wet behind the ears conservatory student, and is justly renowned for its elan and its orchestral vividness. But it also shows an uncannily prescient sense of irony and awareness of symphonic tradition, and constitutes a sort of in memoriam as well of the Russian musical nineteenth century. Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and even Rimsky (there are some allusions to his famous Kaschei harmonies, which appear to be derived from Glinka’s Chernomor, in Ruslan and Ludmilla) pass in ghostly retrospect. And there are clear allusions to cinema accompaniment (consider the role of the piano) and cafe music (consider the second subject of the first movement, the popular sounding waltz) to boot.  How improbable is this yoking of silent movie style with Russo-romanticism! And the piece benefits from Shostakovich’s mastery of pacing and timing as well. So, he hit the jackpot. Beginner’s luck? Not for me. The Second Symphony, “To October” is no “sophomore slump” despite its rather low reputation.

And Beethoven’s First appears much worthier of being a card-carrying member, in full standing, of Beethoven’s immortal series than I might have assumed since the last time I heard it. It flew off the page with Mazur and the Gewandhausers, the ribald humor and harmonic quirks were as delightful as ever. Perhaps it benefitted by being heard subsequent to the Shostakovich; one could be said to be primed for ribald humor and harmonic quirks, so to speak. 

And these works aren’t the only strikingly fine first symphonies. Consider the initial forays into the genre by Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, Nielsen, Mahler and Schnittke…(and for me, Tchaikovsky), if not necessarily those by Borodin, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Bruckner or Sibelius (which for my taste is a trifle too derivative of Liszt and the Russians, beautiful as it is…or maybe we should be talking about Kullervo, instead….hmmmm…). I don’t think there are as many comparable early masterpieces in most other genres. Especially opera, where it is almost axiomatic that one doesn’t succeed until Number Three (Nabucco, La Boheme, Salome). There is perhaps something special about Symphony Nr.1!