Sunday, May 12, 2013

What comes after Mozart's and Beethoven's minor-key symphonic opening movements?

What comes after the monumental, mysterious opening movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, which we heard last week? At the link, Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in what seems to me a grindingly prosaic rendering of the thunderingly dramatic scherzo.

by Ken

I realize I should have been saying more about this amazing music we've been hearing, dipping into the two symphonies apiece for which Mozart and Beethoven composed opening movements in the minor mode. But really, when it comes to an incandescent movement like the opening one of Mozart's great later G minor symphony, No. 40, could I really have said anything more helpful than, say, "Wouldja listen to that?" And ditto when it comes to the opening movements of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. I mean, we're talking here about two of the monuments of human civilization, and I thought talking should take distant second place to listening.

What we began pursuing in this week's preview is the question I raised last week: Where do you go from there?

My point was, if we accept that writing a minor-mode symphonic first movement is an uncommon and nervy thing to do, and is likely to happen only if a composer has been seized by some gripping musical material that requires it, where does he want to take his audience next?

Consider, for example, the most modest of the four Mozart and Beethoven symphonies we began last week: Mozart's earlier G minor symphony, No. 25. Let's add the second movement to the performances we heard last week of the first.

MOZART: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183:
i. Allegro con brio
ii. Andante

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia, recorded Dec. 10, 1954 (mono)

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1973


As we are as well in the Symphony No. 40, though here it's a considerably more original and imagination-provoking Andante that Mozart spins. (Note that here we're adding a third performance to the two we heard last week. A lot of people prefer Bruno Walter's early-50s mono Mozart symphonies to the gorgeous autumnal stereo series. I thought this week we'd hear both.)

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
i. Molto allegro
ii. Andante

New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia, recorded Feb. 23, 1953 (mono)

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1959

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1972


In the quite lovely prewar recording by Sir Thomas Beecham.

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
i. Molto allegro
ii. Andante
iii. Menuetto: Allegretto
iv. Finale: Allegro assai

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. EMI, recorded 1937 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)


Beethoven too followed up his radical C minor opening movement for the Fifth Symphony with a major-key slow movement, a gorgeous theme and variations we might say is ostentatiously "major." In a symphony constructed of miracles, this may be the least noticed of them, but it's surely not the least inspired. And it's always seemed to me that this Beethoven slow movement has its roots in Mozart's.

I thought it would be interesting to continue with the lithe, dramatic Dohnányi performance we began last week, and since we already heard the second movement of Leonard Bernstein's 1977 recording in Friday night's preview (along with his 1961 one), we'll complement it with Sir Georg Solti's more expansive Chicago recording.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67:
i. Allegro con brio
ii. Andante con moto

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Telarc, recorded Sept. 20, 1987

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded October 1986

Of course we haven't heard Beethoven's answers to what comes next, which fascinatingly is a return, in blaring-brass mode, to the minor for the scherzo, and finally a return to the most triumphant major imaginable for the grand finale. I don't see how we can proceed without hearing the whole thing. It's a performance we've already heard.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67:
i. Allegro con brio
ii. Andante con moto
iii. Scherzo: Allegro
iv. Allegro

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), George Szell, cond. Philips, recorded November 1966


Again, I should probably say something to help establish the scope of the achievement of these two movements. Wouldja listen to that?

I've chosen two live performances from London which could hardly be more different, except that in the end are they really that different?

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125:
i. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
ii. Molto vivace

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. BBC Legends, recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall, Sept. 13, 1985

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. Testament, recorded live in the Royal Festival Hall, Nov. 15, 1957


Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, joined in the choral finale by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and soloists Gwyneth Jones (soprano), Shirley Verrett (mezzo), Plácido Domingo (tenor), and Martti Talvela (bass).

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