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Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #1

It’s been quite a few years since I heard most of Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’ve decided to go through the whole set in order, attentively, over the next few months. I’ve always had, you might say, a difficult relationship with much of Beethoven’s music, especially the big orchestral works: I just don’t like them as much as I’m supposed to. And I want to see if that’s changed. It used to be the 7th that I liked best, and I also had a fondness for the less renowned 4th. Part of this is my natural favoring of things smaller, quieter, more modest and often more eccentric, than those favored by general critical opinion. But that doesn’t completely explain it, because I like many of the huge late Romantic symphonies.

As for this 1st, of which I don’t remember having any very strong opinion, and which I’ve heard four or five times over the past couple of weeks, I do not love it. I admire it, but I do not love it. There is obviously a great gift at work here, and the symphony is interesting, but little of it moves me. It’s of course very much more of the 18th century than Beethoven’s later work, but it seems a heavier Mozart, and a less orderly Haydn. I have the sense that he’s gotten hold of a powerful force but isn’t yet quite in control of it. And I hear some of the things that have always bothered me: the spasmodic leaping rhythms, the repeated quasi-climaxes, and a quality I can only describe, not very informatively, as “dryness.”

I have a couple of old LP recordings of this and the other symphonies, but for convenience and sound quality I’m currently listening to this set conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi on Telarc.



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