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A New Beethoven

March 15, 2001

Usually I’m not one to inflict my musical tastes on my readers. I love music, as a consumer, but it’s not a subject I excel in, as my poor piano teacher could attest, had he not leapt off a bridge some years ago. But I know what I like. As Bottom the Weaver says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have the tongs and the bones.” That’s me.

But today I can’t contain myself. I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s symphonies for forty years now, and I’ve finally heard them played right. This is not to disparage the many excellent conductors whose recordings I’ve enjoyed since my teens — imposing names like Toscanini, Klemperer, Von Karajan, Walter, Szell, Krips, Marriner, Haitink, Hogwood, Solti, Norrington, Goodman, and Harnoncourt, to name a few. I’m grateful to them all.

I thought I’d heard every possible way of playing these wondrous symphonies — until last night. I was shopping for a set of Beethoven for a friend, and I found a budget recording by a conductor I’d never heard of: David Zinman, with the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. At $23 for five compact discs, it was so cheap that I wondered whether it was one of those inferior recordings you sometimes get when you try to save money.

[Breaker quote: Cheap 
thrills from a great composer]The reviews quoted on the box made it sound interesting, though. “Many I think will gravitate towards Zinman’s zest, directness, and clarity,” said the critic of Gramophone. “The real attraction,” said the New York Times, “is Mr. Zinman’s brisk, earthy, and often electrifying approach.” Stereo Review called the set “irresistible to first-time listeners” and “a welcome restorative to veteran music- lovers.” Since my friend is a first-time listener, this sounded like just the thing. You don’t necessarily have to start with the finest (and most expensive) recordings.

A few hours later, when I should have been in bed, I found myself sitting up listening to Zinman’s recordings in sheer ecstasy. It was like hearing Beethoven for the first time. The familiar sounded new — fresh, quick, thrilling, and just plain fun. As far as I was concerned, the critics’ raves were mean-spirited understatements.

Zinman catches a quality in Beethoven nobody else has fully captured: levity. After hearing his performance, you feel that even the best of the other conductors have been far too solemn. And that Beethoven really meant his music to be played in this spirit. Never has the joyous humor of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies been so beautifully highlighted. (The Fourth and Seventh are my own “pet” symphonies. The Eroica may be greater, but these two have an endless variety of invention.)

Late in his life, Beethoven acquired a new gadget: the metronome. This toy fascinated him. It enabled him to specify just how fast his works should be played, and he accordingly left notes. But until recently, most musicians have felt that his tempos were far too fast: a somewhat ponderously reverent tradition of playing the symphonies had already set in. So Beethoven’s explicit intentions have usually been ignored.

This began to change in the 1980s, when Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, and Roy Goodman led a new movement toward “authentic” recreations of classical music, with smaller orchestras playing on original instruments. This approach has been controversial, since some musicians and scholars believe the great composers of the past would have preferred modern instruments if they’d been available.

Zinman’s orchestra uses modern instruments, but plays rapidly and lightly, eschewing the grand style. Yet, to my ear, the symphonies gain greatly in energy and purpose by this approach. Time and again, a familiar passage, played at a faster pace, seems to make more sense than ever before. You may have heard the Fifth Symphony hundreds of times, but you’ve never heard it done with such a light and loving touch. And it loses none of its power; just the opposite. Beethoven is like a boxer who doesn’t need to put lead in his gloves. As he seems to have realized, he gains impact with speed.

So, thanks to Maestro Zinman, I’ve fallen in love with Beethoven all over again. I always knew he was incomparable; I didn’t know he could be so delightful.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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