Beethoven 250 and the pandemic – An appraisal of the anniversary year

Ludwig van Beethoven statue at the Vienna Konzerthaus. © Jari Kallio

As we have now reached the end of the savage parade known as 2020, it might be appropriate to take a look at this bizarre year, which happened to be the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. 

While we could carry on our endless debate on whether or not we really need anniversary celebrations for the big names in the repertoire, it might be more useful to let the key events of the year speak for themselves. 

A mixture of live concerts, online events and recordings, 2020 was an intriguing Beethoven year. On my behalf, the celebration was begun in February, with two dazzling concert performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle at Elbphilharmonie.  

Teaming up with the wonderful London Symphony Chorus and a brilliant line-up of marvellous soloists, the LSO and Rattle began their visit to Hamburg with an astounding performance of the passiontide oratorio Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811). 

Way too rarely performed, the oratorio conveys a touchingly intimate narrative on Christ’s dark night of the soul. Clad in the most inspired musical raiments, the score is a borderline masterpiece. A labour of love from Rattle and his London forces, the performance was a revelation. 

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Elbphilharmonie on Tuesday 18 Ferbuary 2020. © Daniel Dittus

Luckily, the Rattle, LSO et al. take on Christus am Ölberge was preserved on disc in conjunction with the Barbican performances in January and February by the orchestra’s house label LSO Live. 

The second LSO and Rattle evening at the Elbphilharmonie, a tremendous performance of the Ninth Symphony (1822-24) was probably my ultimate 2020 highlight. In addition to the towering musical quality of the performance, hearing these outstanding UK ensembles play their hearts out during these brooding post-Brexit times was something so very special. 

From Hamburg, my Beethoven journey proceeded to Berlin, for two memorable concerts just before the first lockdown measures. On February 29, I was lucky to catch Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim embark on their complete cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonatas at the Pierre Boulez Saal.

Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim performing Beethoven sonatas at the Pierre Boulez Saal Berlin on Saturday 29 February 2020. © Monika Rittershaus

A splendid evening featuring the Sonatas Opus 12 and 23, Zukerman and Barenboim navigated through the four sonatas with flying colours, with Beethoven’s textural and harmonic invention blossoming in astonishing sonic garb. 

A couple of days later, I was reunited with Christus am Ölberge, in rehearsal and performance with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Joined by the Rundfunkchor and soloists Iwona Sobotka, Benjamin Bruns and David Soar, the Berlin performance was fascinatingly different from the one with the LSO a couple of weeks earlier.

In Berlin, the score came off in a luminously Mozartian guise, with a loving nod to the orchestra’s extraordinary Beethoven tradition. The outstanding performance can be found in the archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s online platform, the Digital Concert Hall. 

Christus am Ölberge with Sir Simon Rattle conductng Berliner Philharmoniker and Rundfunkchor Berlin at the Philharmonie on Thursday 5 March 2020. © Monika Rittershaus

A week later, Europe went into lockdown, depriving me from attending the recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert by Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Royal Festival Hall in London. From mid-March to mid-November, my Beethoven journey was carried on with recordings and online streams.

One of the most uplifting online series of 2020 was, without question, the nine-part series on the symphonies by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Originally released on YouTube, the series, featuring insightful interviews and fascinating rehearsal footage, are now available via Apple Music

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir at Carnegie Hall on 24 February 2020. © Chris Lee

In the course of the series, each of the symphonies was examined by Gardiner and his musicians within a fifteen-minute episode. With their Beethoven symphony tour cut short after the performances in Barcelona and the US, depriving the London and Athens audiences of the concert encounters of the symphonies with these extraordinary musicians, the superlative online features made the loss far more endurable.  

Among the new entries into the Beethoven discography this year, the two first volumes of the outstanding Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès Beethoven and Gerald Barry cycle on Signum Classics have been the most inspiring ones. 

Thomas Adès and Britten Sinfonia performing Beethoven and Barry at the Barbican Centre. © Chris Christodoulou

Recorded in conjunction with a three-season concert series at the Barbican Centre, the cycle couples astonishing performances of the Beethoven symphonies with invigorating first recordings of Barry’s unique music, including Piano Concerto (2012), Viola Concerto (2018-19), The Conquest of Ireland (1995) and Beethoven (2008). 

Another thunderous new recording arrived from Paris, with Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth giving the Fifth Symphony (1804-08) an outing of a lifetime on their new Harmonia Mundi disc. 

A performance to be endorsed loud and clear, Roth and his fabulous period-instrument orchestra remind us that there are still uncharted territories even within the musical realms of the best-loved masterpieces. 

Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth in rehearsal. © Holger Talinski

As the concert halls gradually reopened, more or less, in the fall, more key live encounters took place. For me, these happened on home ground, here in Tampere, with the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle with the Kamus Quartet in mid-November. 

Playing six concerts in four days, the four marvellous musicians got all sixteen quartets covered with admirable commitment and astounding energy. Privileged to join the audiences, the quartet cycle provided a dream-quest into a microcosmos of sonic enchantment.

Kamus Quartet performing the Beethoven quartet cycle at the Tampere Hall on Saturday 15 November. © Jari Kallio

Sadly, live music came to another halt with newly introduced lockdown measures in the late November and early December. Gladly, performances kept going online, providing further Beethoven highlights.

Alongside Christus am Ölberge, another key discovery for me was Beethoven’s brilliant two-act ballet Die Geschöpfe  des Prometheus (1801). While having some prior knowledge of the score, I really discovered it with the wonderful online performance by Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Narrated by Stephen Fry and contextualized by Gerard McBurney, with illustrations by Hillary Leben, the performance, recorded at Battersea Arts Centre on 4 November, is an astounding take on Beethoven’s witty score. Well served by the ingenious production, the Salonen and Philharmonia performance is absolutely top-class. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. © Mark Allan

And finally, on 17 December, the day marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s baptismal, we were back in the beginning, with another sonic feast with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Recorded live within the narrow time-frame between the lockdowns at LSO St Lukes in London, LSO and Rattle were joined by Krystian Zimerman for a three-concert series containing the cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. These live performances were streamed by Deutsche Grammophon via the DG Stage online platform, on 17, 19 and 21 December. 

Life-affirming in their superlative musicality, these performances bore an aura of special magnificence, embracing the joie de vivre of Beethoven’s impeccable invention and craft. To be released on CDs in April, the audio recordings from the LSO St Lukes sessions will be eagerly awaited. 

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra rehearsing the Beethoven concertos with Kristin Zimmerman in LSO St Luke’s on Friday 4 December 2020. © Mark Allan

Within the most testing circumstances, the Beethoven year came off remarkably well with a joyful mixture of live concerts, recordings and all kinds of online productions. While we missed a lot with all the cancellations and postponements, so much was gained in the course of the year. 

Let there be full-scale celebration in conjunction with the 200th anniversary year of Beethoven’s passing ahead in 2027.  

© Jari Kallio 

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