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Beethoven: Overtures / Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

1 rating: 4.0
An album

  Song List: Disc 1  1. Egmont, Op. 84: Overture  2. Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43: Overture  3. Coriolan Overture in C minor, Op. 62  4. King Stephan, Op. 117: Overture  5. Ruins of Athens, … see full wiki

Tags: Music, Classical
1 review about Beethoven: Overtures / Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus...

Excellent cd for Beethoven neophytes

  • Jan 30, 2007
Pros: Choice of pieces, interpretation, ease of listening

Cons: The King Stephen Overture

The Bottom Line: If you like to listen to music at the office to distract from noisy neighbors, give this one a try.

Classical music is horrifically hard to review because it has more variables than anything other than food. Orchestra, conductor, soloists, even venue can all change the sound in significant ways that can make the same piece of music almost unidentifiable.

There is also another component that makes classical recordings difficult to encapsulate. Without being too glib, it is like the fans of the Grateful Dead—each song that they are already familiar with can be played in a different way that can make it new again. Seeing the live performance adds something to classical music that isn’t typically necessary (or can in fact be detrimental) to performances of popular music. Classical has no speakers or amplifiers other than the amplifiers that are part of the instruments themselves. So the ability to hear subtleties is far more common in the classical arena than beyond it (except in jazz, but I am not even a novice when it comes to jazz).

Maestro Kurt Masur earned his title interpreting the greats. His ear for Beethoven is rivaled only by Herbert von Karajan, easily the most famous of the interpreters of Beethoven. But I find Maestro Masur’s interpretations to be more emotive than those of the very strict Karajan.

The recording under review is for one of the more common things for recording companies to put together: overtures. These are usually short pieces with lively bits mixed in with some quieter moments and they vary widely, so the listener can feel like they are getting a full seven course dinner for one cheap price. Because of this, the overtures can be quite overdone. Maestro Masur allows some wandering (not all of it good) but stays generally faithful to the score.

The Coriolan (op.62) is the first one. This piece is a dark one and I find it a little odd to start a cd with it. The first motif plumbs something like the mushy surface of a moor before it begins to lift above the fog on the moor and dip back down to it. I have to admit that I cannot tell the difference between any of the interpretations of this I have or have heard. It is as if this were the piece by which orchestras all over the world measure their tempi and expression. It is also remarkable because it has the quietest end, as if descending into a shallow grave on the moor.

The Egmont Overture (op. 84) follows. It too has a rather dark beginning. It is the perfect overture to follow the Coriolan however. The reason for this has to do with the ending. Egmont’s final moment is frenetic, quick, somewhat overpowering. So it is a way to lift the listener into the more clash-ridden world of this temperamental composer. My only comment here is that I have heard at least 4 recordings of Masur directing 4 different orchestras in this piece and they all sound exactly the same. I have a feeling that the corpse of the conductor could make this piece sound the same until his body became too decomposed to move the baton.

The King Stephan Overture (op. 117) is just not right. The tempo is nearly double that of what I have heard from other composers. Once you get in your mind how a classical piece should sound, it is nearly impossible not to compare them. The way I do this is to listen to the piece over and over again until I can shake the staid memory. I found I couldn’t finish this after the first go around. It sounded like the orchestra had 6 minutes to finish before the power goes out, so they compressed a piece that can be as long as almost 9 minutes. It is an unnecessary musical panic attack.

The third Fidelio (op. 72c) is brilliant. The temptation for this piece is to play it too fast. The quiet moments between the eruptions of strings and drums demand patience, but too many conductors like to rush through them to get to the exciting bits. It is with pieces like this that separate the Maestro from the conductor. This is one of the pieces whose tempo at the end seems to indicate that the orchestra should just lose its mind and play as fast as muscles will allow. Most of the ones I know well make it nearly impossible to separate the notes, to hear any clarity. The last minute is also supremely tempting to play overly fast. Maestro Masur does not fall for the temptation.

Zur Namenfeier (Nameday or Naming Ceremony) (op. 115) has never been among my list of preferred Beethoven works. Until this recording it sounded jumpy and derivative of other, better Beethoven pieces. Either sensing this, or just knowing what he’s doing, Masur makes this, for me, the reason to own this recording. His interpretation is unlike any of the others that I have heard of this work.

The Ruins of Athens (op. 112) is very much like its contemporary above (op. 115). I can blame no conductor here. I think this is just a weak work. At this point, Beethoven couldn’t hear and was beginning (or in the beginning) stages of the idiotic custody battle he fought to maintain control over his nephew. The piece drags and meanders and never quite amounts to anything except being a step above elevator music.

The Creatures of Prometheus (op. 43) is brash and fun. If any short piece of classical music could define what it sounded like to bring fire to the mortals here on earth, Beethoven knew how to do it. I also think it is a piece that can separate a b grade orchestra from a b+ orchestra. It isn’t hard to play, but like the three Leonora overtures, it can be tempting to play too fast and too loud. Masur does what is natural to him for this relatively common, but still fascinating piece of music.

Leonora Overture 3 (op. 72b) is the longest of the three Leonora overtures. In many ways, I think this was an experiment for Beethoven and Masur makes it sound like that. It really seems that Beethoven was trying to find his way with this one. There are moments where it is almost jazzy in its search for a truly controlling leitmotiv. About half way through the almost 14 minutes, the piece finds its footing and stands out as, at least in my ear, the best of the Leonora overtures. As with all of the Opus 72 pieces, the tendency is to want to play it too fast and loud. Maestro Masur knows, with rare exceptions, how to stop that from happening. With about ninety seconds to go, one of my favorite musical things occurs. The violins start at a high pitch but low volume, then add more violins and more volume (and it sounds like they are playing a game of liquid leap frog), then the rest of the stringed instruments so that it feels like the orchestra creates a small swell off shore that becomes a form of humongous but exciting tidal wave. Trumpets and woodwinds then add their sound to the mix as the tide ebbs just a little. People have tried to teach me not to equate music with images, but I simply don’t understand 1) why and 2) how that is even possible.

The most surprising piece for me is the last one. The Consecration of the House (op. 124) is the piece of music immediately before the peerless 9th Symphony. If I didn’t know better and there wasn’t the focus on the bass instruments at the beginning of this piece, I would swear it was Mozart. This one is unique among its cd-mates. It contains a fanfare, which, if I heard on its own, would swear was middle Mozart. The piece holds nothing of the grandeur of the piece that would follow it, but it is something that I have listened to before but never really heard. Either because it follows one of my favorite pieces or because Maestro Masur knows how to pull from it something different than others, it is like finding a new Beethoven piece after a lifetime of listening to him.

This is an excellent recording for someone who is interested in Beethoven but doesn’t want to try to swallow one of the major symphonies. I can’t imagine Beethoven being new to anyone, but since this has to be the case, I would recommend this as a good start and a good sampling.


Great Music to Play While: At Work

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Beethoven: Overtures / Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus
Label: Universal Classics
Release Date: January 13, 2004

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