George Bernard Shaw held that Mozart so perfected classical music that Beethoven had no choice but to strike out in a new direction (Romanticism). A simplification, of course, but it captures something. The composer was a revolutionary who, as the introduction to this new complete set notes, advanced Europe’s evolution on a scale comparable to his contemporaries Napoleon in politics, Goya in painting and Hegel in philosophy.
There is a gulf between Beethoven’s first and last works, between the early piano sonatas and the Hammerklavier or Op 111, between the Op 18 string quartets and sublime Op 131, between the first symphony and the third, the Eroica, let alone the ninth. Music lovers get an unmatched opportunity to trace this development and to enjoy some of the most sublime, noble, beautiful, witty and skilful music ever composed in this 123-disc box set commemorating Beethoven’s 250th birthday next year. It contains every work he composed, plus duplications of dozens of them in famous, historic performances.
It is presented as a voyage of discovery, both through the composer’s career and in comparing various styles of performance. For example, listeners can compare several sets of the nine symphonies: modern, period and historic, including Karajan’s famous 1963 cycle. The fifth appears seven times in various guises, while other symphonies, the Grosse Fugue string quartet and the Pathetique piano sonata have five versions and the violin concerto four.
In the introduction, the Bonn Beethovenhaus director Malte Boecker invites listeners to see beyond the cliche of the deaf misanthrope to the game changer, “the radical artist who shunned any semblance of routine and fundamentally redefined music in every work and every genre. Or Beethoven the creative destroyer, the man who presented his teacher Josef Haydn, the author of no fewer than 45 piano trios, with a set of just such trios as his Opus 1 – with the result that Haydn never touched the genre again… Or the Beethoven whose piano works, chamber music and symphonies led to new and unparalleled dimensions in length, complexity and scoring, bursting the bounds of everything hitherto achieved.”
It has always disturbed me that Beethoven suffered so much mental and emotional anguish to give us this transcendent body of work – the link between suffering and beauty. He started going deaf in his 20s. The first performance of his ninth is particularly poignant: Beethoven, who insisted on conducting next to the actual conductor, was several bars behind when the work finished. He had to be turned around to face the audience and see the rapturous applause.
This set features 175 hours of music on 118 CDs, two DVDs and three Blu-rays: music assembled in co-operation between 12 labels. Then there is an excellent hardback book of essays and a biography in pictures. The music is divided into nine genres: orchestral, chamber, keyboard, stage, vocal, lieder, folksong, rarities and classic performances, with complete texts and more excellent notes and essays. The last group includes a 1913 recording with Nikisch, Richard Strauss conducting the fifth symphony, plenty of Furtwaengler and performances on Beethoven’s own instruments.
The rarities include works I’d never heard of, such as two, three and four-voice fugues for piano, a flute sonata (of doubtful provenance) and reconstructed works and fragments, such as a violin sonata in A major and a violin concerto movement in C. Fully seven discs are filled with settings of folk songs, mostly Scottish and Irish, that are well worth hearing. It has both his “only” opera, Fidelio, and the original which he revised heavily, Leonore.
The past century’s greatest conductors, soloists, singers and chamber groups are thoughtfully represented. For example, there is an array of peerless pianists including Wilhelm Kempff (all 32 sonatas), Martha Argerich, Pollini, Arrau, Brendel, Ashkenazy, Perahia, Gilels, Richter, Schnabel, Pletnev, Katchen, Kovacevich, Curzon, Lupu, Barenboim, Zimerman, and Gulda.
This is not the first complete set of Beethoven’s works, but it is the most extensive and much the best. It is astoundingly, inexhaustibly brilliant – an investment in delight and a treasure trove for life. BARNEY ZWARTZ
Chick Corea Trio
TRILOGY 2 (Concord/Planet) ★★★★½
Just 10 seconds of music tells you so much about this trio. They come after Chick Corea’s solo piano introduction to How Deep Is the Ocean, whereupon, rather than making a bold entrance, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade merely insinuate themselves. This fluidity defines a band so startling in its interplay as to fill the gap created by the demise of that other jazz standards supergroup: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Corea’s band is that good – even surpassing his trio with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. They play standards and Corea’s own timeless compositions (including an electrifying La Fiesta) with the exuberance and elan of three small children who, through some sorcery, have become virtuoso musicians.
At his very best, as he is here, Corea combines elfin wonder with willowy elegance. Add McBride, and suddenly these qualities are earthed by one who could make a nursery rhyme sound profound or a requiem playful. Then there’s Blade: the joker with an instinct for the least predictable option in any given instant and whose finesse ensures McBride’s improbable virtuosity is never obscured. JOHN SHAND
COLOURFUL, NOISY ★★★
Early-aughts nostalgia has a tendency to mark musicians. Thirsty Merc have carried this burden since their 2004 hit, Summertime, but the band’s bassist, Phil Stack, has spent the past decade finding his own voice. In his debut solo album he flexes his artistic brilliance, from jazz piano-laden ballads (The Centreline) and exuberant rock-infused pop (Tradin Up), to The Long Game, a heart-wrenching orchestral masterpiece tempered by an unassuming ’90s grunge flow.
From start to finish, the record is a cascading meditation on the perils of being alive. Stack is dejected (It’s a Cold Life) and desperately searching for salvation (Share Your Dreams) in songs that reflect his frustrated hunger for joy. Ultimately, it’s his most nimble instrument, his powdery lilt, that steals the spotlight. While each refrain wallows in sadness, his voice lightly tickles the high notes with satisfying ease.
In the final moments Celebrate Life attempts to tie together the loose threads and create a message of hope, but by then it’s too late. Signs of Thirsty Merc’s youthful abandon are long gone, and what remains are the wounded evocations of a man who’s seen it all. KISH LAL
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award
Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.