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Beethoven in Toto

It's all here--101 hours, 53 minutes, 35 seconds of it--the composer's lifework on 87 CDs in a small suitcase. Yet, somehow, it seems like something's missing.

January 25, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

The "Complete Beethoven Edition," issued by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate the label's 100th anniversary, requires 87 CDs and comes in a small suitcase that contains a two-tiered acrylic shelf, designed to hold the 20 volumes of multi-CD sets and a special book. It weighs a ton. Drop it on your foot and you could easily break a toe. Beethoven is heavy.

It's all here, every scrap that Beethoven wrote. The Fifth Symphony, the "Eroica" and the "Ode to Joy." Opus 111 and the C-sharp minor String Quartet. The "Emperor" Concerto, "Archduke" Trio, "Moonlight" Sonata and "Diabelli" Variations. "Rage Over a Lost Penny" and "Fur Elise." "Fidelio" and "Missa Solemnis." Not to mention Three Equali for Four Trombones or arrangements of "Let brain-spinning swains" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Now for some daunting statistics. The total timing for the 87 CDs is 101 hours, 53 minutes, 35 seconds. It would thus take two weeks, listening every day for approximately seven hours and 15 minutes, to hear every scrap Beethoven wrote. Besides the nine symphonies, the 32 piano sonatas, the 16 string quartets, the 10 violin sonatas, the five cello sonatas, the two masses, the many sets of variations, the miscellaneous choral, vocal and chamber music, the edition includes an enormous amount of Beethoven you have very likely never encountered. For instance, all of the 168 folk-song arrangements he made when he needed money.

No question that this is a monumental oeuvre and that a complete edition of recordings is its own kind of monument. For nearly two centuries now, Beethoven has loomed over music. He was certain of his own greatness and was responsible, single-handedly, for creating the Romantic-period notion of the artist as great figure in society, not merely a craftsperson in the employ of aristocrats. Certainly, there has never been a moment since his death in 1827 when Beethoven hasn't been a force--even the force--with which music history has had to reckon.

But this edition comes at a curious time in the history of classical music, and it probably tells us more about ourselves than it does about the monumentality of Beethoven.

For one thing, it doesn't mark a particular Beethoven moment. It is not an anniversary season (the bicentennial of his birth was in 1970, and DG had a Beethoven set then, massive and landmark but not nearly as complete), nor are we in the midst of any notable Beethovenian reevaluations.

We are, in fact, in an era of Beethovenian glut. If there is any trend, it is that the record companies have finally begun to crack down on vain maestros who still insist upon their own symphony cycle, on pianists who still insist upon a concerto cycle. The bottom line has asserted itself.

The recording of Beethoven began in earnest in 1913, with a performance of the Fifth Symphony by Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic--the first recording of a complete symphony. The '30s and '40s, the heyday of the 78s, brought many of the landmark Beethoven recordings, and they remain much in favor with collectors. These included the piano sonatas played by Artur Schnabel, the symphonies conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini, the string quartets performed by the Budapest String Quartet. Back then, the recording of even a single work was an event. It required a number of discs just to hold a symphony, and the set was costly.

The LP changed all that, making Beethoven's music more easily accessible and consequently better known and more popular than ever. And the CD has only further accelerated accessibility and affordability. There are nearly a hundred interpretations of the Fifth Symphony currently in print.

It is possible, of course, to overpromote even Beethoven, and with the onslaught of Beethoven LPs in the '50s and '60s, came, also, the first wave of genuine disgust with the composer.

Beethoven had always served as an example to modernists and visionaries. The late works, like the "Grosse Fuge," still felt avant-garde a hundred years later, inspiring Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg. But all those LPs made Beethoven pervasive, and composers wanted out of his shadow. His pushy omnipresence seemed to smother creativity.

Still, the recordings and performances continued, and then came the CD reissues and new releases, and that led to a second backlash. Beethoven became the ultimate dead white male composer. His lording over culture again seemed excessive, oppressive, especially among the politically correct.

Now comes the third backlash. Beethoven remains ever popular, but how much of him can you sell? The competition among recordings of his symphonies has even reached the point that there is now a set of all nine symphonies on Lydian that sells for a mere $12.

So why all of Beethoven? And why now? The main reason, I suspect, is that it is the only way left for a record company to impress us.

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