In Focus: The very best of Beethoven, 250 years on from his birth

Ludvig van Beethoven hasn’t had the celebrations he deserves for the 250th anniversary of his birth. Here, prominent figures in the Arts reveal to Pippa Cuckson the pieces they would have most like to have heard in concert this year.

John Suchet,broadcaster and Beethoven biographer

Piano Sonata No 31, Op 110

If you know what was going on in Beethoven’s life, you hear his music through different ears. No form is more personal than his piano sonatas — his voice, all the more so as his deafness worsened. The slow movement is one of his most melancholy themes; on the manuscript he wrote klagender Gesang — doleful song.

Second time around, he breaks it off and repeats a chord nine times, then launches into a huge, vibrant, inverted double fugue, ending in total triumph. He is saying: ‘Yes, I suffered the worst fate befalling a musician. If I can overcome that, future generations, you can over-come whatever awful fate has befallen you.’ If you feel down, listen to Op 110 and you’ll be smiling with Beethoven at the end.

 

Benjamin Grosvenor, concert pianist

Piano concerto No 1, Op 15

My favourites are the ones I am working on at the moment! This concerto is joyful — exuberant in the outer movements, full of wit and miraculous invention. The slow movement is heavenly — with wide-eyed innocence and warm, intimate lyricism — and the valedictory duet here between clarinet and piano is one of his most touching four bars of music.

Beethoven expressed so many aspects of the human condition and you can turn to him for comfort. During these dark times, it has been wonderful to inhabit a work of such unbridled joy and enthusiasm.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQObiL-ZYsw

Simon Jenkins, journalist and author

Symphony No 7, Op 92

When told to do something about the shocking absence of music in our school, my teacher gave us all a score of Beethoven 7 — I’ve still got it — and simply left us to work our way through it, so I came to it through study. It was composed towards the end of Napoleon’s days, when Beethoven was at the height of his powers, demonstrating his towering facility to handle symphonic form.

At the premiere, the audience demanded an encore of the second movement (allegretto), which has become a piece in its own right. The scherzo and trio is all fire and ice, the last movement whirling dervishes and a race to the finish. Beethoven went beserk when conducting the first performance. His antics on the podium would have been something to see!

 

Nigel Brown, entrepreneur and chairman of The Stradivari Trust

Symphony No 3, Eroica, Op 55

To me, this is the summit of nine symphonic creations — if only he’d been Brahms, he’d have ended there!

I have a medieval history degree, but happen to like the Napoleonic period. The Eroica is very expressive of that time. It was Beethoven responding to Napoleon, the intended dedicatee until he declared himself Emperor and an angry Beet-hoven crossed out his name. The grandeur of the Eroica is the memory of a once great man.

A portion of the manuscript of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonata in A, Op.101.

Allan Clayton, operatic tenor

An die ferne Geliebte, Op 98

This 1816 composition is the Ludwig van ‘B’s-knees’. I recently sang it in Oslo, although it goes somewhat under the radar because of the more popular song cycles by Schubert and Schumann. This cycle predates those, as well as setting the benchmark.

The themes of love, separation and longing inspired Beethoven to write an incredibly personal response in music of intense beauty. It’s no wonder we continue to guess the identity of his ‘Immortal Beloved’.

 

Declan Costello, ENT surgeon, Covid-19 researcher and member of The Holst Singers

Violin concerto, Op 61

Although it’s not for voice, this feels like his most ‘sung’ piece of instrumental writing. The lines are so beautifully crafted — you can almost feel yourself breathe with every phrase. This was my mother’s particular favourite, so I have happy memories of listening at home. To me, it evokes a summer’s day with the windows open.

 

Dr Caroline Campbell, director of Collections and Research, National Gallery

12 Variations from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45

My own preferences are for Beethoven’s chamber music. The celebrated Spring sonata for piano and violin (No 5, Op 24) is a favourite and I have a particular love for his relatively obscure, but completely delightful, Serenade in D for flute, viola and violin (Op 25).

But my favourite would have to be his variations on Handel’s See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes for cello and piano in G major. I love the tune and hearing it tossed and turned about is a joy.

 

Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist and educator

Symphony No 8, Op 93

I would choose the first movement (of four), because it is joyous and life-affirming. Toscanini’s is the performance to hear, full of the confident swagger that matches Beethoven’s mood.

Peter Millican, founder and developer of King’s Place concert hall

String quartets Op 132, 130, 131

These last quartets went far beyond the comprehension of Beethoven’s contemporaries — one said: ‘We know there is something there, but we don’t know what it is.’

They are masterworks offering something for the future. The Brodsky (Quartet) has played them many times at King’s Place and I was intending to hear them, twice in one evening, last week, had we not been locked down again.

 

Deborah Levy, novelist

Piano sonata No 8, Pathétique Op 13

Beethoven wrote this aged 27. He was beginning to go deaf, so was working through some of that. The silences are so alluring. Writing is not always about what is said, but what is not said.

Something is struggling in this sonata to make a language, although I am not sure why I think that, as Beethoven had it all there in his fingertips. This eighth sonata is both calming and exciting, a hard combination to pull off in any form.

 

Prof Averil Mansfield, pioneering surgeon and chamber musician

Symphony No 7, Op 92

This is guaranteed to raise any flagging spirits. All human emotions feature, even in parts funereal, but the overwhelming one is joy. I would love to be on the back row of the cellos for a performance of this rousing, superb piece of music.


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