Turning Digital Part 1
So, Ludwig, that was the year that wasn’t. A shame that your big 250th birthday bash had to coincide with a pandemic, and a tragedy that so many concerts and other live events had to be cancelled. But, three months into a new year, and the flood of new recordings of your works shows little sign of abating. It’s as if absolutely everybody in the classical world wanted to make their mark in your semiquincentennial year.
Almost exactly five years ago I blogged about a new set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas which had entranced me. So, it will come as no surprise that throughout 2020 I had a wonderful time comparing no less than fivecomplete new sets of the sonatas on Spotify. Four of these, perhaps not coincidentally, were from pianists from Russia, or of Russian extraction. More telling though, is the common factor that all five pianists were men.
There are of course many wonderful female pianists who have recorded individual sonatas but, for whatever reason, very few have committed the entire cycle of 32 sonatas to disc. One writer, back in 2019, thought that only four women had ever done so , but I’m pleased now to prove him wrong. Back in the early 2010s a Japanese pianist based in Berlin called Yu Kosuge recorded a complete cycle for Sony in Japan. In the past, that would have meant the recordings could only have been available in the UK as expensive and hard to get imports, but of course, in the world of streaming services, they’re just a Spotify search away (other streaming services are available).
So here’s one answer to a common question: just how many more Beethoven recordings do we need? Well, if Yu Kosuge’s set is indeed just one of five compete sonata cycles ever recorded by women, then we clearly haven’t reached saturation point. Last year there was also an astonishing glut of new sets of the five piano concertos (six if you count, as some pianists do, the piano version of the Violin Concerto) but only two of those sets, as far as I can tell, featured female soloists and neither, to my ears was particularly distinguished.
Yu Kosuge’s piano sonatas, however, are in a different class entirely. And although I haven’t listened to all the sonatas yet, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, for me, her recordings surpass all the five new sets from men that I’ve listened to. And yes, that includes the Gramophone Artist of the Year, Igor Levit. Yu Kosuge has it all: technique (that goes without saying), a sure sense of architecture and form; passion, pacing, and above all, humour. She brings just the right level of fantasy and imagination to performances that are intended for repeat listening. I really hope that, some day, when the concert halls have returned to some kind of normality, I get to hear her play live.
But why isn’t she better known? Why are the CD versions of her Beethoven recordings only available on Amazon UK as imports at extortionate prices? Perhaps she’s the kind of dedicated musician who shuns the limelight. Or maybe it’s just because she’s a woman.
Even more startling is the fact that, as far as I can tell, no female conductor has ever recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. I believe I read once that there are something like 150 complete symphony cycles on record, and a huge number of those are readily available as record labels try to make as much income as possible from their archives. And there are many female conductors well up to the task: Marin Alsop, Simone Young and Jane Glover among the older generation, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla among the rising stars. So, what’s the problem?
Well, I’m glad to say that one female conductor has taken up the challenge, and Estonian-born Kristiina Poska has embarked on what may very well be the first ever recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies with a female conductor. Ok, it’s with an orchestra most of us will never have heard of, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, and on an equally obscure label, Fuga Libera. But at least, thanks to Spotify, it’s readily accessible for all to hear, and I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed the first disc in the series: refreshing, intelligent, and no sense that I wasn’t listening to one of the world’s top rank orchestras. Roll on the next instalment!
But, in all other respects, as the dust gradually settles down from the anniversary year that wasn’t, is it time to call a moratorium on further new Beethoven recordings for, say, a decade? Here’s why I don’t think so. The idea of owning, and listening to, only one recording of a major work (or a handful if you can afford different versions) is less than a century old, from when the first complete recordings of symphonies, sonatas and concertos started to emerge. Now perhaps it’s time to think about how really odd it is to be able to repeat a single performance endlessly, to get to know every nuance, to analyse every key stroke or bar of music, to wait in anguish for that click or scratch, if you’re listening to vinyl. To replace a sense of adventure with one of cosy familiarity.
For me, Spotify has been wonderfully liberating. Every time I choose to listen to a favourite piece, I can select a different performance, hear a different perspective, find something in the music that I’d never spotted or appreciated before. And in this past year, with no live concerts to go to, that has been a real boon. Even something as familiar, as jaded, you might say, as Beethoven’s Fifth or the Moonlight Sonata, can be fresh, surprising, and engaging if you’re listening to a performance or recording that’s new to you. As I write this I’m listening to Bruckner’s Third Symphony from a complete set recorded by the Korean Symphony Orchestra, no less, conducted by Hun-Joung Lim. It’s terrific. Perhaps not up to the Berlin Phil, but full of the excitement and energy of discovery. Here in the West, the death of classical music is regularly, and prematurely, announced. In the East, they’ve barely got started.