‘Great’ Beethoven in the Raw: Hearing the Hero’s Inner Being

Musicologist Richard Taruskin, in his brilliant new Oxford History of Western Music, observes that the notion of “great music” is a relatively recent one, dating from the end of the 18th century, when Mozart began aiming his sights toward a realm of human contemplation that came to be identified as “the sublime.” “From [then] on,” he writes, “music expressive of the new world-transcending values would be called not beautiful music but ‘great music.’ It is a term that is still preeminently used to describe-or at least to market-’classical music.’” The repercussions of what Mr. Taruskin calls this “newly sacralized view of art” were profound, giving rise to, among other things, the museum-like concert hall in which spontaneity of performance was downgraded in favor of “reverent curatorship.”

No composer has received more reverent curatorship than Beethoven, who is the transcendent musical genius-a figure who embodied, in the eyes of the influential critic E.T.A. Hoffmann, “the idea of the romantic sublime … multiplied to the n th power” (the words are Mr. Taruskin’s). Beethoven has spawned a prodigiously productive industry of analysis. Alone among composers, he has attained the status of a demigod-an emancipator of not just music but the human spirit. The most trenchant account of how he came to occupy this pinnacle can be found in Scott Burnham’s aptly titled Beethoven Hero (1995).

Not surprisingly, performers of Beethoven’s music have tended to cast themselves in the composer’s heroic mold. If the great man triumphed over the worst catastrophe that can befall a musician-deafness-than the modern maestro, with nobly tilted profile, must be heard to rattle the heavens during climactic passages, to calm vast waters with godlike rapture during moments of tranquillity, and always to transmit the impression that conductor and orchestra are engaged in a titanic enterprise of self-possession in a tragically precarious world.

Over the years since the composer’s death in 1827, the prevailing Beethoven-as conveyed in countless performances of his symphonies, concertos, choral works, piano sonatas, string quartets and trios, and his one opera, Fidelio-has been the lonely artist whose indomitable integrity is not that of the lofty aristocrat, but of the common man: He achieves the best that’s within us all (at least potentially). As the turbulence of the music suggests, it’s no easy achievement. In keeping with our fractiously egalitarian times, the thrust in the Beethoven we hear over and over again is that of struggle-rough sledding.

But there’s more to Beethoven than the mighty battler. I’m thinking of the Beethoven whose most universally beloved masterpiece-the Ninth Symphony-takes as its text Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” This work expresses not just the inspirational Beethoven who exulted in the possibilities of man’s freedom, but the Beethoven who reveled in the exercise of his craft. This is Beethoven the master builder and compulsive tinkerer, the composer who, despite his many changes of residence and the notorious untidiness of his personal habits, preserved-with the assiduousness of Leonardo-all the notebooks in which he scribbled down his every musical thought. This is the Beethoven whose inability to hear and even to perform his music publicly must have made the private enjoyment of his labors all the more dear. And this was the Beethoven I heard in two extraordinary series of concerts-those of the Takács Quartet, which performed the complete cycle of the composer’s string quartets at Alice Tully Hall, and the Cleveland Orchestra, which performed all five of the piano concertos at Carnegie Hall.

Behind the Takács Quartet is a tale of triumph over adversity that has a Beethoven-like ring to it. The group was formed in 1975 by four schoolmates at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest who went on to become the quartet in residence at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Just as they were beginning to enjoy international acclaim for their tours and recordings on the Decca label (especially for their complete cycle of the Bartók quartets), a personal crisis obliged their charismatic first violinist to depart; a few years later, their violist died of cancer. Most other quartets would have gone out of business, but the two remaining Hungarians-cellist András Fejér and second violinist Károly Schranz-recruited two Englishmen, first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Roger Tapping, and the Takács quickly reestablished itself as one of the world’s outstanding foursomes.

Oddly, the binational Takács sounds more “Hungarian” than ever. Unlike many of their sleek American counterparts, they’re hot-blooded strivers, not coolly calculated blenders: Their colors are sometimes shockingly vibrant, and they can turn on a dime from rude brusqueness to keening sweetness in a way that suggests the persistence of Magyar roots. All this brought Beethoven the man-not the demigod-more vividly to life than has happened during any other playing of the quartets that I can recall. Thanks to one of those mysterious currents of buzz that makes Events out of certain musical offerings in New York, the series-which coincided with the release of the last installment in the Takács’ splendid traversal of the cycle on Decca-was entirely sold out. The atmosphere that attended each of the six concerts, which were presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, had the giddy excitement of a rock concert.

The vitality with which the Takács players addressed the string quartets, which span Beethoven’s entire musical development, and which they presented in kaleidoscopic rather than chronological sequence, seemed to take years off the hoary Chamber Music Society regulars. I heard cavils from diehard fans of the hometown champion, the Emerson String Quartet, about the thinness of Mr. Dusinberre’s tone (though not about his astonishing pinpoint agility) and about the gruffness of some of the accents. But nobody could complain about the intensity of the players’ focus, which seemed directed not on one another or even on the scores in front of them, but on Beethoven the wit, the mourner, the conversationalist, the loner, the yearner, the visionary-beautiful warts and all.

A week after the final Takács concert, Beethoven reappeared-once again entirely himself, but in a different form: a Beethoven shorn of rough edges, temper or anything resembling a thorny personality. The Cleveland Orchestra has long been the most refined of the great American symphonic ensembles, and under its graceful new music director, the young Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, they demonstrated in the concertos (and in works by, among others, Shostakovich, Schubert and the contemporary composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle) all the qualities for which they are renowned: transparency, balance, precision and luminosity.

During the course of the four concerts, I heard a few patrons complain, “Well, of course no orchestra plays better than this. But isn’t it all just a little bloodless?” Not for me. The soloist in the Beethoven concertos was Radu Lupu, a shaggy-maned Romanian who’s the closest thing, in today’s music world, to a medium. Somehow, the combination of Mr. Lupu’s miraculous touch (which to my ears evokes old, comforting church bells) and the immaculate playing of the Clevelanders succeeded in dematerializing the performance to such an extent that I felt myself face to face with the composer’s very spirit-what the Germans call Innigkeit, or innermost being, the realm where Beethoven reigned supreme.