Film Review: The Soloist

On my trip to the States, I flew on United Airlines, which was mainly to save my company about $1,000 off the cost of airfare. It was a miserable flight both ways.

However, the saving grace of both trips was that this movie, The Soloist, was screened. I fell asleep in it the first time across, because I’d been on the plane for about 10 hours before they broke it out and I couldn’t stay away any longer, but what I saw in the first half moved me to tears.

Then I was on the flight back and, right at the tail end of all the films, they screened it again. The back half put me in tears as well. I am willing to admit that this could be due to the extreme dehydration and sleep-deprivation, but I think this movie has more than that going for it. I certainly would be keen to see it again, perhaps at the movies (it comes out next week in Australia, I believe) or certainly on DVD.

From the director of Atonement, it tells a very simple (and true) story. A journalist in Los Angeles, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), one day came across a homeless man (Jamie Foxx), Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic, hiding out near a statue of Beethoven, doing his best to scrap a tune out of a violin with only two strings.

A throwaway comment by Ayers revealed that he had attended the prestigiouis Juilliard School of Music and so Lopez investigates further, only to find that he has a great cellist on his hands, whose mental incapacity has led him to the streets. The rest of the movie tells the story of how Lopez moves from cynical curiosity to kindness and friendship towards Ayers.

First of all, having just flown out of LA Airport, this film has some greater resonance for me. The airport – certainly the bits where I was boarding flights – feels really primitive. It’s a scumhole of a place to hang around, and looking at the smog hanging over the city, it doesn’t look much more attractive. I’m sure there are nice places, but the overall first impression is one of a crumbling city. So the graffiti and homelessness displayed in this film immediately seem realistic.

Downey Jr and Foxx both turn in great performances. Apparently, playing a man with a mental illness reminded Foxx of a bad drug episode in his late teens and was a struggle to play. He pulls it off beautifully, and for this non-cellist, his cello playing looked convincing.

The film offers no easy solutions to the poverty. There’s not a standard Hollywood ending, or even a Shine moment, where Ayers returns to his former life. In fact, it’s very much a work in progress, and we feel like it’s still going on in real life with the real guys – beyond the timeframe captured in this film. But two things really made this film stand out:

1. It’s a film about human kindness. I know when I was younger, I was attracted to films with dark themes, and I certainly have sat through some films that start out in a bright-lit places, only to drag their audiences into the depths. But it’s so much rarer (and for me, nowadays, so much more inspiring) to see a film that starts in the depths and heads for bright places. So, for me, the trajectory of these men – both of whom inspire each other in different ways – was beautiful to behold.

2. But none of this would really have worked without a nod to the soundtrack. I was a bit put off this film when I first saw the trailer a few months ago, because the artwork and the music used on the trailer were much more grungy and poppy, with only a nod to classical music with a bit of a Bach Cello Suite (which I thought was odd for a film about a guy who played the cello).

But that was just the trailer guys trying to broaden the appeal of the film. Ladies and gentlemen, this soundtrack is nearly all Beethoven, as arranged fairly cleverly by Dario Marianelli. But not just any Beethoven – it’s my favourite Beethoven. It’s like they read my mind and picked out every piece of Beethoven that I loved and put it into this film, just for me to be taken out of my horrible United Airways flight.

In flashbacks to a young Nathaniel, we first see that he loves Beethoven and has taught himself the cello part to Beethoven’s 3rd Eroic Symphony – without doubt, my favourite Beethoven symphony.

But then it got even better. In the highly dramatic moment when Ayers is first given a new cello by Lopez, he pulls it out – and there is a certain suspense here – after all, what do you play when you haven’t played the cello in years? He begins to play Beethoven’s most spiritual piece of chamber music – the famous slow …

[Sorry, just had a moment of excitement – the unit upstairs in our apartment block started yelling out that they had a fire and Rachel came in to get me – so I’ve just been downstairs for five minutes with the kids and Rachel out the front. But it was only a barbecue that got a bit out of hand and they put it all out. So that’s all good.]

Anyway, where was I? Ayers starts to play and out comes the famous slow third movement from Beethoven’s opus 132 String Quartet. This particular movement (or section) was written when Beethoven was recovering from an illness and he named it something like “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Godhead for  helping me recover from my illness”. (I know, that’s not exact – but I’ll leave you to Google it.)

It starts very slowly, one instrument and a time. In fact, it’s so low-key when it enters, it’s almost as if Beethoven was too weak to come in with something more energetic. So that’s the feeling you get as you hear Foxx play. Furthermore, at first we can only hear the cello part – but he’s hearing in his head the other three instruments. As he plays, the music soars more and more, and in a beautiful visual moment, the music literally takes us out of the squalor of Los Angeles for a moment and shows us something beautiful. But I’ll let you see it for yourself.

Then a bit later, the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony is used for the final sequence and end credits, surely one of Beethoven’s most beautiful slow movements. I’ve always had a theory that Beethoven (who himself led a pretty tortured life) wrote these slow movements to provide a comfort to himself in the dark hours. And when I heard the music in this context, providing comfort to Nathaniel Ayers in the trials that he faced, it was doubly reinforced.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it – for the last 24 hours, I’ve been getting teary every time I think about this film.

If you don’t like Beethoven, but enjoy a well-acted drama, you may not get why I like it, but you should still enjoy yourself. For you, it’s a 3 1/2 out of 5. If you love Beethoven as much as I do and you think that kindness towards others should rank a little more highly on our priorities than it does, this is really, really good stuff. 4 1/2 out of 5.

Classical Music – Can It Be Salvaged?

I know I’m supposed to be back onto War and Peace posts, but the weekend has whizzed by and I haven’t had a chance to write any.

But I’ve been giving some thought to the classical music situation over the last few weeks. (Actually, it’s more like the last few years – but that’s a different matter.)

It’s not a secret to say that the classical music industry is struggling a bit. There are a wide variety of reasons for it, but my own personal theory is that since the 60s, it has been socially unacceptable to really like the music of the past. It’s getting better now, in this day and age of playlists, but when I was a kid growing up, the fact that I liked listening to classical music made me a bit of a freak.

So you combine that kind of peer pressure with stereotypes of classical music being performed by men in black suits for an audience of old people with suits on, and before you’ve even really listened to a note of the music, you have a negative perception that keeps people away.

Then we have problem number 2. Even if we get you to change your perceptions and say, “Hey, maybe this music isn’t so bad . . . I’ll give it a try,” when people come to listen to it, I think they’re often underwhelmed.

And I think that’s because it’s the kind of music that needs some explanation. There was a time when society used to teach people about music. You’d learn about it at school, mum and dad would make you have piano lessons which included classical music, and so when you went to a concert or listened to a classical recording, you sort of knew what to expect.

But that’s not the case now. In fact, one of the things that saddens me is seeing people who are new to classical music at classical concerts. The music is playing, everyone around them goes into raptures, and they’re kind of politely enjoying the general sound, while thinking to themselves, Well, wouldn’t want to listen to this stuff all day . . .

Anyway, this is a long and quite varied topic, but as someone who had to work the hard way to figure out classical music, I found one of the most helpful things was to understand how classical music is structured and what the composer is trying to do in the music.

Liner notes in CDs and concert programmes sometimes help, but then I find that they can be describing something in the music, but I can’t work out exactly where in the 30-45 minutes running time that the piece lasts, exactly where is the moment they are talking about?

And it occurred to me, that what would be nice is some way of explaining the music as it is playing so you can see exactly what things are being pointed out.

So I tried a little experiment on Friday night. I took a YouTube video of Toscanini conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and added explanatory subtitles to it.

Beethoven’s Fifth (at least the first movement) is probably one of my least favourite pieces of classical music, because it gets played to death, but it’s nice and simple to explain and everyone’s heard of it, so I used it as a test case.

The subtitles alone don’t tell the story, so there’s still a need for some explanatory notes, but I like the concept that I can point out the moments as they occur.

So what I’ll do is explain briefly what to listen out for in Beethoven’s Fifth and then you can check the video and see what you think.

First off, you need to know that classical music pieces often come in sections called movements. I won’t go into all the details, but the first movement is usually a fast one.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (a symphony is a piece for orchestra) is probably one of the most instantly recognisable classical music pieces in the world, and it’s definitely fast.

Beethoven also wrote it in a very common format called sonata form. In the same way that we get used to verse-chorus-verse-chorus as a pattern for songs, sonata form was a pattern often used for first movements.

Sonata form has roughly four sections.

The first section is called the Exposition. This is where the main themes of the symphony are laid out. Then we move into the Development, where the themes are broken down and played around with (a bit like improvisation). Then we come to the Recapitulation where the main themes return again (slightly different, but mostly the same). Finally, there is a Coda, which is the ending where the whole movement is wrapped up.

This may sound quite academic and boring, but when you know the structure, it adds a lot of drama to the music. First off, in the Exposition, you’re waiting to hear what types of themes the composer is going to give you. A good piece of music will usually vary the types of music in the themes, so you can often have complete contrasts of mood, speed and style in the exposition.

Then in the Development, the drama is to see what the composer does with those themes. Beethoven, especially, likes to go all mysterious and often he heads off into a strange twilight zone in his development sections.

Then there’s the drama of the Recapitulation, where we get a little thrill of recognition as the movement goes full cirle and comes back to the opening themes (assuming you were paying attention to them the first time around). But even though the music is back on familiar ground, we know the Coda is coming up, and so the audience can start to wonder how the piece is going to end.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, while fairly short by classical standards, uses this structure to great effect. First off, there are two wildly different themes in the Exposition. But what’s really amazing is that in between these two themes, the French horns play Three Big Notes (as I call them). They’d be just a throwaway moment (they’re played kind of slowly, the second is higher than the first one, and then the third note drops and is lower than the first two), but Beethoven makes those three notes the highlight of his development and breaks them down to two notes, and then one note.

Then there’s the Recapitulation. We expect to hear the first them repeated again as per normal, but instead, Beethoven interrupts everything (for no particular reason) to give the oboe a beautiful solo moment. But all of this is nothing, compared with the Coda. Codas often just finish movements off, but Beethoven writes music describing a titanic struggle in the Coda, and the music is so dramatic, it eclipses everything that comes before it.

Even though this movement is laid out in a pretty strict structure, the music was so wild and passionate, that audiences back in the day thought they were listening to random sounds strung together. It was just too over-the-top and emotional for them. For us, now, it sums up everything that’s great about classical music.

So here’s the video. I was hoping to embed it on the blog, but when I do that, the subtitles disappear, so for now you’ll have to go visit it on the DotSub website.

Book Review: Life of Beethoven (Alexander Thayer)

First of all, I should say a word about Folio Books.  This is the kind of thing that if you have an absolute fortune to blow on books, you might consider investing in these.  They’re designed to be the ultimate in books.  They’re all clothbound, with ultra-high-quality paper.  There’s no chance these books are going to fall apart or get damaged in any way. (Though that said, I did stupidly once put an apple in a bag with this book, and the apple was a bit soft – but that’s just making me cringe talking about it, so I’ll leave off there.)  Anyway, with this kind of luxury comes a hefty price tag.

But I inherited this one off my folks’ bookshelf, and they inherited it from the book library of a music school they used to run in Brisbane, so I didn’t actually have to play anything.  But it does indeed look exactly like the photo you see here, and has a red slipcase for it to go into.

It is the first and probably the last Folio Books edition I will ever read.

But enough about that.  I’ll tell you about the book.

Alexander Thayer was an Englishman back in the 1800s who lived some thirty or forty years after Beethoven died, but obviously was fairly interested in his life.  But he noticed that a problem with all the biographies that were put out about the great composer at the time was that they all tended to talk him up.  Beethoven was great because of this.  Beethoven was a noble man.  Blah, blah, blah.  They’d leave things out, they’d make things up.  All kinds of unhistorical stuff.

So Thayer set about clearing the air on Beethoven, and he did this by undertaking a massive research project.  He dug up, as far as I can understand, every letter that was written by Beethoven or to Beethoven that was still in existence.  He chased down anyone who was still living who knew the man. The research is phenomenal, and it shows.

Having previously only learned about Beethoven’s life from films like Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, this was a much more detailed life of Beethoven than any I’d read before.  In fact, perhaps a little too detailed.

Believe it or not, the Folio Books edition, which is 600+ pages long, is actually an abridged version of the completely two-volume Thayer’s Life of Beethoven.  I’m not sure exactly what made the cut, but the editor in the foreword said that he cut a lot of discussion about music, which I thought was a bit of a shame, because I’m always keen to learn more about the music.

But what we’re left with is still an interesting portrait.  To a degree. While some parts of this biography are absolutely fascinating (for instance, the story of one of Beethoven’s good friends who played a practical joke on him and, in his rage, Beethoven never played the piano in front of him ever again).  And because most of the information is drawn from letters and documents, there’s not a lot of speculation.  It’s all fact.  (Actually, it’s funny – Thayer tends to disappear into the background, whereas nowadays we like our storytellers to have a bit of personality.)

But these letters and documents are part of the drawback.  The vast majority of letters in these books usually consist of Beethoven saying one or more of the following things: 1) I’m sick. 2) I’m poor. 3) Someone has irritated me. 4) You have irritated me. 5) I forgive you for irritating me. 6) Will you forgive me for irritating you?

And, of course, the most frequent of all: 7) Will you buy this piece of music from me?  I’ve got it all written up, ready to go, just for you.

And, inevitably, the piece of music wasn’t all written up, and often it wasn’t “just for you” either (Beethoven would occasionally play two or three publishers off against each other).

All in all, Beethoven is a fascinating character.  If he was just a common man, like a farmer or a politician – he would have angered and irritated so many people that nobody would have wanted to spend time with him.

But his music cast such a spell over his fans (and there were many loyal friends throughout his lifetime) that they forgave him time and time again for the most antisocial behaviour.  And, of course, the behaviour and the man start to become blurry over time.  Most people nowadays don’t know much about the man at all.  But we do know his music. And we still love it just as much.

3 1/2 out of 5.

Concert Review: Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough

I was privileged to be able hear this recital twice, which was quite exciting. Stephen is an English pianist, who has released over 40 CDs and, while he may not be a household name yet like Horowitz, Rubinstein, and the other great pianists of the past, he could well be on his way there. (And there’s also a question of, “With the decline in interest in piano music, is any pianist likely to become a household name?”)

Stephen’s program was very cleverly picked, and I won’t go through all the pieces there because there were lots of them, and even if you were interested, he’s finished touring (at least in Sydney – you could jet down to Melbourne if you were keen this Saturday).

But to mention a couple of my favourites: In the first half, Stephen played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 32. For those of you who aren’t huge watchers of Beethoven, he wrote 32 sonatas in his lifetime for the piano. So, therefore, there’s something very special about hearing the last one.

It’s almost as if Beethoven knew that this was going to be his last formal sonata for the piano, because in it he says everything he wants to say about the piano. It starts with a very stormy opening movement that gradually resolves itself into peace (almost as if Beethoven is expressing his frustration with his deafness, life in general, etc. and then getting through it and calming down.

And then the second movement . . . wow! It’s a theme and variations, but the theme is a slow, beautiful tune, almost like a hymn. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I could easily imagine Beethoven playing this tune to himself as a comfort when times were hard. There is such beauty and heartbreak in this theme that it can sometimes be hard to listen to.

And then the variations . . . awesome. Some are very simple, some are rollicking and lively. And, finally, the last one ends with the most delicate of trills up in the upper part of the keyboard. Then a few simple chords to close off, and that’s it. All Beethoven’s sonatas over. I can’t tell you how it moved me.

The second half of Stephen’s program was all waltzes, which made a fun contrast to the first half. My favourite of these was a piece by von Weber called Invitation to the Dance which is, on the one hand, has all the cliches of a Viennese waltz, but on the other hand is so sparkling and joyous that you can’t help but like it. The tune is still floating around in my head a few days later.

By the end of the night, the crowd was cheering louder than any other Musica Viva concert I’d been to this year and I don’t blame them. Stephen actually ended up playing three encores, including a rather amusing rendition of Waltzing Matilda in the style of a French impressionist.

You can read more about Stephen here.

Film Review: Copying Beethoven

I must confess that when I first found the trailer for this film online a few months ago (which was the first I heard about it), I shuddered. First of all, Ed Harris playing Beethoven seemed to be a crazy miscasting. Second, the film was a fictional tale about a young woman who becomes Beethoven’s copyist in the last years of his life when he was working on his Ninth Symphony.

But, nonetheless, a film about Beethoven is a film about Beethoven, so I kind of knew I would probably see it. Also, having just recently discovered Beethoven’s string quartets, I was curious to see how they would be portrayed in the film.

As a bit of background, in the last decade or so of Beethoven’s life, he hadn’t been doing much composing. After the triumph of his 7th and 8th Symphonies, he got involved in a huge court battle with his hated sister-in-law over custody of his young nephew, Carl. This not only cleaned him out of money, it also took him away from the music. On top of that, of the three wealthy patrons who kept him in money to write music, two of them died, and the other one moved away. So he was quite on the poverty edge.

But then, in his last three years of life (which is the time period this film covers), he started composing again. He composed his Ninth Symphony, and then, in his final years, five more string quartets – widely regarded, to this day, as the greatest string quartets (and in some people’s view, the greatest pieces of music) ever written.

Anyway, it is here with Beethoven composing his Ninth Symphony that this movie begins. Beethoven’s publisher, Schlemmer, is coming down with cancer, and is unable to work fast enough on copying Beethoven’s manuscript of the Ninth Symphony. (For the uninitiated, copying means taking the composer’s scribbled version of music and writing it out neatly – and also separate versions for each instrument in the orchestra). So he sends off to a conservatorium (forgive me, I missed this detail of which one) to ask for their best composition student – and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) shows up.She goes on to become Beethoven’s copyist and works closely with the maestro to help him get the Ninth Symphony ready for performance. Beethoven being Beethoven, there are bound to be problems. If you’ve read any biographies about Beethoven, you’ll know that the man was quite difficult to live with. He ranged from being ultra-clingy and friendly, to abusively bad-tempered and obnoxious, to vulgar with a raucous sense of humour. And, despite my misgivings, I have to take my hat off to Ed Harris. He captured it all. Despite the fictional story, this was Beethoven exactly as I’d been readng about him. I could easily believe that this was what the man was like.

The main shortcoming with the film is that I found it ended about half an hour before I expected it to (which I suppose is a lot better than ending half an hour after you want it to). Some films feel like a novel, others feel like a short story. This was one that felt like a short story. So, I think, at first, I left with a slightly disappointed “is that all?” feeling. However, for the rest of the day, the film kept floating around in my head (I saw it yesterday, by the way), and so I’m now in more of a position to give it a proper review.

The film is about a number of things, but there are three main ones that you will notice.

1) The relationship between Beethoven and Anna. This is obviously what most people are coming to see the film for, and is probably the least successful element of the film. It’s not an uninteresting part of the film, and Diane Kruger, who has only played a token beautiful woman in the films I’ve seen her in so far (Troy and National Treasure) actually does a really nice, understated role as Anna. However, it’s clearly obvious that she is fictional and Beethoven is not, because there are so many more layers to Ed Harris’ performance, purely because he’s got more to work with. The story about Anna really represents a number of little messages – first of all, that women can do things as well as men. Secondly, that the arts is not useless (we get this message via the even more underdeveloped character of Anna’s boyfriend, who holds the rather modern position that technology and progress are the way of the future rather than boring old Beethoven music). Thirdly, of course, is the help she gives to Beethoven who was increasingly become isolated from the world on all fronts. This is the story we expect, and it’s pulled off well, but it’s nothing outstanding.

The interesting parts of the story are the other two strands:

2) The music of Beethoven. The great thing about any film about classical composers is that the soundtrack is going to be great, regardless of the rest of the film. Certainly, this film didn’t really let me down. However, it chose to focus mainly on two pieces, with a third thrown in at the end. The first piece is, of course, the Ninth, which dominates the first half of the film. As we see it being prepared and rehearsed, we start to realise how audacious it was. And then, for the scene of the performance, which has been widely publicised as going for 10 minutes (which it does), it was awesome to hear the music loud. So often we hear classical music at a soft volume on the radio or CD, without realising that it was meant to be heard loudly and clearly. It’s magic, it really is. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of the camerawork for this scene which, in keeping with the look of the whole film, consists of ultra-closeups and bringing blurry objects in and out of focus, but the music more tha makes up for it.

The second piece, by contrast, is a much more unlikeable piece (that usually doesn’t make its way onto any Best of Beethoven CDs), and this is the Grosse Fugue for string quartet. Beethoven originally wrote this as the last movement of one of his last string quartets, but it was too long, and people hated it, so he wrote a shorter more pleasant ending for the string quartet (this short ending was incidentally the last thing he wrote before he died) and the Fugue became a stand-alone 15-minute piece that is now one of the most difficult pieces for a string quartet to play. The reason this piece has been so disliked is because of its harshness. With a wild galloping tone, and angular melodies, it’s not a pleasant musical experience. But (and this is the point), it wasn’t meant to be. Life is not all pleasantness. Life is not all triumph. Life can often be harsh and brutal. And that’s the point about this music (which opened the door for the next generation of musicians to realise that harsh could be in the musical vocabulary). The film very cleverly makes this point by playing the Grosse Fugue over the opening credits as we see shot after shot of the poor and destitute of 19th-century Austria.

The third piece which got more than a brief mention is probably bettered talked about under the third subject of the film:

3) Beethoven and God. From everything we know about Beethoven, he was a man who believed in a God – some higher power up there that looked after him and made the creation that he loved. This film takes that a step further, and pits Beethoven in an ever-present struggle with God. It took me a while to notice, but throughout the whole film, Beethoven is constantly mentioning God.

Sometimes he seems to look on God as a bit of an excuse for the way he is. “Do you think I’m horrible? Well, God made me that way.” Other times, he gets rather arrogant about God. “God and I are like two bears in the one cage – snarling at each other.” But it’s not until just before the performance of the Ninth, when he realises that he is too deaf to conduct the orchestra properly, that we realise his true feelings – he is angry with God. Why did God let him go deaf? If God is like a Father, why should he trust him, considering that Beethoven’s own father was a bully and a drunkard?

Despite this, Anna helps him conduct the Ninth. The irony of this (which is probably lost on people not familiar with the music) is that the choir at the end, as well as singing a humanistic hymn that all men will join and become brothers, are also singing the praises of a loving Father in the heavens who watches all men. But does Beethoven believe that?

And, so after that, when he throws himself into the Grosse Fugue, it seems that this enables him to deal with the idea that the world is not perfect. It’s like he gets it out of his system.

And that’s when my favourite moment of the film occurs. Beethoven comes down sick (apologies if this is a spoiler) and as he is recovering, he asks Anna to start writing down a piece of music. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be in the film, because it is sadly missing from the listing on the Copying Beethoven soundtrack album, but as she writes down the music, we hear the slow movement from the Opus 132 string quartet. This piece is known as the “hymn of thanksgiving to the Godhead for recovery from an illness”.

As the string quartet plays a very simple, but very deep and profound hymn tune, Beethoven talks about how he is grateful to God for making him well again, and how he knows now that God is looking after him. As the music soars (and it really is one of the most transcendent pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote), Beethoven describes how we are taken up to heaven, and hands reach down and hold us, and we know that we are safe.

This piece of music (which I had only recently discovered a few months ago), combined with that description, utterly moved me to tears, for a number of reasons which I find hard to describe. I suppose, one, is just the beauty of music (which is a completely subjective thing, and for that reason, not easy to describe why it moves me so much). Second, is just the beauty of Beethoven coming to peace with God. But, the third one, which is more troubling, is that I’m not sure which God Beethoven made his peace with. There is no indication that Beethoven was interested in following Jesus as Lord of his life. In fact, there’s every indication, that he was most interested in doing his own thing in life.

And so, despite the depth of his spirituality (and really, apart from people like Bach and Mendelssohn, most Christian composers rarely reach this level of beauty when contemplating God), ultimately, itmay not have saved him. And that I find truly haunting.

Anyway, I apologise if this film is more a review of my own thought processes rather than the film, but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the spiritual life of a great composer, and it’s a credit to director Agnieszka Holland that she included that element of Beethoven that was so important to him in his music.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Beethoven’s Quartets (Joseph de Marliave)

As I said in my post on the CDs, I was reading this book as I went along. This is the type of book I enjoy reading because it gives an almost blow-by-blow description of what’s going on in the music.

Also, de Marliave (who was a French army officer and music expert who lived about 100 years ago) is such a fan of these quartets, that his enthusiasm just makes you want to listen to the music and hear the same things he does.

However, the problem I had was that I had real difficulty reading this while listening to the music. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t heard the quartets before, and it’s difficult to listen to them and follow along with his book at the same time.

I think to use his book properly, I would need to get a copy of the music score of these quartets and, with that in hand, work out what he’s talking about. So his analysis of the pieces, while thorough, just wasn’t easy enough to be followed along with while simply listening to the music.

However, I’ll certainly hang on to this book, because I think in the future, I would like to explore the world of the quartets a bit further. And when I do, Marliave’s book will prove immensely helpful. But for absolute beginners, I don’t think the ideal book exists, from what I’ve been able to find out. Maybe I should write one . . . I think Rachel might have a thing or two to say about that, though.

4 out of 5.

CD Review: Complete String Quartets (Beethoven) – Quartetto Italiano

Well, the review is finally here. After what must be close to two and a half months of renewing this box set at North Sydney library, I’m finally finished listening to all 10 discs and and in some position to offer a review.

Some position. But not quite adequate, really. I’d never really listened to the string quartets ot Beethoven before. In fact, as part of my general “chamber music is boring compared with orchestras and operas” stance, I hadn’t really made it a habit of listening to anyone’s string quartets if I could help it.

But some things started happening that changed my mind.

1) There’s a new movie coming out at some stage called Copying Beethoven, that’s a fictional tale of a girl who helped Beethoven in the last few years of his life, as he finished his Ninth Symphony and then spent his last days after that writing string quartets. That intrigued me – why would a man who could write such spectacular orchestral music, and had such a knack for orchestration and other things, spend his time writing music for (what seemed to me) the rather boring combination of two violins, a viola and a cello? It started to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to these string quartets than I thought.

2) While in New York in November, I called upon my publisher at Amadeus Press, and he was telling me what a big thing it was to write a book about Beethoven symphonies because they were the most important works of Beethoven’s – those and his string quartets. That phrase again . . .

3) I got back from America and was watching the commentary on my new DVD of Immortal Beloved, when the director mentioned that many people consider Beethoven’s late string quartets to be avant garde.

So I got curious. I went to the library and borrowed this set, and then fished around in a box of books in my back cupboard to fish out a book that I’d bought years ago on a whim and never really looked at: Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets (which I shall review in the next post). Armed with de Marliave and the box set of Quartetto Italiano (the very Mafia-looking 60s string quartet from Italy), I began to listen . . .

Unfortunately, the limitations of a library CD (especially a 10-CD set) is that you really only get a chance to listen to things once. So my thoughts on these quartets are fairly limited because I’ve only had a chance to listen to them once.

Basically, Beethoven wrote 16 and a bit quartets, and they kind of divide up into neat sections. The first six were written in the early days of his fame. Back in these days, he tended to compose in the style of Haydn and Mozart and so they sound (surprise surprise) rather like Haydn and Mozart. They’ve very pretty, but they’re not the big spectacular Beethoven that was still to come.

There was then a big break before he wrote his next five string quartets. At this stage, he was at the height of his powers, and all of his music was big, spectacular and heroic. As a result, these middle five probably contain some of the energetic and exciting of the string quartets.

And then we come to the last five. By this stage in his life, all Beethoven’s financial sponsors had either died or left town, so he was broke. He’d spent most of his money fighting a drawn-out court battle for custody of his nephew. He’d just premiered the Ninth. And his health was on a downwards spiral, which eventually would kill him a few years later.

And all of that, he poured into his last five string quartets. Compared with the middle five, these last five are not as spectacular. The heroism is gone. Instead, there’s sounds of pain, of sorrow, of gentleness, and of spirituality. There’s also a brilliance of construction.

So what do they sound like? To my ears, the sound world of the quartets will take some getting used to. I’ve mostly listened to orchestral music, and so to switch to this more intimate and precise type of music takes a listening adjustment. But bits and pieces jump out and me and make me curious to listen more, to learn to know these pieces inside and out, the same way I have done with the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler.

The quartets, while lacking the oopmh and power of a large orchestra, make up for that in a precision of sound – a tightly constructed beauty as the four voices interact with one another. If one instrument makes a mistake or plays something badly, it is ruined for all. So all four musicians must play, and play well. And when they play well, each musician shines.

So, yeah, being the only recording of the quartets I’ve heard, I don’t really know how to rate them. I think I’d give it a 4 out of 5 on an initial listening, but this is probably the type of thing I should come back and review again at a later date.