Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 2)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matthew:

I’m not sure I’m sold on recordings of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a heck of a piece of music. The last movement is particularly striking. Everyone knows ‘Ode to Joy’, but we’re really only familiar with the main hook of it, and the final fifth of this piece is spent doing all kinds of interesting things to that hook — and, as you’ll recall, I love musical recontextualizations.

But the problem I was having while listening to this was this: I kept losing focus. Maybe the problem was, as previously discussed, that I’m doing it wrong — I was doing more mindless data entry as I listened. Even so, my mind kept wandering in the quiet parts.

Maybe it’s a function of the way music is recorded. I’m sure you’ll agree that dynamics make music interesting — a song that does the same thing at the same volume all the way through is probably going to get boring after a while. In my experience, classical recordings feature pretty huge dynamic range. I don’t want to get into a whole debate about sampling rates and bit depth, but the salient point is this: I listened to this recording on a set of studio monitors in a soundproof radio studio, and I found myself constantly adjusting the monitor volume. I had to turn it up to hear the quiet bits, but I’d have to turn it back down for the loud bits to keep things at a comfortable volume. It’s like that thing when you’re trying to watch an action movie and you have to crank it to hear the dialogue, but then something explodes and your neighbours call in a noise complaint.

So maybe the problem is that I should be using headphones? You’re a headphone guy — do you find you have this problem? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pair of headphones, but it seems pretty limiting to have an entire genre of music that you can’t listen to on speakers without deafening yourself. Say what you will about the loudness war, but at least I can listen to (most) modern albums without riding the volume knob the entire time.

It’s a bit of a copout to write off an entire segment of the Western musical canon for something like that, but the fact remains that most of the rest of the symphony still didn’t really grab me. Has pop music ruined my attention span? Am I still having that kneejerk ‘ew, classical’ reaction that young people have to most things their parents like?

I would really like to think it’s not either of those, so the only thing I’m left with is that maybe recordings just aren’t the best way to experience a symphony. I can’t help but think how much more impressive this sort of music would be in a giant concert hall directly in front of the 50+ people performing it. It’s the same problem I have with live albums in general: it’s a losing battle to try and capture the live experience in a recording, especially if sonically superior studio versions already exist. With a few exceptions, I really don’t like live albums.

You pointed out in a real-life discussion that a major problem with live classical music is that quality can be hugely inconsistent, and having a good experience hinges entirely on living near a good orchestra. That may be true, but isn’t that true of any live music experience? You’ll only see big international rock shows if you live near/visit a city big enough to warrant a tour stop. The sound guy might have an off night and ruin the entire show with awful mixing.

I don’t know. Again, this symphony is full of some seriously impressive music. But the entire idea of a symphony — of getting 50+ people to play an hour-long song in a giant concert hall on, let’s face it, some totally ludicrous instruments — it’s insane. It’s a spectacle. It seems like some of that spectacle is lost when all you have is an audio recording.

But hey, this piece did stir something in me that I had completely forgotten until this week: when I was a kid, I’m almost positive I had Beethoven Lives Upstairs on VHS. Only 90s Kids Will Remember Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

— Matt

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