performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly
(cover image by Shirly Niv Marton)
Ah, Beethoven. As I’ve written about before, there’s that great sense of ‘spirituality’ in his music, an underlying, captivating magic about the beauty and often subtle intensity of his compositions. I recently attended a concert where his first concerto was performed, and even though a fellow concertgoer told me he thought it was boring, he admitted it was beautifully played. There’s in some cases more finesse or delicacy than fireworks and bombast, but in today’s piece, we have plenty of the latter.
Beethoven wrote his overture to Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy (of 1804) in 1807, and it serves the purpose that an overture should: it presents the basic ideas motifs, whatever, found in the work. The piece premiered in March of 1807 at a private concert in Prince Lobkowitz’s home.
This piece, without any of the structure we’re used to hearing in a symphony or other traditional large-scale work, is straightforward and in-your-face. You should be able to recognize two distinct ideas. There’s the opening drama, as if someone’s already been stabbed or something, in Beethoven’s favorite key of C minor, but there’s a contrasting, lyrical idea in a major key (E flat) and these two ideas will play themselves out in the seven minutes of Chailly’s recording (or eight and a half if you’re listening to Karajan).
This direct, outright conflict, as mentioned earlier, reflects the subject matter of Collin’s 1804 work about (or maybe just inspired by) Coriolanus. The explosive, violent C minor passage suits the warlike mentality of a Roman general (Gaius Marcius Coriolanus) determined to lead a siege on Rome. Sounds pretty fitting, right?
Then what’s the contrast? This beautiful, elegant E-flat major theme is a clear match for Coriolanus’ mother, Veturia (or Volumnia in Shakespeare’s telling), tries to stop him from carrying out his plan, pleading with him in that motherly way we all know so well. Coriolanus’ fate differs depending on the telling, but the reality is we don’t know; it wasn’t recorded.
Thankfully, that doesn’t really matter. What we have is a fantastic, scrumptious little morsel of a piece from Beethoven’s pen. There’s something so scintillatingly theatrical about the opening bars that it is as if we instantly know this is related to a stage work. It’s just beyond exciting music.
Listen for these two main ideas, a minor key and a major key, similar to a sonata form, but without any development or anything, and the conflict they create will give you everything you need to hear to enjoy and appreciate the compact, dramatic power of this overture.
What more is there to say? This piece is just gushing with energy and punch, especially in a recording as fleet as Chailly’s. I know he isn’t everyone’s taste, but once you’ve gotten used to that kind of reading, it feels like getting rid of dead weight and being free, and then a reading like Karajan’s, no matter how lush and perfect the strings, sounds plodding. Sorry not sorry.
Enjoy this little overture as a prelude to what we’ll be seeing from LvB on Thursday, a work from around the same time period. Stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.