Critic and Author Norman Lebrecht Pens an Ode to Beethoven

Norman Lebrecht listened to 1,000 Beethoven recordings and live broadcasts.

By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine

In order to write this kaleidoscopic look at Beethoven’s life and music, Norman Lebrecht listened to 1,000 Beethoven recordings and live broadcasts (the first more than 100 years old) and consulted 116 experts, including leading conductors and musicians of the day. Less a guide than a provocatively illuminating, occasionally scandalous survey of the recordings that shaped his own life, with lots of behind-the-scenes stories within stories, the 100 chapters examine the pieces “never in order of publication but mixing works from different periods to uncover their coherence and consistency.” Lebrecht’s stream of consciousness runs parallel with Beethoven’s own as the British journalist increasingly finds himself “confronted by long-buried childhood traumas, by insights into adult relationships, and by various tramlines that Beethoven laid down in my life.” It makes for an exhilarating narrative that in its wake also raises several divisive cultural issues.

Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in 100 Pieces, by Norman Lebrecht
Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in 100 Pieces by Norman Lebrecht, Pegasus Books, $29.95

Instead of three compositional periods, Lebrecht prefers his Beethoven in six parts: Himself, In Love, Immersed, Immured, In Trouble, and Inspired. Through the first five, Lebrecht is more concerned with the symphonies, piano sonatas, and piano concertos than with the music more specifically for strings; although he does a superb job on the Violin Concerto (his touchstone recording is by Ginette Neveu, 1949), he spends relatively little time on the cello or violin sonatas other than the “Spring” (with memories of Erica Morini’s 1927 recording in Berlin) and the “Kreutzer” (with a nod to George Bridgetower). He devotes only two pages to the three “Razumovsky”s.


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The pages take a tour through the Late Quartets, about which Lebrecht writes at greater length. His Op. 131 reference recordings are “Busch (1936), Guarneri (1989), and Takács (2005).” The one he cherishes most is the LaSalle Quartet (1977). “Based in Cincinnati, four Hitler refugees—Henry Meyer, Walter Levin (violins), Peter Kamnitzer (viola), Jack Kirstein (cello)—enter late Beethoven in reverse, through the prism of Schoenbergian serialism, informing the past with evidence from the future. Each time I listen, I learn something new. Each time, I want to seclude myself for a week with this work, and no other.”

Lebrecht discusses artistic truth versus dishonesty through the complex extra-musical morality of Beethoven performances during WWII and after. In the case of Wilhelm Furtwängler, whom Lebrecht describes as having “embraced both the spirit of his time and place, and its criminal ideology,” Lebrecht singles out his “Eroica” recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic in December 1944 and in 1952 Berlin as “unsurpassed.” By contrast, in the case of Herbert von Karajan, Lebrecht describes the “Eroica” Karajan “chose to celebrate the Berlin Philharmonic’s centenary in April 1982 as a conductor-glorifying film that cannot be watched more than once without nausea.”

In 2010, Lebrecht wrote Why Mahler? about how one man and ten symphonies changed the world. After writing Why Beethoven, Lebrecht concludes, “Because we need him now, as ever.”