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Why do Beethoven's symphonies remain so appealing? It's a question we put to Simon Rattle a few years ago after he had finished conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in all nine of them.
"There's nothing harder," Rattle said, "and at the end of it all, nothing more rewarding. This is one of the great monuments of Western art." Those performances were recorded for a set released in 2003.
This week, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing the Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall, nearly selling out every show. Our colleagues at WQXR had their microphones set up for Thursday night's performance of the Sixth and Eighth.
"There's a wonderful old saying that goes, 'Always journey, but never consent to arrive,'" Rattle said. "When you play pieces which are as great as this, you never must allow yourself to feel you have got anywhere. The journey is extraordinary, but it will never cease. And every time we pick up these extraordinary symphonies we will learn something new."
For this Carnegie concert, Rattle began with Beethoven's Eighth, often considered the lightest of them. He said it packs a punch, calling it "a piece full of charm and wit and sometimes enormous gusts of wind." Rattle said it's also a look back to the symphonic traditions of Joseph Haydn, but with Beethoven's unique brand of twisted humor.
"People maybe were not ready for someone who could mix so much profound, deep feeling with humor, with surprise, sometimes with silliness, with grotesquerie," Rattle said. "A characteristic point is the last movement, which has, again and again, a phrase that gets quieter and quieter, and suddenly the orchestra slams in with a note that has nothing to do with the main key. It is very characteristic Beethoven. People were very puzzled by this. It's in many ways still the least played of the symphonies, which I think is tragedy because it is really a real gem."
Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sixth, though cast in the same key, F major, is a different story altogether.
"It's not only a picture of nature," Rattle said, "even though it is full of real birdsongs — the sounds of a real quail, of a nightingale, a cuckoo, etc. It's also a picture of his ideal type of ideal humanity. The fourth movement is a storm, but there's no question that this is not really about weather. It is the type of dark night of the soul that Beethoven had gone through."
Amid all of the natural elements in that symphony, Rattle found a strong human spirit.
"It is of the earth, it is of the country and of the people," the conductor said. "I've always felt that this is the symphony that is most profoundly populated with the human race. It is a characteristic Beethoven statement that everything that is good comes from within people, and from the honestly and purity of people."
So yet again, as this week closes, Rattle has journeyed through another cycle of Beethoven's bold, compassionate and rigorously constructed symphonies. The experience, he said, is hard to describe in words.
"Which is why we're musicians, rather than writers or politicians," he said. "But I've always had a profound conviction that great music is about joy, even in the face of tragedy. And I think there is no music that struggles through to joy in quite the way these pieces do."
Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor