Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Beethoven drained my wallet

When I was a kid, I needed only one recording of a great piece of music. I didn't want to hear anybody but The Beatles play "A Day in the Life." Only Patsy Cline could really sing "Walkin' After Midnight."  Who but Frank Sinatra should croon "Strangers in the Night"?

But as a teenager, I experimented with classical music. (I know that verb suggests a drug. It became a drug, and my addiction continues today.) I happened to buy a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the piece with which the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will conclude its classics season this weekend. It was by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and it sounded just right to my innocent ears: vigorous, clean, precise, sung with fervor.

Now, a lot of people would call this the most memorable symphony ever written. It's so popular that the CSO has scheduled a rare third performance, a Sunday matinee where moms attend free. (Details: charlottesymphony.org.) So soon enough, I bought a second recording, this one conducted by a long-dead guy named Wilhelm Furtwangler whom a music teacher recommended. It was slow, powerful, a huge block of musical granite at which he and the orchestra slowly chipped away. And it sounded right, too.

How could this be? I picked up Leonard Bernstein's hyper-emotional version -- also, in its own way, an experience that did justice to Beethoven. Uh-oh. This meant that all of Beethoven's symphonies, indeed all of Beethoven and therefore most of the classical music written over 350 years could be interpreted in different ways, many of them valid.

Thus began a lifetime of exploration and expenditure. I don't want to guess at the extent of the latter, except to reassure myself that I'd have spent more if I'd smoked a pack a day. And the public library can always use the non-keepers.

This explains the half-dozen Beethoven Ninths and Fifths and Sevenths on my shelves, the multiple Mozart "Don Giovannis" (hate to be without that live Pinza recording from the Old Met), the supplementary Shostakovich and repeated Ravel and extra Elgar.

I made a deal with my wife that we'd buy no more furniture to hold this stuff, so I'll have to get rid of music whenever I run out of room. I haven't come to the fatal full-up day, but that reckoning awaits. In the meantime, I wonder what Charles Munch made of the Ninth....