Once in a lifetime: The BTHVN Week | Music | DW | 03.02.2020
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Once in a lifetime: The BTHVN Week

Does the world's most often performed classical music composer need another festival? And can one come up with a novel approach? Yes and Yes are the answers of a chamber music marathon in Bonn.

Quatuor Ébène Streichquartett

Quatuor Ébène

A trio, a quartet and a quintet; opus 8, opus 18 No. 1 and opus 29: what do these three compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven have in common?

"They show his sense of humor," explained Johanna Staemmler of Berlin's Armida Quartet. "You hear the wonderful way he foils expectations, and the jokes are still fresh. It's a completely different side to the cliched image of Beethoven: angry, harsh and struggling."

Those works filled a single concert program. Another event presented four Beethoven compositions, all in the key of C Minor, the key of his Symphony No. 5 — but wildly contrasting pieces with a wide range of emotions and ideas.

Beethoven from A to Z

Where can one make such discoveries? At the center of the Beethoven universe, in the small but sleek amphitheater just feet away from the room where the composer was born and directly above the archive vault where his most important original scores are kept. The hall is sold out for each of the 16 concerts of the BTHVN Week. Actually lasting three weeks, it began on January 17 and concludes on February 9.

The goal of the concert series may sound encyclopedic, even tedious: Presenting Ludwig van Beethoven's complete works of chamber music. But the novel program concept insures that it is anything but.

Each evening features more than one ensemble, presenting a cross section of his various works for two to nine instruments. Omitted are the composer's songs and solo piano works, which could arguably be called chamber music, and a few marginal early creations.

Listen to audio 01:25

Kristian Bezuidenhout and Anna Katharina Schreiber play an excerpt from Beethoven's C Minor Sonata, Opus 30, No. 2

"It's a wildly original and revolutionary idea which suits Beethoven brilliantly," said the London-based keyboard artist Kristian Bezuidenhout. "Putting the focus on his chamber music reveals the massive leaps and bounds he made in this department. You see chamber music festivals trying to tackle a lot of Beethoven, but invariably, they present the greatest hits, and in general they lack the high-caliber cast that Tabea Zimmermann has put together for this festival."

Small is wonderful

The festival's artistic director, the German violist Tabea Zimmermann who was recently awarded the Ernst von Siemens Prize — often called Germany's Nobel Prize for Music — has been able to construct a dream program for the 199-seat chamber music hall at the Beethoven House, including some of the world's top musicians.

Rows of seats in a semicircle in a modern building with a grand piano at front center

The Hermann J. Abs hall at the Beethoven House

"It took nearly four years of preparation, and we never could have made this event happen in a normal situation," explained Zimmermann. Those artists include German violinist Isabelle Faust, Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov and many more, joined by a range of string quartets including the Armida, Belcea, Chiaroscuro, Edding, Elias and Novus Quartets, and the Quatour Ébène.

The Finnish pianist and composer Olli Mustonen features in the final concert, joined by Meta4 and others to play the only non-Beethoven work on the program: his own, a world premiere.

To Zimmermann, this Beethoven marathon is "pure luxury. It requires paying the artists more because you have more of them onstage. You can't do concerts like these from a business point of view. But I'm happy that the hall is so small and that you cannot sell more than 200 tickets. The smaller, the more intimate."

Malte Boecker

Malte Boecker

"It's perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity," added Malte Boecker, director of the Beethoven House and of the BTHVN Anniversary Society. "As far as we know, it has never been done before: to present the chamber music in this totality or scope with changing genres within the concerts. Asking artists to do exactly these programs is very demanding. It's only possible in this anniversary year."

A sacred moment

With Ludwig van Beethoven having been declared a "national issue" by the German government, public funds for projects like the BTHVN Week have flowed generously — but not to the effect of forcing the composer on the public.

"We are surprised and overwhelmed by the huge interest in the topic of Beethoven," noted Malte Boecker. "We started a year ahead of Beethoven's actual birth date, and for the past six weeks the media have constantly been covering Beethoven-related stories. We have evidence that Beethoven's music is still relevant for our society."

For the artists, the venue itself has offered special opportunities: "We had the chance to see his work in progress, his notebooks and sketches," said Johanna Staemmler. "Here in the Beethoven House ... you can see the paper he touched. For us, it was a kind of holy moment."

Deutsche Welle has recorded two of the concerts of the BTHVN Week for later broadcast in the Concert Hour series.

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