Audio-book Review By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight) Website: 

BEETHOVEN'S SHADOWBeethoven’s Shadow

By Jonathan Biss 

Narrated by Jeff Woodman


This is a panegyric for Beethoven and musical artists; i.e. a tribute to what makes Beethoven great and musicians talented.

In this two-hour narration, one begins to understand why Beethoven’s music is important; what makes the difference between a good musician’s performance, and a great musician’s performance.

Jonathan Biss began taking Beethoven seriously at the age of ten. Biss’s introduction to music became an obsession that began with emotion felt in listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas.  He began practicing Beethoven’s most difficult pieces to develop muscle memory to exercise his technical talent.  However technical mastery left an “in the moment” appreciation of Beethoven’s genius that eluded Biss until later in his career. Biss debuted at the New York Philharmonic in 2001 at the age of 21.  He is the winner of the 2005 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award which acknowledges his insight to musical quality and musicianship.

What Biss makes clear to a reader or listener of this Beethoven vignette is that muscle memory, though technically important, is only a beginning understanding of Beethoven’s immense contribution to music and musicianship.  Muscle memory is spectacularly revealed in this 3 year old’s musical debut:

Like the imprint of morality when a child is born into a culture, muscle memory only gives musicians an outline of one’s musical talent.  Musical talent fills in the outline based on personal interpretation of a composer’s work.  Biss explains that each performance becomes a musician’s own, through an “in the moment” understanding of the composer’s melodic structural genius and intent.

Biss shows that Beethoven’s contribution to music is in his ability to offer structure to a world of talented musicians and future composers who can tell their own musical story. Some stories are or will be great and some not.  Biss infers that every performance of a Beethoven Sonata by the same musician can and should be different because it reflects the genius of Beethoven and the fundamental talent of the musician.

An inherent weakness in Biss’s vision of musicianship is the negative influence studio recording has on great talent.  Recording studios engender mediocrity in some musicians because studios lack emotive triggers which influence “in the moment” musician’ creativity.  An artist playing to a microphone is more influenced by muscle memory than emotive musical interpretation.  Microphones are recorders of information, without emotion, while audiences are emotive; i.e. they become participants in musical performance.  Audiences affect musical performance, they are a catalyst for “in the moment” experience.

There is an element of salesmanship in this vignette because Biss is planning to produce recordings of all 32 Beethoven’ Sonatas.  One is tempted to buy his first two albums to see how he escapes recording studio mediocrity.

On balance, “Beethoven’s Shadow” offers insight to how far Beethoven’s shadow extends into the music world, what “real talent” is in composers and musicians, and what is gained and lost in studio recording of great music.

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