Beethoven’s Shadow by Jonathan Biss

This was a freebie from Audible that I couldn’t pass up when it was offered. I love Beethoven’s music. Or, at least, I thought I did. Jonathan Biss LOVES Beethoven. This work is all about Biss trying to find that dichotomy and balance between the creative expression a musician is trying to excude vs. the kind of perfectionism that modern recordings have trained listeners to hear. It’s almost a counter-argument to a question I’ve had most of my life wherein I ask how far does creative expression extend before the work ceases to be that of the composer? If the notes and rhythms on the page reflect the musician’s intent, how far does one wrestle with the question of expressionism vs. recording perfection?

Wrestling with the genius of Beethoven’s work, especially the piano sonatas, Biss explains his own experiences with these ideas. Obviously, the more familiar you are with Beethoven, the more appreciation you will have with something like this. An understanding and love of classical music in general will bridge the gap considerably. A musical background will take you a giant leap closer to resonating with Biss’ dilemma. If all you listen to is canned pop music… chances are you’ll be lost as Biss discusses the generational differences of recorded and staged performances / expressions.

I find that the hardest thing about learning to appreciate music is to understand what you hear and to put that into some kind of definable context through words. It’s the difference between reading a critic’s notes about a painting vs. hearing the artist discuss his intent. Biss, as a professional musician, does a fantastic job bridging the gap between Beethoven and us mere mortals. I found his descriptions of what he was hearing vs. what he tried to bring to the performance to be invaluable to my own appreciation of the maestro. It’s the kind of examination that lends extra nuance to those who would appreciate the music and its meaning.

The narration by Jeff Woodman is excellent. He brings across the personal nature of this essay, reading in a tone that delivers the author’s words in a very natural and believable manner, conversational, elated, and frustrated.

5 stars


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