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Beethoven's symphonies to fly free in BBC webcasting trial

FROM Sunday, the BBC will broadcast the complete works of Beethoven, from the juvenile piano trios to the climactic String Quartet in F major, opus 135, with many fragments and oddities besides. The exercise is being initiated, as you might expect, by Radio 3, which is clearing its decks of all other music for six days and nights.

There is no Beethoven bicentenary this year, no obvious reason to splash out on the most important composer of all - the first to write music of social and political resonance. Beethoven is always worth exploring, but the BBC's venture is ground-breaking in several aspects.

Domestically, it signifies a breach with the philistine ethic of Birt and Dyke. Beethoven, whole and unexpurgated, marks the beginning of BBC chairman Michael Grade's mission to put public broadcasting back to rights.

Globally, there is another dimension. In a daring innovation, listeners the world over will be invited to download and collect live performances of Beethoven's nine symphonies.

Here's how it will work. The BBC Philharmonic will play the cycle with chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda over two weekends at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

These concerts will be aired on Radio 3 and streamed for a week on the website. In addition, anyone can download a set of MP3 files for keeps - allowing five minutes on broadband for symphonies one to eight, ten minutes for the momentous ninth. This, as never before, is Beethoven for free - a gift to the world, just as he might have wished.

No-one knows if ten people or ten million will download the Beethoven symphonies and whether, if kept, they will form the cornerstone for a new habit of hoarding classical music, a surrogate for record buying. When the week is over, says Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3: "We'll share what we've learned with the unions, with other orchestras and with the music industry."

Beethoven is a useful starting point, since his music means most things to most of humanity. It has been adjudged simultaneously heroic and humble, peasant and intellectual, individualist and collectivist.

The Ode to Joy of the ninth symphony has served as a rallying call at communist conventions and insurance sales meetings; it is the unifying anthem of the European Union and, to diehard nationalists, the emblem of German musical supremacism. Beethoven represents peace in a French novel, Jean Christophe, by Romain Rolland and street violence in A Clockwork Orange.

To impose some kind of order on this limitless licence, musicians through the ages have delivered Beethoven in large doses. The notion of integrity is applied to Beethoven as to no other composer, the noun itself being understood in both of its meanings: truth in Beethoven equals completeness.

Nowhere has this split idea found deeper root than in the minds of conductors, who regard the symphonies as their personal message boards. Each presents a subtle ego-take on aspects of the work.

Bruno Walter's benign recording of the Pastoral, for instance, is a mindworld apart from Wilhelm Furtwngler's foreboding-filled account or Otto Klemperer's overwrought outpouring - all equally valid and intriguing.

For the past half-century, the summit of a conductor's contribution has been a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, shrink-wrapped by a major label. Herbert von Karajan, who set the trend, recorded the cycle four times, Leonard Bernstein twice. Solti, Haitink, Abbado, Muti, Barenboim, Harnoncourt, Hogwood, Rattle, all got their chance until, as distinctions diminished and audiences shrank, the big labels ended their infinite repetition of the universally familiar and closed the history of recorded interpretation, seemingly for good.

Now the BBC has prised it back open. Noseda is no Karajan, that's for sure, but he served a tough apprenticeship with Valery Gergiev in St Petersburg and has come on nicely in three Manchester seasons, manifesting a deft, unsentimental touch in German Romanticism, alongside his Russian and operatic specialisms. At 41 he is younger, less experienced and less established on the international circuit than any of his recorded predecessors.

Yet it may turn out that Noseda's Beethoven becomes the household version to computer-literate millions in China, India or Korea who have never heard of Karajan or Klemperer and could, in any event, never afford the price of a DG or EMI set.

To them, Noseda and the BBC Phil are the bringers of light and arbiters of art.

When, two or three decades hence, China is the world's largest industrial power, it will be Noseda's Beethoven that couples recall as their formative revelation, as our grandparents once savoured Toscanini's.

Such is the potential magnitude of the BBC's magnanimity. The Beethoven week is a robust reminder that there is life yet in the Reithian principle: that broadcasting must educate and inform, and that there is no better way in the 21st century for nation to speak peace unto nation.

• The BBC Beethoven Experience is on BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 3, 5-10 June; Beethoven's nine symphonies, played by the BBC Philharmonic, will be available for free download from 6 June at www.bbc.co.uk/radio3

 
 
 

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