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Louis Langrée Picks Beethoven’s Five Most Mysterious Compositions

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This season, the Mostly Mozart Festival's music director, Louis Langrée, has Beethoven on his mind. One of the themes running through the summer festival is the legacy between its namesake and the latter composer. In between prepping for the festival’s opening concert, featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Langrée sat down to talk about which of Beethoven’s works are the most mysterious to him.

1. Grosse Fuge

"The first time I saw it was with the Alban Berg quartet in Strasbourg, and I didn’t understand anything. Then I bought the Dover Score. I read it, I played it on the piano. It was so not Beethoven to me. This was beyond anything I knew from Beethoven. It's shocking and it’s amazing. There’s no seduction in this piece. The intensity, it’s like a dark fire burning with the immaculate frame of the fugue. It’s writing for another planet. There’s something not human in this piece.”

2. Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, 3rd Movement

"This piece, maybe because I played it, does not seem meant to be played in public. It’s so intimate so profound, so solitaire; it’s one of the most sublime and mysterious pieces not just from Beethoven but ever written. The first time I saw the last three Beethoven piano sonatas—that holy trilogy—was in Strasbourg and the hall was so full that they had to add chairs on the stage. I have no memory about their tempi but I remember being on stage and Wilhelm Kepf or Rudolf Serkin played. There wasn’t a piano anymore; it was a pure music. It’s so deep, so essential; a lot of sentiment but no sentimentality, just a sacred message."

3. Missa Solemnis

"It’s such a mysterious piece I just don’t have the key to understand it, any movement. Maybe the Kyrie is the most complex, but it’s all esoteric, inaccessible music for me. I don’t know what it means. Conducting isn’t just giving entrances, and keeping the ensemble together, and having a good balance, it’s: what does this music mean? And I don’t understand what it means. It’s not about the technical complexity—I can read the music—it’s just the relation with my sensitivity or sensibility, and I just cannot reach this piece. From all the important pieces from Beethoven it’s the only one I haven’t conducted. I feel at home with him except this bloody Missa Solemnis.”

4. The Farewell Sonata

“Beethoven himself chose the titles of the three movements: ‘Farewell,’ ‘Absence,’ and ‘Return.’ He’s using this theatrical or dramaturgic idea to build a musical architecture with all the contents of the farewell, the emptiness of the absence, and then the amazement and overjoy of the return. The music language is not as extreme as in the other piano sonatas, but it’s mysterious in a way that is very simple—the kind of simplicity which elevates you, which invites you to beauty, profundity, depth. Opus 110 is more elaborate and complex than Farewell but Farewell is just sublime.”

5. Fidelio

"People say Fidelio is badly made; I disagree. Beethoven was just inventing something that didn’t exist. If you were expecting a classic opera then it doesn’t work, but if you expect the Ninth Symphony to be a normal symphony like No. 8, it doesn’t work either. This man—isolated, lonely, and writing for the world his dream of what a great society could be—is who you can see in Eroica in Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 9, and Fidelio. The world was not big enough for this man. He doesn’t write real joy, it’s written by someone who doesn’t know what joy is, and cannot know. He suffers not to have joy, to not have any woman [return his love]. He was proud to be different, but he suffered for it. That’s why he was a genius."