Saturday, May 18, 2013

App Review: Beethoven's 9th, by TouchPress

By TouchPress, 2013.

When I reviewed The Orchestra from iOS app developer TouchPress back in December, I wrote that while splendid, the format would better benefit a detailed study of one work rather than selections of several. Well, ask and ye shall receive. TouchPress now gives us its presentation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

All the polish that defined The Orchestra is back: the curated, scrolling score, the smooth seeking. On top of these refinements TouchPress has added a number of features, from the color-coded identification of the key area, to brief descriptions of the many moods and gestures, and the option to view the original manuscript, all at any moment in the performance.

In place, though, of the new performances recorded with multiple camera angles that made The Orchestra stand out, this time we get four full landmark recordings of the 9th: 1) Fricsay's 1958 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, 2) Karajan's 1962 also with the BP, 3) Bernstein's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979, and 4) and John Eliot Gardiner conducting his own Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in 1992. Three of the recordings are audio only and Bernstein's is a complete, taped performance. Aside from having four stellar recordings of the 9th, you can switch among them at any moment during the performance. It is of course revealing to hear the differences in conducting from performance to performance, but the differences seem even more stark than if you had simply switched CDs or even mp3s because the shift is so seamless. How much more varied the differences of shape, tone, and tempo when so closely juxtaposed.

While all of these features are available during a listening, the app also includes brief interviews which you can separately watch. In these shorts, experts reflect on a few important points about the 9th from their perspectives as conductors, scholars, and performers. Here John Eliot Gardiner analyzes a section, there Albrecht Mayer reflects on performance challenges, and Paul Morley on learning to listen. There is great variety among these discussion and they're genuinely revealing about the 9th, not just boilerplate about the greatness of the work or maudlin effusions about "what Beethoven means to me." The developers clearly edited down longer interview to brief discussions of specifics, a good call since a topic like Beethoven's Ninth will make anyone ramble.

One feature I would like to see developed is the series of short recordings in which an expert discusses the piece while himself listening to it. A staple of DVDs, these casual reflections are rare in the musical world and seem to stimulate more personal, frank, reactions because of the frisson from the performance in the background. It's treat enough to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner talking about Beethoven, but it's just plain fun to see him perk up when a favorite part is coming up.

Overall, this is a brilliant app, a combination of CD recording, DVD performance, score, manuscript, program notes, and analysis, all wrapped up in a smooth, slick interface that lets you cycle through it all with ease and bring up exactly what you want at any moment during the piece. Not bad for $15.

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