The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 3

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

The finest recordings of Beethoven's music, from the Fourth Symphony to the Late Quartets...

Verdi's Macbeth

Symphonies Nos 4 & 6

Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer

Channel Classics

It comes as no surprise to find these marvellous Budapest musicians moving the Pastoral Symphony downstream along the Danube from the woods by Heiligenstadt to the countryside beyond Buda. The specifically “east of Vienna” dimension is not merely felt in the fierier thrust of the 2/4 section of the “Peasant’s Merrymaking”. It is all-pervasive.

Iván Fischer’s direction is in the Toscanini class in its clarity and verve. Not that his tempi are at all Toscanini-like. The second and last movements have a Furtwänglerlike breadth, though such is Fischer’s mastery of ease within motion and motion within repose, there is nothing here that is long-drawn. Like Karl Böhm’s celebrated VPO Pastoral, this is also a closely observed reading, richly “characteristic”.

Furtwängler spoke of “a quality of absorption in the Pastoral which is related to the religious sphere”. The finale’s heading, “Beneficent feelings bound with thanks to the Godhead”, confirms the concept but it is rare nowadays to hear it realised. Daringly, Fischer has the horn-call which ushers in the finale met for the first eight bars by a solo violin as the shepherds’ hymn steals in upon the air. The effect is not unlike the entry of the solo violin in the Benedictus of the Missa solemnis. Aptly so, since it ushers in a reading of the finale which is unashamedly devout.

Fischer’s approach to the Pastoral is quite different from his approach to the Fourth. The resemblance here to Karajan’s 1962 Berlin recording is uncanny, doubly so given the quality of playing and direction needed to bring off a reading of such pace, poise and beauty. Not even Karajan attempted to re-enact the miracle. Which is not to say that the Budapest performance is a carbon copy of the Karajan. Fischer is quicker in the slow movement where he retains that mm=72 pulse which can plausibly inform all four movements. In fact, he presses on beyond that all-informing pulse in the finale. Not that the racy tempo affects the feel of a performance which has zest and humour, and which, like the Karajan, realises to perfection Beethoven’s seemingly effortless marriage of the spirits of Apollo and Dionysus. Richard Osborne (January 2011)

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Symphonies Nos 5 & 7

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber

DG

It is interesting to reflect that in 1974 there was not a single entry under the name 'Kleiber, Carlos' in The Gramophone Classical Record Catalogue. 'Kleiber, Erich': certainly. Among other things, he had recorded a famous Beethoven Fifth in 1953 (Decca, 9/87). I still remember the sinking feeling I experienced – a mere tiro reviewer on Gramophone – when I dropped into the post-box my 1000-word rave review (they had asked for 200) of what struck me as being one of the most articulate and incandescent Beethoven Fifths I had ever heard.

In Germany, they would probably have spiked the review. There is, after all, more than a hint of triplet-rhythm in Carlos Kleiber's conducting of the opening motto, a point – eagerly seized on by some German reviewers – which I had omitted to mention in my 1000-word encomium.

The performance doesn't stale, though it is the first movement that stays most vividly in the memory. I had forgotten, for instance, how steady – Klemperer-like, almost – the Scherzo and finale are. (Early Klemperer, that is: the Klemperer of the famous 1956 Philharmonia Fifth or his even earlier Vox recording – 5/93).

The recording of the Fifth, always very fine, comes up superbly in the new transfer. What, though, of the Seventh Symphony, an equally distinguished performance though always perceptibly greyer-sounding on LP, and on CD? Well, it too is superb. What the Original-Image Bit-Processing has done to it, I wouldn't begin to know, but the result is a performance of genius that now speaks to us freely and openly for the first time.

In some ways this is a more important document than the famous Fifth. Great recordings of the Seventh, greatly played and greatly conducted, but with first and second violins divided left and right, are as rare as gold-dust. Freshly refurbished, this Kleiber Seventh would go right to the top of my short list of recommendable Sevenths.
It is wonderful to have these two legendary performances so expertly restored and placed together on one disc for the first time. Richard Osborne (May 1995)

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Symphonies Nos 5 & 7

New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini

Naxos

I don’t know who to pity more: the budding maestro who hears this Beethoven Fifth before attempting to conduct the work himself‚ or the one who doesn’t. Either way‚ Toscanini is a near­-impossible act to follow. But then in a sense he was fortunate. He didn’t have a fat record catalogue full of Rostrum Greats to live up to and he wasn’t under pressure to say something new‚ or at least something different. On the contrary‚ Toscanini’s avowed mission was to clean up where others had indulged in interpretative excess. And he could as well have been cleaning up for the future. In November I was humming and hawing over Sir Simon Rattle’s fascinating but fussy Fifth with the VPO (EMI). Had this new Naxos release been to hand‚ I might have focused Rattle’s calculated individuality in relation to Toscanini’s directness and elasticity. There are numerous Toscanini Fifths in public or private circulation‚ at least four of them dating from the 1930s. This one is lithe‚ dynamic and consistently commanding. It was in fact RCA Victor’s second Toscanini Fifth‚ tauter and tidier than its better­-recorded live 1931 predecessor‚ though like the earlier version it was never actually passed for commercial re­lease. Comparing it with Toscanini’s well­known 1952 NBC recording finds numberless instances where a natural easing of pace helps underline essential transitions‚ such as the quiet alternation of winds and strings that holds the tension at the centre of the first movement.

The glow of the string playing towards the close of the second movement has no parallel with the 1952 version and while the NBC Scherzo is better drilled‚ this finale really blazes. Mark Obert­-Thorn has done a first­-rate job with the sound‚ focusing the orchestra’s whispered pianissimos (so much quieter than on Toscanini’s NBC records) while keeping surface noise to a workable minimum. The commercially released 1936 New York Seventh has already been hailed as a classic. On this excellent transfer there’s added musical interest in that Obert­-Thorn offers us two versions of the first movement‚ one with a broad ‘first take’ of the opening Poco sostenuto‚ another with a re­take of the same passage that pushes the tempo significantly forwards. My view is that while the first version is more imposing the second facilitates a more natural segue to the main body of the movement. Either way‚ the Vivace has a valiant‚ dancing quality‚ less aggressive than its joyous but fierce NBC successor and with ample flexibility between episodes. The poised Allegretto is warmed by expressive portamentos‚ and the Scherzo must be one of the first on disc to match Beethoven’s fast metronome marking. As with the Fifth‚ Toscanini’s ability to gauge pauses to the nth degree – in this case the rests that separate the finale’s opening fortissimo rallying calls – is truly inimitable. Rob Cowan (February 2002)

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Symphonies Nos 5 & 7

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner

SDG

So palpable is the excitement of these live performances that it almost comes as a shock that the applause has been excised. I was out of my seat at the end of the Seventh and I can only assume that a patch was made of the final pages, because no audience could conceivably have contained itself. From the very start, the cut-to-the-bone immediacy of the sound puts you up close and personal to the performance, lending a granite strength to the crunch of those chords and the rosiny resilience of those striding string scales. The dancing flute theme is really up-tempo and the blare of natural horns at the tutti brings an earthiness, a rawness, to the proceedings. The dance starts here, the ‘apotheosis’ comes later.

John Eliot Gardiner and his resplendent Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique rejoice here in the sheer physicality of the music, the bounding rhythms, the stomping accents. There’s an implicit delirium in this music that would culminate in a dance of death were it not so life-affirming. Gardiner’s tempo for the second-movement Allegretto is significantly slower than the metronome (as witness Chailly) but the relationship between the wind and strings (period instruments far more equal in the balance) and the give and take between subject and countersubject lends an expressive mobility. There’s still an air of slow dance about it, breathlessly superseded by the scherzo with its whiplash reflexes (so much speedier with a leaner, meaner ensemble) and the excitement of sustained natural trumpets in the Trio. The hair-raising reiterations of the finale, driven to the point of exhaustion – the most exhilarating kind of exhaustion – are accentuated by the immediacy of the sound, and the penultimate piledriving climax and coda are absolutely thrilling, with brazen horns again dominating.

The Fifth registers marginally lower on the Richter scale but is again characterised by a propulsive energy. The plangency of that isolated moment of reflection for solo oboe in the first movement is eerily poignant here and I love, too, the way Gardiner brings home the unforgiving militarism of the piece, the way the martial brassiness of trumpets and drums pompously interrupts the homely variations of the second movement. The roar into the light of the finale is tremendous, still more the mounting jubilation as a gruff, overfed bassoon signals the C major home stretch.

These are the kind of performances that remind us of what a revolution of reassessment period-instrument bands provoked. The shock of newness in Beethoven prevails. Edward Seckerson (January 2013)

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Symphony No 6

(Coupled with Schubert's Symphony No 5) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm

DG

Karl Böhm’s Beethoven is a compound of earth and fire. His VPO recording of Beethoven’s Sixth of 1971 dominated the LP catalogue for over a decade, and has done pretty well on CD on its various appearances. His reading is generally glorious and it remains one of the finest accounts of the work ever recorded. It still sounds well and the performance (with the first-movement exposition repeat included) has an unfolding naturalness and a balance between form and lyrical impulse that’s totally satisfying. The brook flows untroubled and the finale is quite lovely, with a wonderfully expansive climax. The Schubert dates from the end of Böhm’s recording career. It’s a superb version of this lovely symphony, another work that suited Böhm especially well. The reading is weighty but graceful, with a most beautifully phrased Andante (worthy of a Furtwängler), a bold Minuet and a thrilling finale. The recording is splendid. If you admire Böhm this is a worthy way to remember his ­special gifts.

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Complete String Quartets

Quartetto Italiano

Decca

It goes without saying that no one ensemble can unlock all the secrets contained in these quartets. The Quartetto Italiano’s claims are strongest in the Op 18 Quartets. They offer eminently civilised, thoughtful and aristocratic readings. Their approach is reticent but they also convey a strong sense of making music in domestic surroundings. Quite frankly, you couldn’t do very much better than this set. In the middle-period quartets the Italians are hardly less distinguished, even though there are times when the Végh offer deeper insights, as in the slow movement of Op 59 No 1. Taken in isolation, however, the Quartetto Italiano remain eminently satisfying both musically and as recorded sound. As far as sound quality is concerned, it’s rich and warm. In Opp 74 and 95, they more than hold their own against all comers. These are finely proportioned readings, poised and articulate.

The gain in clarity because of the remastering entails a very slight loss of warmth in the middle register, but as recordings the late quartets, made between 1967 and 1969, can hold their own against their modern rivals. Not all of these received universal acclaim at the time of their first release. The opening fugue of Op 131 is too slow at four-in-the-bar and far more espressivo than it should be, but, overall, these performances still strike a finely judged balance between beauty and truth, and are ultimately more satisfying and searching than most of their rivals.

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String Quartets, Vols 1-3

Takács Quartet

Decca

Review of Vol 3 - The Late Quartets: Late Beethoven is all about contrasts: prayer and play, structural logic and emotional candour, relative convention and daring. Wherever you join the journey, some rogue idea invariably lies ready to pounce: the way Op 127’s Andante con moto chugs along happily then abruptly turns to face us with a weeping confession. Similarly halfway through Op 130’s Cavatina; and Op 131’s Scherzo gate-crashes the tale of the preceding variations. Then there’s the zany humour of the other scherzi – from Opp 127 and 135 especially – or the indescribable feeling of release after the opening hymn in Op 132’s Adagio. All this conceived in the prison of deafness, perhaps the greatest of all musical miracles.

Readers who know these works have little use for such guidelines and yet interpreters have to think harder; they need to convey what at times sounds like a stream of musical consciousness while respecting the many written markings. The Takács do better than most. For openers, they had access to the new Henle Edition and have made use of some textual changes (an E replacing a G at 8’13” in the first movement of Op 132, for example) – nothing too drastic but encouraging evidence of a good musical conscience. In Op 130 they take the long first-movement exposition repeat, using the Grosse Fuge as the rightful finale (Beethoven’s original intention) which, in the context of their fiery reading of the fugue, works well. Contemporary incredulity at the sheer scale and complexity of the fugue caused Beethoven to offer a simpler alternative finale (the last thing he wrote) in which the Takács again play the repeat, which helps balance the ‘alternative’ structure.

The Takács evidently appreciate this music both as musical argument and as sound. Try their glassy sul ponticello at the end of Op 131’s Scherzo, or the many instances where plucked and bowed passages are fastidiously balanced. Attenuated inflections are honoured virtually to the letter, textures carefully differentiated, musical pauses intuitively well-timed and inner voices nearly always transparent.

The F major Quartet’s opening Allegretto has an almost Haydnesque wit about it and, although I would have welcomed a more furioso approach to the first movement of the Serioso (Op 95), the sum effect is still impressive. The Takács are conscientious without sounding overly reverential; they know how to ease the tempo momentarily with such subtlety that, unless you’re consciously analysing each phrase, you would never realise (there are instances in Op 132’s Adagio). As to their pooled tone, the overall impression is lean but expressive, with sweetness kept within bounds and only András Fejer’s cello occasionally sounding reticent. Where Beethoven cues a savage attack, he gets it, but when the heart rules, as it so often does in these works, the Takács take his lead there, too.

Beethoven’s late quartets are the ultimate examples of music that is so great that, as Artur Schnabel famously suggested, no single sequence of performances could ever do them full justice. Still, this set comes close and completes one of the best available cycles, possibly the finest in an already rich digital market, more probing than the pristine Emersons or Alban Bergs (live), more refined than the gutsy and persuasive Lindsays, and less consciously stylised than the Juilliards (and always with the historic Busch Quartet as an essential reference) – at no point did I feel the Takács significantly wanting. They do Beethoven proud and no one could reasonably ask for more. Rob Cowan (May 2005)

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String Quartets, Op 18

Tokyo Quartet

Harmonia Mundi

Much as I have enjoyed other digital recordings of Beethoven’s first quartets by (for example) the Takacs and Lindsay Quartets, this new Tokyo set just about pips all rivals to the post. The reason is primarily one of balance, not only within the group itself but also in terms of overall musical judgement – whether relating to tempo, dynamics or emphases, or simply the way the players combine a sense of classical style with an appreciation of Beethoven’s startling originality. Even as early as No 1’s pensive opening, you notice how skilfully rests are being gauged, contrasts in colour and inflection, too: the way the clipped first motif leads into its sweetly imploring extension a couple of bars later. The Scherzo’s skipping gait, incisive but lightly dispatched, is another source of pleasure, and so is the seemingly effortless swirl of the closing Allegro. The old quartet cliche about “leaning together” is here a principal attribute. Try the first movement of Op 18 No 2 at 3'56": this could be one person playing.

The qualifying ma non tanto of the C minor’s opening Allegro is pointedly observed: dramatic impact is sustained while composure is maintained. I love the crispness of the Andante scherzoso and the cannily calculated crescendi at the start of the finale. Few ensembles have characterised the A major’s cantering first idea as happily as the Tokyos do here, while the ethereal and texturally variegated middle movements anticipate the very different world of Beethoven’s “late” quartets. Beautifully blended recordings, too: if you’re after a top-ranking digital set of Op 18, you couldn’t do better – though placing them in the context of a complete cycle is rather more difficult until the late quartets appear. Certainly I don’t recall the Tokyo’s latest “middle” quartets being quite as good as this. Rob Cowan (February 2008)

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Late String Quartets

Alban Berg Quartett

Warner Classics

The 1984 Gramophone Award in the chamber-music repertory went to the Lindsay Quartet's set of the late Beethoven quartets and it is a measure of the inexhaustibility of these great works that they have also claimed 1985's vote. The Alban Berg are the first to give us them on CD, and the medium certainly does justice to the magnificently burnished tone that the Alban Berg command, and the perfection of blend they so consistently achieve. In terms of sheer technical address, tonal finesse and balance, they enjoy a superiority over almost every other ensemble of their generation. (Indeed some listeners, particularly those brought up on the Busch or Vegh Quartets, may find the sheer polish of their playing gets in the way, for this can be an encumbrance; late Beethoven is beautified at its peril). But so far as sheer quartet playing is concerned, it is likely to remain unchallenged. Robert Layton (1985)

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Late String Quartets

Busch Quartet

Warner Classics

Up to a point the length of a review should denote importance – and were this the case, this notice ought to occupy many pages! This is an indispensable set – as revealing of the Beethoven quartets as Schnabel is of the sonatas, and if it were ever correct to speak of any performances as definitive, this is an instance when one might be tempted to do so. The Busch's Beethoven set standards by which successive generations of quartets were judged – and invariably found wanting! Their insight and wisdom, their humanity and total absorption in Beethoven's art has to my mind never been surpassed and only sporadically matched, even by such modern ensembles as the Vegh and the Lindsay!

These performances are so superb that despite their sonic limitations I still think it possible to recommend them to younger non-specialist collectors, even in these days of the Compact Disc. Of course, there are the occasional portamentos that were in general currency in the 1930s but are unfashionable now, but I can't say that I find them irksome. Whatever set you may already have, be it the Hollywood, the Lindsay, the Alban Berg or the Quartetto Italiano, you will not regret adding this to your collection. Robert Layton (November 1985)

 

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