The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 5

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Concluding our survey of the greatest Beethoven recordings, from the piano sonatas to Fidelio

Verdi's Macbeth

Piano Sonatas Nos 8, 17 & 23

Ingrid Fliter pf

EMI/Warner Classics

After her rapturously received Chopin recordings for EMI, Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter turns to Beethoven. And, in her grave, minor-key programme of three sonatas, she plays with an unfettered musical quality that takes you back to the great days of Solomon and Clara Haskil.

In the Pathétique Sonata she recreates Beethoven’s “Romeo and Juliet” period – a burgeoning and romantic foretaste of so many great things to come – with the finest senses of both drama and solemnity. Her Adagio cantabile sings with an ease that truly soothes the savage beast and the recitatives in the Tempest Sonata are as poised and mysterious as you could wish. Beethoven’s suggestion that his listeners should read Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a fable of rebirth and reconciliation, may remain an enigma, but it is surely Fliter’s cardinal virtue that she gives you a renewed sense of wonder at the composer’s pioneering strength and eloquence.

In the Appassionata Sonata Fliter is once more unswervingly serious, as true to the spirit as to the letter of the score. How difficult then to add that, as competition winner succeeds competition winner (usually to sink into oblivion after a few years – they are rarely the real McCoy) it is wonderful indeed to encounter a pianist of such exalted yet natural and unforced artistry.

EMI have recorded Fliter in demonstration sound at Potton Hall. Rarely has this label been so lucky in its choice of pianists. Bryce Morrison (August 2011)

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Piano Sonatas Nos 28–32

Maurizio Pollini pf

DG

Make no mistake, this is playing of the highest order of mastery. Indeed, I am not sure that Pollini’s account of the Hammerklavier is not the most impressive currently before the public, though the instant such thoughts are penned, the noble performances of Eschenbach, Arrau, Brendel and Ashkenazy spring to mind. Yet not even beside such giants as these as well as Solomon, Kempff and perhaps even Schnabel does Pollini’s achievement pale.

If Schnabel’s Hammerklavier was not one of the triumphs of his pioneering cycle, its surface roughness worked in its favour in that the listener was never distracted from the spirit by the beauty of the letter. Pollini’s account is simply staggering, for if there are incidental details which are more tellingly illuminated by other masters, no performance is more perfect than this new version. Superb rhythmic grip, sensitivity to line and gradation of tone, a masterly control of the long paragraph; all these are features of this remarkable reading. In the slow movement the sublime outpouring of lyrical feeling beginning at bar 27 shows Pollini’s peerless sense of line and eloquence of spirit, though memories of Arrau who fashions this passage with great poetry are not banished. John Ogdon’s account has a splendidly withdrawn feeling at this point and a raptness and tranquillity that I greatly admire. No one, however, quite matches Pollini’s stunning finale: its strength and controlled power silence criticism. There is no doubt, I think, that this is great piano-playing. Robert Layton (January 1978)

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Piano Sonata No 29, 'Hammerklavier'

Emil Gilels pf

DG

Few works of music stimulate active and stressful thinking - anxious thought complementing the music's search for resolvable sounds - than the Hammerklavier. Nor is it a work which is easily mastered physically. (Pollini, on DG, strikes me as being too obviously masterful; Brendel, on Philips, less so.) Of all pianists, Schnabel (on his 1935 HMV recording) perhaps comes closest to conveying a reckless, all-or-nothing mood, allied to a terrier-like grasp of argument and a sure instinct for the work's persistent striving for release into uninhibited song. Yet there are scrambles and mistakes in his performance which were avoided, with minimal loss to the music's headlong impetus, in the famous 1956 Solomon recording, whose absence from the catalogue is much to be regretted. Like Solomon, Gilels gives us an outstanding reading of the vast slow movement. The tempo is spacious, apt to Gilels's mastery of the music's anisometric lines and huge paragraphs, paragraphs as big as an East Anglian sky. Few pianists since Solomon have come near to matching Gilels's ability to touch off the rapt, disburdened beauty of these lofty Beethovenian cantilenas.

The search for lyric release is something which Gilels seems particularly to stress. The arrival – introit, rathe r- of the finale's D major subject, Tovey's "Still, Small Voice" after the Fire, is here a moment that is specially cherishable, the more so as the fugue and the subsequent aggressive peroration are played by Gilels with a directness and lucidity which contrasts interestingly with his sophisticated and equivocal treatment of the opening Allegro movement. There, we have a sense of impetus and attack (Gilels's sheer pianistic command compensating for a tempo 42 minims a minute below Beethoven's startling and plausible minim = 138) though when we reach the gracious second subject in G, rhythmic motion is not so much suspended as upstaged by the first intimations of the music's surprising capacity for feminine songfulness.

The Scherzo, as befits its character, is also equivocal; the playing of the Trio and the dance's quietly elaborated reprise is a rare treat for the ear, though the tempo seems slow for so obviously ironic a piece. It takes a major pianist standing outside the Viennese tradition to see the volatile and ageing Beethoven subsuming gamesome Classical ironies in Romantic pathos and a feeling of personal travail.

There is, though, nothing effete about the totality of Gilels's reading. Formidably in command of the music, he neither subjects the notes to his virtuosic will, nor demeans his own technique by mimetic attempts at audible disorder. Disturbingly aware, in the first movement, of what he suggests are unstable fancies informing the work's manic oscillations, Gilels proceeds to achieve a troubled coherence in the brilliantly executed coda of the finale where his extraordinary technique allows the music's evident ferocity to be tempered by Orphic assurance.

It is, in fine, an absorbing and ambiguous reading. At times it is a model of lucidity, arguments and textures appearing as the mechanism of a fine Swiss watch must do to a craftsman's glass; yet the reading is also full of subversive beauty, the finely elucidated tonal shifts confirming Charles Rosen's assertion that Beethoven's art, for all its turbulence, is here as sensuous as a Schubert song.

The recording is limpid and resolute, with something of the character and atmosphere of Wilhelm Kempff's celebrated recordings of this endlessly challenging, endlessly fascinating work. Richard Osborne (December 1983)

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Piano Sonatas Nos 27-32

Solomon pf

Warner Classics

Solomon’s 1952 recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata is one of the greatest of the century. At the heart of his performance there’s as calm and searching an account of the slow movement as you’re ever likely to hear. And the outer movements are also wonderfully well done. Music that’s so easy to muddle and arrest is here fierily played; Solomon at his lucid, quick-witted best.

The CD transfer is astonishing. It’s as though previously we have merely been eavesdropping on the performance; now, decades later, we’re finally in the presence of the thing itself. It’s all profoundly moving. What’s more, EMI has retained the juxtaposition of the 1969 LP reissue: Solomon’s glorious account of the A major Sonata, No 28 as the Hammerklavier’s proud harbinger. We must be grateful that Solomon had completed his recording of these six late sonatas before his career was abruptly ended by a stroke in the latter part of 1956.

The Sonatas Nos 27 and 31, were recorded in August 1956. In retrospect the warning signs were already there; yet listening to these edited tapes you’d hardly know anything was amiss. There’s the odd fumble in the Scherzo of No 31; but, if anything, the playing has even greater resolve, both in No 31 and in a songful (but never sentimental) account of No 27. The recordings of Nos 30 and 32 date from 1951. Sonata No 30, is very fine; No 32 is, by Solomon’s standards, a shade wooden in places, both as a performance and as a recording. Still, this is a wonderful set, and very much a collectors’ item.

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Diabelli Variations

Stephen Kovacevich pf

Onyx

Wilhelm von Lenz described the Diabelli Variations as “a satire on their theme”. It’s an apt summation, for what could be more remarkable than something as inherently mediocre as Diabelli’s theme giving voice to one of the greatest – some would argue the greatest – work ever written for solo piano?

Kovacevich writes in his introduction to this new set that it was the Diabelli Variations – via the Serkin recording – that first made him love Beethoven. It’s a reading that still holds its head high today, and just a decade later, in 1968, Kovacevich set down his own recording, rightly acclaimed and something of a calling-card for the young pianist. But what of this new performance, made 40 years later? What is immediately striking is the sense of a cumulative whole, the tension and indeed speed with which he approaches the work. The work’s juxtapositions of the sublime and the ridiculous are presented with a vividness that sounds more live than studio-bound.

It’s easy to forget that the work was actually written in two distinct time-periods, the majority of it dating from 1819, with 10 more variations added in 1823, interspersed among the existing ones. It resulted in a work of a quite different – and more daring – shape from his initial thoughts. And unlike Bach, Mozart or Haydn, Beethoven doesn’t set up a particular style, tone or tempo that continues through an entire variation – instead there’s a sense of organic development through each number. Kovacevich emphasises this sense of continuous development with a certain fleetness of finger: his opening theme sets quite a pace (speedier than Brendel’s masterly live performance from 2001), and dances more lightly than many rival versions (though its exuberance matches Brendel’s in 1976). It’s certainly faster than his own earlier recording. But more important is the sense that Kovacevich has now encompassed the extremes of the work more fully. His understanding of Beethoven’s juxtapositions of beauty and crudity, reflection and action, and the sheer dynamic range, are fully exposed in this new version, which captures the piano sound beautifully. And not only in the later variations, as these juxtapositions become more blatant, but as early as Vars 3 and 4, the third almost trance-like, the fourth pushed hard towards the bar-lines to explosive effect, Kovacevich laying bare the extraordinary originality of his writing. That sense of being on the edge is a vital component of this reading. Occasionally you sense that he’s chosen a tempo almost too fast, that he’s a moment away from derailing (Var 23, for instance), but it never happens. Instead, it adds to the sense of “liveness” about this studio production.

Kovacevich has, in the intervening decades between his first and second Diabellis, recorded a complete sonata cycle and again that familiarity with Beethoven’s language in the final years shows, from the ease with which he presents the quasi-improvisation of Var 31 and his masterly handling of inevitable fugue of Var 33, to the discomfiting leaps and obtuse harmonies (Var 7), the extremes of range (Var 10), the creation of an illusion of speeding up through ever-smaller note values (Var 14) and that great Beethoven favourite – the trill – which plays an increasingly important part as the work progresses.

The humour, too, is there, but never overdone, whether in Beethoven’s earthy belligerence (Var 9), the tersely snatched ending of Var 19 or the blatant reference to Mozart’s Leporello in Var 22. But, again and again, Kovacevich reveals how that humour can tip over into something far more menacing: witness the rat-a-tat-tat of the left hand in Var 17 or the pathos as Beethoven at last switches to the minor in Var 29, finally putting the brakes on a seemingly unstoppable momentum, culminating in the fugue and its catastrophic collapse (Var 33). Perhaps in his younger days Beethoven would have ended the set with the fugue, but instead we get a final addition: a switch to C major and an utter change in mood, with a graceful, quasi-Mozartian idea, whirled ever higher. It’s as enigmatic and undefinable as anything Beethoven wrote and a transcendent ending to this remarkable performance.

Kovacevich might be less associated with Bach, but let’s not forget that his teacher was that consummate Bachian, Myra Hess. His approach to the Fourth Partita reminds me of another great Beethovenian: Richard Goode. In this respect he treads a middle path between the tonally slimline, rhythmically motivated readings of Angela Hewitt and the more obviously romantic ones of Cédric Tiberghien. And it’s an enlightening partner to the Diabelli Variations, not only in its basis in dance rhythms but also in its scope and its extrovert demeanour, whose tone is set with the grand Ouverture. Kovacevich brings an easy brilliance to the lightly tripping Courante and the bold contours of the final Gigue. Nor is he afraid to make Bach his own, drawing the listener in with his sotto voce Allemande, adding ornaments and playing around with rhythms, but all is done with the utmost musicality. Altogether, a disc to treasure. Harriet Smith (January 2009)

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Songs

Stephen Genz bar Roger Vignoles pf

Hyperion

The 26-year-old Erfurt-born baritone Stephan Genz is in the first bloom of his youthful prime. His Schumann Liederkreis, Op 24 (5/98) was the first recording to give serious warning of the distinctive lyric ardour and keen intelligence of his artistry; and now Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Mailied’ (Op 52 No 4), with its lightly breathed, springing words, could have been written with Genz in mind.
Four more Goethe settings celebrate the great man’s 250th anniversary year. Roger Vignoles, Genz’s regular accompanist, contributes an irresistible bounding energy and even a sense of mischief to one of Beethoven’s most spontaneous yet subtle settings, ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’; and an elusive sense of yearning is created as the voice tugs against the piano line in ‘Sehnsucht’.

The six Gellert Lieder form the centrepiece of this recital: Beethoven’s song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, its grand finale. The intensity of Genz’s cry ‘Is there a God?’ in An die Hoffnung, at the start of the disc, gives some indication of the gravitas he brings to his firmly enunciated ‘spiritual songs’ of Gellert. Genz and Vignoles have here reinstated a number of the original verses omitted by Beethoven in the first printed edition, creating a greater sense of balance and proportion within the set.

The concluding song-cycle is quite simply one of the best performances currently available, surpassing the similar Gellert/Geliebte coupling from Olaf Bar, and itself surpassed only by the classic readings of Fischer-Dieskau and Schreier. Fresh and bright of tone, awe-filled and beautifully paced and scaled, Genz’s singing is modulated exquisitely from song to song by Vignoles’s sentient piano accompaniment. Hilary Finch (May 1999)

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Choral Fantasia. Triple Concerto. Rondo for Piano & Orchestra

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf  Thomas Zehetmair vn Clemens Hagen vc Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Warner Classics

Listening to the opening tutti on this joyful new Triple Concerto, I could just picture Nikolaus Harnoncourt cueing his strings, perched slightly forwards, impatiently waiting for that first, pregnant forte. This is a big, affable, blustery Triple, the soloists completing the sound canvas rather than dominating it, a genuine collaborative effort. So beside the Beethovenian strut to this performance there is poetry too, as at 8’25” where Clemens Hagen wafts in with the principal theme underpinned by gently brushed strings. Then again the modulating sequences from 9’36”, so often crudely hammered home in rival versions, are stylishly shaped, the emphases properly focused, with Aimard clearly centre-stage. And yet thoughtfulness never spells caution (all three works were recorded at concerts in Graz over the last 18 months); Hagen and Thomas Zehetmair throw caution to the winds near the end of the first movement.

The Concerto’s Largo is simplicity itself, rather like a song without words, but it is the finale that is likely to raise the most smiles, a rumbustious affair, uninhibited without coursing out of control. Harnoncourt and his team go for the burn, always brilliant but, more importantly, full of character and humour.

The fill-ups are hardly less engaging. The little B flat Rondo is bubbly from the start, Aimard and the orchestra maintaining a feeling of chamber collaboration. And then the Choral Fantasia, so often clunky on disc but here much aided by Aimard’s sense of style – his arpeggios in the long opening solo have so much colour – and by Harnoncourt’s relaxed approach to the music that follows, each variation imaginatively tended within a larger framework. The singing is excellent, the sound both warm and realistic. As ‘feel-good’ Beethoven programmes go, this is about as enjoyable as it gets, though a high level of musical insight further enhances one’s pleasure. But then isn’t that always the case with Harnoncourt? Rob Cowan (November 2004)

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Missa Solemnis

Margiono; Robbin; Kendall; Miles; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

DG Archiv

We know that the Missa solemnis has moments of the utmost and loveliest serenity, others when a spirit of confidence reigns, when grandeur is proclaimed with harmonic simplicity, and assurance affirmed with measured tread. Yet it's the great whirls of sound, the divine scattering and striving, the straining of the soul to dance in freedom from all laws of time and formal conventions that ultimately characterize the work in our minds. Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for? Exactly: Beethoven seems to be reaching beyond human grasp, and one of Heaven's good works must surely be to give the Missa solemnis its ideal performance, liberated from all constraints of matter.

Well, it now appears we do not need to wait that long. With his expert choir of 36 and his orchestra of 60 (with original instruments), Gardiner, like Terje Kvam on Nimbus before him, sheds some of the weight of numbers usually employed; he also has a team of soloists without weaknesses, and, it must be added, his own genius for making all things new. Comparison between the two recordings hardly needs to go beyond the first entry of the choir, where Gardiner's singers bring meaning and urgency to their cries of Kyrie which with Kvam's Oslo Cathedral Choir are scarcely more than formal statements.

Not that one would wish to follow this line of demonstration, for the performance under Kvam deserves something better than merely to serve as a foil. Still, the essential point has to be made, and one could go to the far end of the work for a further example and compare the control of tension in the Agnus Dei. With Gardiner the change of key to B flat, as drums and trumpets introduce the terrors of war, is chillingly sudden: the timpani are more precisely tuned, the acoustic is sharper, the timing more dramatic. And consequently the return to peace in the Dona nobis pacem with its 6/8 rhythm, banishes the grim horsemen of the Apocalypse and substitutes a joyful, even frisky canter over the Elysian fields. The other performance is good, but it has nothing like this. Nor have most other recordings. For instance, the most recent, under Jeffrey Tate (EMI), creates no comparable tension, for the war passage is not really allegro assai and though things settle back with serenity they don't have this joyful buoyancy and lift.

Another factor is the very crucial matter of balance. Many recordings have brought their soloists too far forward, shine too bright a light on them, and many others have had the chorus too far back. The Tate recording is an example of the first, Kvam of the second. Here the balance is right, and separation of the various elements has been achieved without exaggeration or any sense of unnaturalness.

It is indeed an outstanding recording in every respect. If one wished to cavil, it might be over the absence of appoggiaturas now generally accepted in the quasi-recitative cries of 'Agnus Dei' in the 'war' passage just mentioned, or perhaps to object that the 'Pleni sunt coeli' (given to the soloists) is not so much allegro pesante as presto brillante. The Credo also goes at a tempo faster than usual, possibly not taking sufficient heed of the ma non troppo qualifying allegro. Even so, there seems nothing forced here and the relative lightness of the forces, both choral and orchestral, makes such speeds viable and with exhilarating effect, felt most magically of all in the Et vitam venturi fugues. Each of the soloists contributes fine work, and they are an entirely homogeneous quartet (unlike those in the Tate recording, for example). I personally have the strongest reason to regret the record's appearance at this particular moment, for it coincides with the publication of Choral Music on Records (Cambridge University Press) which AB has edited and in which the chapter on the Missa solemnis is written my myself (see page 1653). I suspect the survey would have reached a different conclusion if the Gardiner recording had then been available, for my present conviction is that it is best of all. John Steane (March 1991)

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Fidelio

Stemme; Kaufmann; Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

Decca

It was Abbado’s second Berlin Philharmonic symphony cycle from 2001 which thrust him more or less unexpectedly into the ranks of the immortals where Beethoven is concerned. And it was seven years after that, in Reggio Emilia in 2008, that he conducted his first Fidelio. Like Furtwängler in his 1953 studio recording, Abbado leads a viscerally charged performance that flies to the very heart of the matter, and does so in a version which, stripping away much of the spoken dialogue, recreates Beethoven’s lofty Singspiel as musical metatheatre.

The recording derives from two semi-staged concert performances, the audience happily sensed but not heard. Technically the recording is first-rate but, then, you need no sonic-stage trickery in the dungeon scene in a performance which reveals as exactingly as this how Beethoven’s own orchestrations are key. One of the many glories of this thrillingly articulated Fidelio is the playing of the basses and lower strings, sharp-featured and black as the pit of Acheron.

The revised spoken text is by stage director Tatjana Gürbaca. In Act 1 she prunes and rewrites, minimising the text’s domesticities; in Act 2 she preserves the melodrama but omits most else. There is no breathless announcement from Jaquino after the trumpet calls, no heart-stopping exchange between Florestan and Leonore before “O namenlose Freude”. After Pizarro’s entry, Act 2 becomes a choral cantata, albeit one happily devoid of an inserted Leonore No 3.

The cast is mostly distinguished. If there has been a better Marzelline on record than Rachel Harnisch, I have not heard her. The same might be said of Christof Fischesser’s Rocco and Falk Struckmann’s Pizarro; not that one forgets Gottlob Frick (Klemperer’s Rocco and Furtwängler’s) or Hans Hotter, Klemperer’s Pizarro on his unforgettable live Covent Garden performance, a true theatre Fidelio, more interestingly cast than the fabled but slightly more sedate EMI studio version.

Nina Stemme is very much the Leonore de nos jours, less human than Jurinac live at Covent Garden but apt to the newer version’s less domesticated vision. I could have done without Jonas Kaufmann’s 12-second crescendo on Florestan’s annunciatory “Gott!” – René Kollo did something similar for Bernstein (DG, 10/78R) – more vocal stunt than human utterance and offering a foretaste of vocal discolorations to come.

But that, in the end, is a trifle. This is the best-conducted Fidelio since Furtwängler’s; a joy to experience and a privilege to possess. Richard Osborne (September 2011)

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Fidelio

Jurinac; Vickers; Frick; Hotter; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Otto Klemperer

Testament mono

As month follows month and more and more live performances appear, our perspective on the purpose of recordings seem to be changing. In December we had Maria Callas’s 1952 Covent Garden Norma superseding her studio efforts; and here is the first night of Otto Klemperer’s legendary 1961 Fidelio, also from the Royal Opera House, to challenge his noted studio set from a year later. This confirms the Achilles’ heel of Walter Legge, EMI’s leading mogul at the time, in his unwillingness to record live occasions, probably because he liked to have every aspect of a recording under his control. In this case there is more to it than that. Klemperer wanted, in the studio, to retain his Covent Garden cast; Legge preferred to make changes with two exceptions (Jon Vickers and Gottlob Frick). On the evidence of this magnificent issue, Klemperer was right. Not only are the singers, by and large, better equipped for their roles, but given the electricity of the occasion the conductor’s interpretation is more vital (often faster tempi) and even more eloquent.

For his own staging, Klemperer decided to include far more dialogue than is usually heard (so, incidentally, did Böhm in 1978) so that we have as much a play with music as an opera. The singers speak and act with such feeling and immediacy, most particularly Jurinac, Hotter and Frick, as to justify the added text. Add to that the dedication on all sides to Klemperer, articulated by Mike Ashman in his booklet article for which he interviewed surviving singers and players, and you can imagine why this was such a special occasion.

Compared to Christa Ludwig on Klemperer’s studio version, Sena Jurinac creates a more believable and vulnerable Leonore. Her heartfelt sympathy with the role is evident in every line she speaks and sings, most notably in key phrases in her duet with Rocco near the end of Act 1 and the melodrama in Act 2. Once past some first night nerves evident in ‘Abscheulicher!’ she proves an ideal Leonore. Vickers, even in these early days of his career, is inclined to sentimentalise his Florestan with scoops and lachrymose effects, but all is forgiven when he provides the heroic thrust and inner feeling which the part demands and which is so notably absent from the Florestan on the recent Rattle version. Frick’s Rocco is, if possible, even more admirable than on the studio set, expressing the jailor’s terrible dilemma in the kind of incisive, warm tones few other basses on disc match. It is incomprehensible that Legge preferred as Pizarro the too-comfortable sounding Walter Berry to Hans Hotter. Hotter, usually known for his noble roles, is here the epitome of evil, a threatening force of nature, his voice and diction full of menace so that he can be forgiven one or two wobbles in his aria. The young lovers are personably sung and enacted by Elsie Morison and John Dobson, and another Royal Opera stalwart, Forbes Robinson, is a dignified Don Fernando. There was a fuss at the time about Klemperer’s inclusion of Leonore III, but he fully justifies it by his electrifying interpretation.

He insisted on placing the wind in the middle of the orchestra spectrum, and the balance is improved throughout as a result. His reading overall has the stature and sense of the work’s philosophical basis which will be familiar to those who know his discs of the symphonies and which is so lacking in Rattle’s reading. Obviously the sound cannot match that of Klemperer’s studio effort, and there are the usual drawbacks of live recording in terms of coughs and stage noises, but these are seldom intrusive. All in all, this is an historic document to set beside the admittedly better-recorded Böhm/Munich set. It is enhanced by the booklets, one with essays, the other with complete libretto and translation, and both with highly evocative photos of the production. Alan Blyth (February 2004)

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