A 21st-century Beethoven symphony cycle

James JollyTue 14th March 2017

What does Beethoven performance sound like today?

Lists are funny things. We all make them (even only in our minds) and we like nothing better than disagreeing with them. ‘Why not make a list of the finest Beethoven symphony recordings?’, was a recent suggestion here at Gramophone as we prepared a small Beethoven Fest on our website. The idea appealed, of course, but, as I thought about it, it’d be very easy to make such a list without the inclusion of a single living conductor – the cycle would, no doubt, be full of good things (Erich or Carlos Kleiber’s Fifth, Karl Böhm’s Sixth, Arturo Toscanini’s Seventh or Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 or Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Lucerne Ninth immediately jump to mind). But classical music is a living, breathing thing, giving renewed joy and exhilaration to every generation … so, I stepped up to the challenge with a few provisos – it must be a cycle from the 21st century. No conductor can appear more than once. And I would base it on recordings available on Apple Music’s streaming library. That last restraint did rob me of a quartet of performances I’d otherwise have pounced upon (Sir Simon Rattle in his live Berlin cycle for his deliciously Haydnesque No 2; Philippe Jordan’s Opéra de Paris cycle for No 4; definitely Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO for No 5 and Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for No 8). But there were some fine alternatives for my list, and how different Beethoven performance is today than 50 years ago.

To start, my cycle I’m following Philip Clark’s Collection recommendation in October 2013 for Riccardo Chailly’s Leipzig Gewandhaus performance of No 1 – a great orchestra stepping up to the challenge of a radically new approach that fuses period manners with traditional instruments: the result is a thrilling new take on Beethoven’s first symphonic outing.

For the Second Symphony, I’m crossing the Atlantic for a performance that doesn't attempt anything radical or new but simply comes across as a genial, well-judged account of a work that always surprises with its scale and ambition, and Michael Tilson Thomas’s long tenure at the helm of the fine San Francisco orchestra makes for music-making of unforced ease and charm. For the Eroica (No 3) I’m going right back to the start of the century and Claudio Abbado’s 2001 Rome performance (originally released on video and then put out with an earlier Ninth to create a new cycle). It’s tightly-argued, beautifully played and stands as a worthy memorial to this great conductor. 

Period instruments for No 4 – Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Vienna Concentus Musicus Fourth has terrific vitality (the conductor was 85 at the time) and it’s a real sadness that ill health and then death robbed us of his last thoughts on the nine, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. And what a joy to hear an orchestra playing its heart out for the man with whom they’d been making music for half a century. From Austria to Switzerland for the Fifth, and Giovanni Antonini brings period manners, if not timbres, to his Kammerorchester Basel account of the Fifth. This is a performance that is striking for its rhythmic vitality and its beautiful sense of pacing, something that really strikes home when the finale bursts through the mists in that miraculous bridge passage between movements. 

For the Pastoral (No 6), we’re back Stateside and Osmo Vänskä’s lovely (and quite swift) walk through the countryside in the company of the fine Minnesota Orchestra (I’m still torn between this version and Iván Fischer’s for Channel Classics). With divided violins and beautiful detail from the winds and brass this is an enormously impressive performance. The Seventh, though, in the hands of Sir John Eliot Gardiner – and also recorded in the US (in concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall) – is a high-octane and utterly thrilling ride. Adrenalin courses through this performance as conductor and players give us one of the most exciting modern readings. The ORR are on truly glorious form here.

Live at the Barbican in London, Bernard Haitink’s Indian Summer with the LSO gives us an Eighth of wonderful style and elegance. Full-bodied yet light on its feet, this is a charmer from first to last, and there is some exquisite solo playing from this great orchestra.

To end the cycle, I’ve chosen Frans Brüggen’s second recording of the Ninth (if I were allowed to delve back into the 1990s, his Philips Eroica from his first cycle would definitely have been on the list). His Orchestra of the 18th Century plays superbly and he, with great humanity, paces this giant symphony with a wonderful sureness of touch. The hard drum sticks make the numerous timpani interjections really count, and everyone plays with a palpable sense of occasion. 

Needless to say, you’ll have your own ideas for a modern Beethoven cycle, so let the conversation begin…  

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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