Following the overwhelming popularity of our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Handel recordings, we have now gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Beethoven's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from legendary performers like Artur Schnabel and Otto Klemperer to modern masters like Isabelle Faust and Riccardo Chailly. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera.
We have also included extracts from the original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 entries. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. The 'Buy Now' links take you to the relevant recording at the website of classical music retailer Presto Classical.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
The freshness of this set is remarkable. You do not have to listen far to be swept up by its spirit of renewal and discovery, and in Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made an inspired choice. Theirs are not eccentric readings of these old warhorses – far from it. But they could be called idiosyncratic – from Harnoncourt would you have expected anything less? – and to the extent that the set gives a shock to received ideas it is challenging. It does not seek to banish all conventional wisdom about the pieces, but it has asked a lot of questions about them, as interpreters should, and I warm to it not only for the boldness of its answers but for finding so many of the right questions to ask.
These are modern performances which have acquired richness and some of their focus from curiosity about playing styles and sound production of the past. What can be deduced about the likely nature of mass, weight and orchestral perspectives and how the musical language was spoken from what is known of instruments and performance practices in Beethoven’s time? Harnoncourt offers some answers that will be familiar to admirers of his Teldec recording of the symphonies (11/91). He favours leaner string textures than the norm and gets his players in the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe to command a wide range of expressive weight and accent; this they do with an immediacy of effect that is striking. Yet there is a satisfying body to the string sound, too. From all the orchestral sections the playing is of the highest class – the woodwind and brass often pungent, the thwack of the timpani leathery and distinctive in tutti passages (and the player of them relishing the big solo moment after the cadenza in the first movement of the Concerto No 3 in C minor). The performances gain an edge from all this which has nothing to do with a ‘period’ stance but everything to do with what I take to be Harnoncourt’s objectives: to regain the freshness and force of what was once new, to recover the qualities of exhilaration and disturbance that these works possess ...
Paul Lewis pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek
With this three-disc album of Beethoven’s piano concertos Paul Lewis complements his earlier set of the 32 sonatas and also his appearances at the Proms this summer where for the first time all five concertos will be played by a single artist. So may I say at once that Harmonia Mundi’s eagerly awaited set is a superlative achievement and that Lewis’s partnership with Jirí Belohlávek is an ideal match of musical feeling, vigour and refinement.
True, for aficionados of eccentricity – even of brilliant eccentricity – from the likes of Gould, Pletnev and Mustonen, Lewis may at times seem overly restrained but the rewards of such civilised, musically responsible and vital playing seem to me infinite. Above all there is no sense of an artist looking over his shoulder to see what other pianists have come up with. Throughout the cycle Lewis is enviably and naturally true to his own distinctive lights, his unassuming but shining musicianship always paramount. His stylistic consistency can make the singling-out of this or that detail irrelevant, yet how could I fail to mention Lewis’s and Belohlávek’s true sense of the Allegro con brio in the First Concerto, in music-making that is vital but never driven? Less rugged than, say, Serkin, such playing is no less personal and committed. In the central Largo Lewis achieves a quiet, hauntingly sustained poise and eloquence, while in the finale his crisp articulation sends Beethoven’s early ebullience dancing into captivating life ...
Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf
Review of Vol 3: To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity, for the company has been most engaging, by turns profound and delightful. It’s a rare treat to have the Choral Fantasy as a juicy extra to the concertos. I was made more than usually aware of its original context – as the finale of the famously epic concert that also saw the premieres of, among others, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Concerto; suddenly I noticed connections between the Fantasy and the Fourth that previously passed me by. Robert Levin may be matchless in conveying the rhetoric of the extended piano opening but Andsnes manages to be lithe and spontaneous-sounding, and doesn’t overplay hints of melodrama – dangerously tempting with all those diminished sevenths scattered about. The Mahler CO wind are predictably characterful in their variations on the theme that prefigures the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the chorus are fervent without sounding too butch. That’s in part down to the performers and in part surely the recording, in that most eloquent of spaces, the Prague Rudolfinum.
The Fantasy is much more than just a handy filler but it’s the Fifth Concerto that is likely to be the real draw. So how does this one stack up? Andsnes makes his mark in the initial flourish with playing that has the requisite steel but which is tempered with a twinkle. The qualities that made the previous instalments so compelling are here too: the naturalness with which piano and orchestra meld and converse and, at times, tussle; the airiness of the textures; the subtlety of the details. The clarinet phrases (at 1'21"), for instance, dance more than those of Rattle’s BPO. And the Mahler CO’s timpanist adds to the buoyancy of effect but again subtlety is the watchword. In a way Andsnes reminds me of Schnabel in his sureness of touch, albeit in a very different style; Kissin’s point-making and self-conscious massiveness have no place here ...
Yefim Bronfman pf Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich / David Zinman
Brilliant Classics (originally Arte Nova)
This Zurich performance of the First Concerto is beautifully articulated. True, there are moments of grandeur but the overall impression is of a poised, at times chamber-like traversal, with sculpted pianism and crisply pointed orchestral support. The sensation of shared listening, between Bronfman and the players and between the players themselves, is at its most acute in the First Concerto’s Largo, which although kept on a fairly tight rein is extremely supple (the woodwinds in particular excel). In the finale, Bronfman and the Tonhalle provide a clear, shapely aural picture.
Bronfman’s B flat Concerto (No 2) has the expected composure, the many running passages in the first movement polished if relatively understated. Again the slow movement is full of unaffected poetry and the finale (with the odd added embellishment) is appropriately buoyant – has Bronfman ever played better? ...
Maria João Pires pf Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding
Even with a never-ending stream of Beethoven piano concerto recordings, whether from established masters (Kempff, Arrau, Gilels, etc) or work in progress (Andsnes and Sudbin), few performances come within distance of Pires’s Classical/Romantic perspective. In her own memorable ‘artist’s note’ she speaks of that knife-edge poise between creator and recreator, of what must finally be resolved into a ‘primal simplicity’. And here you sense that she is among those truly great artists who, in Charles Rosen’s words, appear to do so little and end by doing everything (his focus on Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Solomon).
Not since Myra Hess have I heard a more rapt sense of the Fourth Concerto’s ineffable poetry, whether in the unfaltering poise of her opening, her radiant, dancing Vivace finale or, perhaps most of all, in the Andante’s nodal and expressive centre, where she achieves wonders of eloquence and transparency. Never for a moment does she over-reach herself or force her pace and sonority. Others such as Arrau may speak with a weightier voice but even that great pianist would surely have marvelled at the purity and sheen of Pires’s playing. Few pianists have ever been more true to their own lights and it is hardly surprising that her many performances of this concerto in London and elsewhere have become the stuff of legends ...
Murray Perahia pf Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
Seasoned collectors will readily warm to the beautifully recorded piano even if the brass section is placed rather distantly in the empty concert hall ambience. That said, a wealth of often obscured orchestral detail emerges without any feeling of being artificially lit (the woodwind exchanges in the opening movements of the First and Second concertos, for example). There is something reassuring about the readings of all five concertos. The perfect civility of Perahia’s playing is a joy, the deeply felt slow movements particularly rewarding (try that of the Fourth, following the choice of the longer of the two cadenzas for the first movement) ...
Till Fellner pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano
Till Fellner, always among the more quietly celebrated pianists, includes Alfred Brendel among his mentors and together with Kent Nagano and the Montreal SO gives us two of the most supremely satisfying performances of both these concertos on record. This is a dream partnership with soloist and conductor working hand-in-glove, and even when you conjure with so many glorious names in such core repertoire (from Schnabel to Lupu) you will rarely hear playing of such an enviable, unimpeded musical grace and fluency.
Fellner surely belongs among that elite who Charles Rosen so memorably defined as those who, while they appear to do nothing, achieve everything. His playing is subtly rather than ostentatiously coloured and inflected, and if others might be thought more vivid or personal, Fellner’s and Nagano’s ease and naturalness always allow Beethoven his own voice ...
Emil Gilels pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Leopold Ludwig
This is one of the – perhaps the most – perfect accounts of the Fourth Concerto ever recorded. Poetry and virtuosity are held in perfect poise, with Ludwig and the Philharmonia providing a near-ideal accompaniment. The recording is also very fine, though be sure to gauge the levels correctly by first sampling one of the tuttis. If the volume is set too high at the start, you will miss the stealing magic of Gilels’s and the orchestra’s initial entries and you will be further discomfited by tape hiss that, with the disc played at a properly judged level, is more or less inaudible ...
Itzhak Perlman vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini
Perlman's first entry couId hardly be more deceptive, that ladder-like climb of spread octaves which many virtuosi (Anne-Sophie Mutter on DG for example) present commandingly, but which Perlman plays with such gentleness that he emerges almost imperceptibly from the orchestra. It is a measure of Perlman's artistry that an effect which could sound selfconsciously poetic or even weak at once establishes the soloist's command; for this is a spacious performance which uses a relatively measured tempo, steadily maintained, to create the strongest possible structure in a movement which in time at least (almost 25 minutes) is Beethoven's longest symphonic first movement. Where both Chung (Decca) and Mutter are above all lyrical and meditative, illuminatingly so, Perlman's is a more obviously virile purposeful reading with the orchestral tuttis closely co-ordinated - just as they are in the Krebbers version (Philips) with a soloist who at the time was also concertmaster of the orchestra. One might even relate the reading of that first movement to Giulini's spacious but concentrated reading of the Eroica Symphony with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra (DG, 5/79). It is striking that even in the Kreisler cadenza Perlman prefers to keep the feeling of a steady pulse, and the entry into the coda in its total purity and simplicity is even more affecting than the fine accounts in the other three versions.
Both there and in the slow movement Mutter and Chung adopt a more consciously expressive style, but there is no question at any point of Perlman sounding rigid, for within his steady pulse he 'magicks' phrase after phrase. The hushed third theme of the slow movement has an easeful serenity to set against the more tender, vulnerable emotions conveyed by Chung and Mutter. With them poetry is perhaps more important than drama, but Perlman - certainly poetic in his way, always noting the many key passages marked dolce - confirms the strength of his reading in his superbly sprung account of the finale, the tempo marginally faster than that of any of the others (markedly faster than Chung) but masterfully confident. With full, warm digital recording, there is no finer version available, combining as it does so many of the special qualities one finds in the Chung and Mutter versions on the one hand, and in the strong, incisive Krebbers on the other. Edward Greenfield (September 1981)
Isabelle Faust vn Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado
Beethoven may not give as many directions as Berg, but from the very first bars the Orchestra Mozart’s woodwind choir show the same care over detail, the instruments perfectly balanced and with a commitment to bringing out the music’s soulful, expressive character. This sets the tone for the performance, Abbado encouraging his players to maximise the expressive quality of each theme, while keeping a firm hand on the unfolding of the larger design.
He and Faust see eye to eye in wishing to preserve a proper Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement and not to be awed by the work’s reputation into presenting it as a grand, Olympian utterance with little vitality (as on the Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich recording). It’s not just a matter of tempo, either; to all the running passages in the first movement and finale, Isabelle Faust brings a spirited style that at moments becomes positively fiery. A notable example is her cadenza in the finale (track 5, 6'20"). Faust bases her cadenzas and lead-ins on those Beethoven wrote for his adaptation of the work as a piano concerto. This is often an uncomfortable option: Beethoven’s cadenzas (that in the first movement includes an important role for timpani) take the music in surprising directions – more extrovert and playful – and it’s quite difficult to arrange some passages idiomatically for the violin. However, by judicious omission, brilliant playing and sheer conviction, Faust finds a solution that’s both authentically Beethovenian and violinistically convincing ...