Preserving Beethoven's Legacy

Richard Osborne
Thursday, February 6, 2020

Since the arrival of the gramophone, the range and interpretative possibilities of Beethoven’s music have been revealed as never before, writes Richard Osborne

Having his own state-of-the art Vocalion gramophone led Compton Mackenzie to found not only The Gramophone magazine in 1923 but also the National Gramophonic Society – whose first recording was of a work by Beethoven 
Having his own state-of-the art Vocalion gramophone led Compton Mackenzie to found not only The Gramophone magazine in 1923 but also the National Gramophonic Society – whose first recording was of a work by Beethoven 

There are moments in history when art and technology come together in a way that borders on the providential. One such moment occurred in 1926-27 when the arrival of electronic microphone-made recording coincided with the centenary of the death of one of the world’s most famous composers, Ludwig van Beethoven.

As early as 1805 Beethoven was Europe’s most talked-about composer. What rendered him unique, however, was the rise and rise of his posthumous reputation. Even with works as seemingly abstruse as the late string quartets, it was not only writers and musicians but also the public at large who sensed that this was great music and they knew what he meant. As Ernest Newman put it in a letter to Elgar in 1919: ‘The music … is so heart-searching because we know it runs all the time along the quickest nerves of our life, our struggles & aspirations & sufferings & exaltations.’

By the 1840s Beethoven was also being seen as a man whose achievements involved a moral dimension that went beyond music. Even now the idea persists that the ‘great’ Beethoven interpreters are those who in some way or another engage that dimension.

By 1926 Beethoven was, by some distance, Britain’s most recorded composer in long-form piano and chamber music

The 1927 centenary produced several fine studies – JWN Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development and Newman’s own flawed but fascinating The Unconscious Beethoven prime among them; but it also spawned a number of revisionist polemics. One such came from Edward J Dent, professor of music at the University of Cambridge, who declared that much of Beethoven’s music was ‘old hat’. He also declared the man himself to be a public nuisance, the kind of fellow who blocks out other people’s light.

Not that such polemics cut much ice with the listening public. Newly enfranchised by the wireless and the wonders of microphone-made recording, the man in the street was in no mood to take advice from an overeducated don.


The year 1923, which saw John Reith take control of the newly founded British Broadcasting Company, was the year in which novelist and man-of-affairs Compton Mackenzie founded The Gramophone. He had recently acquired a state-of-the-art Vocalion gramophone, only to discover that knowing where to acquire records of ‘good’ music was no easy matter. Catalogues were mainly intended for dealers; worse, little of real substance appeared to have been recorded.

Beethoven pioneers: Berlin Philharmonic and Nikisch (Bridgeman Images)

Mackenzie knew HMV’s 1913 Berlin recording of the Fifth Symphony conducted by Arthur Nikisch; but, in 1922, it was the only complete recording of a classical symphony in the company’s catalogue. As for gramophone-friendly chamber music, though the rival Columbia label had published some semi-complete recordings, HMV appeared to have none. Not a man to stand idly by, Mackenzie now added to his quiver by founding the National Gramophonic Society (NGS), a private subscription-based label designed to make good some of these chamber music omissions.

We now know a great deal about the NGS thanks to a superbly documented doctoral thesis by the scholar and former BBC Radio 3 producer Nick Morgan (The National Gramophonic Society, Studies in the History of Recording, Vol 2; CRQ Editions: 2016). As Morgan’s researches reveal, by 1926 Beethoven was, by some distance, Britain’s most recorded composer as far as long-form piano and chamber music were concerned. It comes as no surprise, then, that when Mackenzie launched the NGS in late 1924, he did so with a complete recording of Beethoven’s Harp Quartet. Two other Beethoven quartets followed, chosen by ballot by NGS subscribers: Rasumovsky Quartet No 1 and, to mark the centenary itself, the last quartet, Op 135.

The Busch Quartet (Bridgeman Images)

This would prove to be something of a golden age for the Beethoven quartets on record, crowned by the widely revered recordings of the five late quartets which the Busch Quartet made in London and New York between 1933 and 1941. Sadly, the gramophone can be fickle in its affections. By 1950, only 10 of Beethoven’s 17 string quartets were readily available on record, none of them in a recommendable version. Writing in the 1955 edition of The Record Guide, Edward Sackville-West noted: ‘More and more we find ourselves getting down from the shelves our older sets, recorded by the Busch, the Budapest and the Léner Quartets, and listening to them with a pleasure enhanced (and made poignant) by the rarity with which such playing is heard these days.’

Things improved during the 1960s as the Amadeus became, for some, the Beethoven quartet of choice; though it was not until the early 1970s that collectors sensed that a new golden age was about to dawn.


In July 1927, Mackenzie wrote a three-page feature: ‘My Suggestions for Getting Beethoven Records’. Two things were uppermost in his mind: the need to dispense up-to-date advice on recommendable recordings and the need to stagger costs at a time when records remained something of a luxury item. (It’s estimated that out of the £160 average annual wage of a typical collector around £4 would have been spent on records.)

With the gramophone holding a mirror to all forms of eccentricity, fidelity to the score became the thing – the new battleground

Take the centenary month itself, March 1927. Frederic Lamond’s recording of the Pathétique Sonata could be bought for 13s, Albert Coates’s Eroica was priced at 39s, and Felix Weingartner’s new Columbia recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a hefty 52s. Polydor imports were less expensive (Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1926 Beethoven Fifth was 10s cheaper than Coates’s Eroica) though not necessarily good value. In order to market Richard Strauss’s superb 1926 Berlin account of the Seventh Symphony as a conventional four-disc set, Polydor put the finale onto a single side, courtesy of a ruinously quick tempo and a 171-bar cut.

Mackenzie began his 1927 recommendations with the Waldstein Sonata (the Lamond recording at 19s 6d) and the Fifth Symphony conducted by Landon Ronald (26s). Remembering being told that the opening of the Fifth Symphony represented fate knocking on the door, he predicted that such an explanation would have the ‘power to waylay the imagination of youth for a long time to come’. Nor was he far wrong. My own first record, bought after a fortnight packing frozen peas during a school holiday in 1959, was a 10-inch Columbia LP of the symphony conducted by Otto Klemperer. Naturally, I’d pondered with care Andrew Porter’s (glowing) Gramophone review (11/56) before parting with my 29s 6d.


The 1929 stock market crash cost the recording industry dear. The NGS didn’t survive, but the idea of purchase by subscription did. For gramophone pioneer Fred Gaisberg, now senior producer at the newly formed conglomerate EMI, this was the ideal marketing tool with which to tempt collectors interested in building their own bespoke libraries. The company’s Hugo Wolf Society edition, masterminded by Walter Legge, had been an unexpected success. Now, in 1932, Gaisberg turned his attention to Beethoven: a ‘Society Edition’ designed to deliver over five years a complete cycle of the 32 piano sonatas.

Gaisberg (left) persuaded Schnabel (right) to record all the Beethoven piano sonatas (Tully Potter Collection)

The pianist was Artur Schnabel, a musician famously opposed to the gramophone (‘the nature of a performance is to be heard but once’) but a revered Beethovenian. Never having recorded for anything other than a mechanical piano roll, he was tested to the limit by the ordeal. (The records belie what was an astonishing technique, Claudio Arrau later told me.) Ordeal or not, the cycle was a landmark in the history of the gramophone which sold in significant numbers not only to private collectors but to gramophone societies and schools up and down the land.

Curiously, the strategy, or a variant of it, would not be used again for a major Beethoven project until Deutsche Grammophon invested 1.5m Deutschmarks in the now legendary set of the nine symphonies which Herbert von Karajan recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-62. Numerous conductors from Weingartner onwards had recorded all nine symphonies, yet this was the first time in the history of the gramophone that a cycle had been recorded and marketed as an organically conceived entity.

Legge, who was Karajan’s close collaborator during his years with EMI, predicted a ‘colossal financial catastrophe’. In the event, it was anything but, such was the prestige of the project and the exceptional quality of everything about it: the music-making, the engineering and DG’s famously silent vinyl pressings. The cycle sold over a million copies within its first decade, 10 times the original break-even estimate.


In a career that spanned two centuries and the great Classical–Romantic divide, Beethoven made his name both as an old-style improviser and as the creator of a line of set-in-stone masterworks. How best to play such music had been work-in-progress since the start of the 19th century; and in 1927 there were at least two generations of musicians who could claim to be the heirs of that process. One such figure was the young Arrau. When Schnabel died in 1951, Arrau recalled his adherence to the printed page: ‘He was the first celebrated performer to illustrate the concept – strangely enough, a new one at the time [my emphasis] – of the interpreter as the servant of music rather than the exploiter of it.’

With the arrival of the LP, the first great composer anniversary comprehensively to be celebrated once again featured Beethoven

By 1927 this was, indeed, the new battleground. With the gramophone holding a mirror to all forms of eccentricity, fidelity to the score became the thing, powerfully abetted by the new ideology Neue Sachlichkeit (‘new functionalism’ or ‘new objectivity’), which held sway in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and ’30s. This, too, was gramophone friendly. As Yehudi Menuhin later observed: ‘A recording does not bear hearing more than a few times, if you can predict, not the note, but the interpreter’s private twist or change or eccentricity.’

The ‘new objectivity’ was well served by the likes of Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, pianist Wilhelm Backhaus and others. Only later did the concept turn quasi-scientific as conductors began treating Beethoven’s often fallible metronome marks as articles of faith. The locus classicus of this obsession came in the form of a high-speed – and, it has to be said, utterly dazzling – recording of the Eighth Symphony which Hermann Scherchen, an unrepentant modernist, made with Sir Thomas Beecham’s RPO for the British Nixa company in 1954.

Others were more pragmatic. Klemperer, a convinced new objectivist, never let ideology interfere with his own instinctive feel for the scale and rock-like integrity of Beethoven’s every utterance or with his own ability to take some of Beethoven’s greatest works – Fidelio, Missa solemnis, the Ninth Symphony – to hitherto barely known heights.

The pianist Wilhelm Kempff, another legend of the gramophone, was too intuitive a musician, too much a poet and dreamer, ever to be classed as a new objectivist. True, his ability to clarify textures with sharp dynamic contrasts and astonishingly clean articulation was integral to his craft. But the beguiling mix of freshness and rigour he brought to Beethoven’s music derived in some measure from his endlessly inventive way with those ornamentations – appoggiaturas, trills, turns – which are the lifeblood of Beethoven’s pianistic discourse. A Heinrich Barth pupil (as was Artur Rubinstein, a comparably great Beethoven pianist in chamber music and those sonatas he chose to play), Kempff was versed in many schools but an adherent of none.

Wilhelm Kempff brought a beguiling mix of freshness and rigour to Beethoven’s music (APR Recordings)

No one spoke ill of Kempff. Arrau, an altogether more embattled Beethovenian, thought the world of him, as did Schnabel, who instructed that Kempff should complete HMV’s Beethoven Society Edition of sonatas if he himself failed to do so. In fact, Kempff had been recording the sonatas for Polydor since 1925. British audiences barely knew his name, but Gramophone readers lucky enough to possess any one of those inter-war Polydor recordings often thought him nonpareil.

It is a sad fact that Furtwängler, unadvisedly perhaps, did his best to avoid the recording studio. His readings, long pondered and rigorously thought through, were never improvised; what they did have, however, was a capacity to give the impression of the music being recreated afresh at each new hearing. He was himself a composer, as was Leonard Bernstein, whose love of Beethoven was rooted in what he saw as the music’s potent mix of inevitability and unpredictability – a paradigm of life itself, said Bernstein.

Bernstein’s eccentrically recorded and occasionally rudely played 1960s New York Philharmonic cycle of the nine symphonies offers a real roller-coaster ride. However, it’s his 1960 account of the Missa solemnis that most stays in the mind. At the time, Bernstein was gestating his own Kaddish Symphony. Born of a moral and religious crisis in his own life, this too, in its final pages, is both a song of thanksgiving and a prayer for spiritual rebirth in a troubled age.


It was WH Auden’s contention that all great works of art exhibit two qualities: their Nowness, something any competent historian can accurately date, and their Permanence: what survives long after the work’s maker and society have ceased to exist. When the historically aware period-instrument movement came along (natural successor to new objectivism), Nowness was all.

By the 1980s, the gramophone needed such a movement, if for no other reason than to refresh the catalogue and sell more Beethoven. But how? Once again, piano music thrived, as a new generation of keyboard builders, and period performers such as Steven Lubin and Robert Levin, allowed us both to re-enact the journey Beethoven himself had taken, and better to understand it. The string quartet repertory, for reasons too complex to go into here, proved more problematic. This left the choral works, their fortunes already transformed by specialist choirs and a revolution in choral techniques, and the symphonies themselves.

Here it is Roger Norrington’s work that best stands the test of time. Undistracted, as some were, by such variables as orchestra size, contemporary pitch and so on, Norrington insisted that the only absolutes were speeds, note lengths, bowing and phrasing. Of these, speed was the most problematic, though as Richard Taruskin noted in his essay ‘The New Antiquity’, Norrington’s strength lay in his refusal to ask whether the printed markings were ‘suitable’. Rather, he ‘assumes they are … after which it’s a case of stripping down and imagining afresh articulation, phrasing and balance’. Less successful – indeed, it’s one of the afflictions of the modern age – would be the move to invite all orchestras to adopt a vibrato-light ‘period’ style irrespective of the music in hand or the orchestra’s own sometimes comparably ‘informed’ performing history. One consequence has been the near-death of legato playing. (Beethoven was revered for his legato playing, even on the instruments of the 1790s.) Creating a true legato, said Furtwängler, was a conductor’s greatest challenge. Without it, no music can truly sing.


Anniversary editions of great composers were a non-starter in the days of shellac records. The discs were bulky, playing time limited and repertory insufficiently developed. The arrival of the LP came too late for Bach’s 1950 bicentenary and, indeed, for the Mozart bicentenary in 1956. So the first great composer anniversary comprehensively to be celebrated by the gramophone once again featured Beethoven: the bicentenary of his birth in 1970.

That 1970 bicentenary was spearheaded by Deutsche Grammophon, Germany’s leading record label and the world’s best funded, thanks to inspired leadership and to the wealth accrued during post-war West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’. Not everyone was impressed by DG’s grand 20-volume edition. Thomas Heinitz, a senior reviewer on Records and Recording,for which I wrote at the time, harrumphed that the one composer who didn’t need to be thus fêted was Beethoven, since ‘every worthwhile piece of music he wrote has been recorded’. This rather invited the question: who decides what is worthwhile?

Karajan: whose 1961-62 symphony cycle was the first to be conceived as a single entity (Siegfried Lauterwasser/DG)

In the event, DG assembled recordings of the entire mainstream repertory, often commissioning new recordings (the Kempff, Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier piano trios, for instance) where older ones were deemed unsuitable. There was also a great deal of infill, beginning with Beethoven’s very first piece ‘without opus’, the Ritterballett (‘Knight’s Ballet’) of 1791. Not that this appeared in 1970. Having secured a 1969 performance of rare urbanity and grace from Heribert Ritter von Karajan (as, appropriately, he was baptised) and the chamber musicians of his Berlin Philharmonic, DG held it over until the company’s second great Beethoven edition in 1997.

As that 1997 edition showed, not everything had been recorded by 1970. The world still awaited a representative recording of Leonore (Fidelio in embryo), and the vocal music continued to be poorly represented. Beethoven has not gone down in history as the singer’s friend, yet it’s an earnest mark of his genius that his vocal output contains one world-changing initiative: music’s first through-composed song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, of which Peter Schreier has made at least one near definitive recording. It takes taste and curiosity to revive Beethoven’s more neglected songs, as Anne Sofie von Otter would later do, or Cecilia Bartoli with Beethoven’s Italian settings. And then there are those astonishing folk song arrangements to which the 1997 DG edition devoted an unmissable seven-CD anthology.


Nowadays, it’s probable that everything has been recorded, much of it well recorded, and some of it recorded beyond all commercial reason. It’s amusing to look back to December 1931 and find The Gramophone asking why, in times of financial stringency, we should think of investing in a second recording of the quartet Op 59 No 1 when we already have the excellent Léner version.

What has changed beyond all recognition over the past 50 years is the rediscovery and expert resuscitation of more than a century of recorded history. As Sir Colin Davis said of Arrau in Berlin in the 1920s, ‘There would have been so many minds around at that time, and so much could be taken from these minds.’ Thanks to the gramophone, those minds speak to us still.

‘One of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts’, wrote Auden, ‘is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead. Without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.’ What he said of the arts in general can equally be applied to the gramophone. Beethoven would be with us still, with or without the gramophone. What the medium does, however, in its role as civilisation’s ‘recording angel’, is preserve for us the work of those legions of musicians who, in a thousand different ways, have down the years borne witness to the still-living wonder that is Ludwig van Beethoven.


Symphonies Nos 1-9

Berlin PO / Karajan (r1961-62)

DG (2/63)

The exceptional quality, both musical and technical, of this, the first set of the nine in the history of the gramophone to be released as a single cycle, took the symphonies to audiences old and new across the globe; and did so in well-assimilated readings that refuse to date. 

Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Kempff pf Berlin PO / Van Kempen (r1953)

DG (10/03)

Whereas Artur Schnabel disliked recording, his revered younger contemporary Wilhelm Kempff relished it: witness his complete mono (1950s) and stereo (1960s) cycles of the 32 sonatas and five concertos. The earlier sets possibly have the edge but, either way, Kempff’s Beethoven should be in any library.

Late String Quartets

Busch Quartet (r1933-41)

Warner (8/99)

Here only the best will do, and that, history tells us, is the Busch Quartet. ‘One of the great idealists of present-day music’ is how Fritz Kreisler described Adolf Busch himself. Hear the quartet in the Cavatina of Op 130, over which Beethoven is said to have wept as he wrote.

Complete Piano Sonatas

Schnabel pf (r1932-37)

Warner (12/16)

Nowhere do we have so complete a portrait of Beethoven the man and the musician than in the 32 sonatas written between 1793 and 1822. Yet it was a portrait that lay largely hidden from general view until the arrival of the gramophone and this pioneering exploration by Artur Schnabel.



Ludwig mez Vickers ten et al; Philharmonia Chor & Orch / Klemperer

Warner (6/62)

In those works – Fidelio, Missa solemnis and the Ninth – where Beethoven engages closely with politics and spirituality, Otto Klemperer had few rivals. His 1951 Vienna recording of Missa solemnis (6/53; now an Archiphon download) and his 1962 recording of Fidelio are without peer.

Period-instrument performances

ORR / Gardiner et al

DG Archiv

There can be no better overview of the insights afforded by historically informed Beethoven performance than this timely reissue of John Eliot Gardiner’s complete Beethoven recordings with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Robert Levin’s accounts of the keyboard concertos are of especial interest.

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today!

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