The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 2 (updated 2019)
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Continuing our traversal of the finest Beethoven recordings, from the Violin Concerto to the symphonies...
James Ehnes vn Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze
This interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto could be considered ‘old school’ by today’s standards. Indeed, if you’ve heard Manze’s sinewy account of the Eroica Symphony (Harmonia Mundi, 5/08), the rich, warm sound of the RLPO strings here may come as a surprise, though it’s a perfect complement to the soloist’s sweet-toned, Apollonian approach.
Technically, Ehnes’s playing is a marvel. The various extended trills in the first movement are so lightly and evenly articulated as to suggest a heart aflutter. He can whip up excitement, as he does with finely honed precision in the two Kreisler cadenzas. But, really, it’s his – and Manze’s – thoughtfulness and patience that make this recording so satisfying. Even in the cadenzas, the exhilaration comes as much from Ehnes’s gradual building of tension as from his virtuosity. Note, too, how he integrates himself into the orchestral part. Just after the first exquisite trill, for instance, where the music turns to the minor mode (at 5'32"), his playing suddenly becomes more subdued and deliberate, as if he were providing a running commentary, sotto voce, to the orchestral argument. And again, in the finale, he pulls back at 3'38" so he’s accompanying the bassoon’s melody rather than dancing on top of it ...
Jascha Heifetz vn NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini
‘An old diamond in the rough’ is how Robert C Marsh (Toscanini and the Art of Orchestra Performance; London: 1956) recalled the original Victor 78s of this 1940 Heifetz Studio 8-H recording of the Beethoven. Of the LP reissue he wrote: ‘On the whole, the recording is so dead and artificial that at times the thin line of violin sound reminds one of something from the golden age of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil cylinder rather than 1940.’ Early CD transfers suggested that all was not lost but even they barely anticipated the extraordinary fineness of the sound we now have on this transfer by archivist and restorer Mark Obert-Thorn.
The performance itself is one of the most remarkable the gramophone has ever given us. The visionary, high tessitura violin writing is realised by Heifetz with a technical surety which is indistinguishable, in the final analysis, from his sense of the work as one of Beethoven’s most sublime explorations of that world (in Schiller’s phrase) ‘above the stars where He must dwell’. Those who would query the ‘depth’ of Heifetz’s reading miss this point entirely. To adapt Oscar Wilde, it is they who are in the gutter, Heifetz who is looking at the stars ...
David Oistrakh vn Mstislav Rostropovich vc Sviatoslav Richter pf Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
These are illustrious performances and make a splendid coupling at mid-price. EMI planned for a long time to assemble this starry line-up of soloists, conductor and orchestra for Beethoven's Triple Concerto, and the artists do not disappoint, bringing sweetness as well as strength to a work which in lesser hands can sound clumsy and long-winded. The recording, made in a Berlin church in 1969, is warm, spacious and well balanced, placing the soloists in a gentle spotlight. Indeed, the sound need make no apology for its age, and since we also hear playing of effortless mastery this disc would be worth the money for this work alone. Christopher Headington (July 1993)
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stravinsky called Beethoven's Grosse Fuge ''that absolutely contemporary work that will be contemporary for ever''. Looking over what has happened in Beethoven performance in the concert-hall and on record over the last two or three years I've had the growing feeling that the same is true of the symphonies. Just when everybody seemed to be saying that the mighty nine had been worked to death, along came Christopher Hogwood, Frans Bruggen and that provocateur par excellence Roger Norrington to shake us out of our complacency. Then, last month, came confirmation in Gunter Wand's Eroica that the traditional-classical approach can still be roundly satisfying.
And now this – a new Beethoven cycle which manages to combine the shock of the new with an uncanny sense of familiarity. Harnoncourt doesn't pretend that what he offers is Beethoven as the composer imagined it. With the exception of the trumpets, the instruments are all modern, and while phrasing, rhythmic articulation, expression and balance reveal Harnoncourt's rigorous and passionate pursuit of historical truth, the results neither sound nor feel like anything offered under that banner before. Right from the start—the slow introduction to the First Symphony – the feeling that emerges through the finely differentiated phrasing is surprising in its intensity ...
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig / Riccardo Chailly
The fact that the classic impulse vies with the Romantic throughout Beethoven’s nine symphonies presents a perennial problem to would-be interpreters. Klemperer came as close as any conductor to enabling both impulses to inhabit a single style. Elsewhere Romantics vie with the Classicists, while the temporisers, sailing under various flags of convenience, attempt assorted syntheses of their own. Riccardo Chailly’s first recorded Beethoven cycle shows him to be a Classicist through and through. This is no surprise given the classicising tendency of the Toscanini-led Italian school of Beethoven performance. There are classicising tendencies in Leipzig too. It was Mendelssohn who set the Gewandhaus Beethoven agenda in the 1840s, aspects of which have never entirely disappeared. When Kurt Masur recorded the symphonies in the 1970s, Robert Layton wrote in these columns of an orchestra that was consistently sensitive in its responses, its expression unforced, the overall sonority beautifully weighted and eminently cultured.
You can hear music-making of comparable pedigree at the start of the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. Chailly’s tempo is swift. But just as Toscanini’s marginally slower tempo never loses a sense of forward impulse, so Chailly’s never seems hurried. There is also a lovely Italianate cantabile which period strings would find it impossible (and possibly undesirable) to match, and which you will look for in vain in Simon Rattle’s Vienna Philharmonic account, where the orchestra suffers the double burden of an inordinately slow tempo and the imposition of an astringent “period” sonority on its own natural sound. Under Chailly the Leipzig players never sound less than their eloquent selves ...
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons
This is an exceptional realisation of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, one of those rare occasions when one is left with a feeling of having been in the presence of the thing itself. The key to the cycle’s success is the quality of the musicianship. Thanks to Mariss Jansons’s expert schooling of his superb Bavarian musicians in works which continue to enthral, move and entertain him, the dramatic and expressive elements are derived from within rather than – as is often the case with lesser conductors – imposed from without.
The project comes to us in two distinct forms. The ArtHaus DVDs give us the nine symphonies luminously and unfussily filmed live in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. By contrast, Bavarian Radio’s six-CD set intermingles the symphonies (also mainly recorded live in Tokyo) with six newly commissioned ‘reflections’ on them by living composers.
From the information provided by ArtHaus it’s impossible to say to what extent the different versions overlap. The Tokyo performances on CD and DVD are self-evidently from the same cycle, though not I suspect from the same performances. To complicate matters further, two performances on the CD set – the Eroica and the Pastoral – were recorded live in Munich’s Herkulessaal shortly before the Japanese tour. Not that the Tokyo performances of the Eroica and Pastoral we have on DVD are necessarily inferior. (I marginally prefer them. They are a touch broader yet, paradoxically, a degree or two tauter.) ...
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Le Chambre Philharmonique / Emmanuel Krivine
In providing us with this vital, keenly played and always engaging new period-instrument Beethoven cycle, Emmanuel Krivine is effectively challenging what has in recent years become an all-too-familiar template of sleek, bloodless lines and fast-lane tempi. I would imagine that the texts (or urtexts) used are the ones prepared for Bärenreiter by Jonathan Del Mar: the signs include muted strings in the Pastoral Symphony’s “Scene by the Brook” and a solo cello in the third movement of the Eighth.
More important overall is Krivine’s preference for flexible phrasing, even as early as 2’21” into the first movement of the First Symphony, where the subtle but significant easing of tempo as the line bends reminded me of Toscanini with the BBC Symphony Orchestra back in 1937. Time and again, spatially divided violin desks make musical sense, especially as the recording captures their antiphonal banter so brilliantly.
Krivine knows how to slam a Beethovenian sforzando without breaking glass, and his canny sense of musical timing brings a real buzz to (for example) the first movement of the Second Symphony. He knows how to let the music breathe, too – where to put on the pressure and where to ease off again: the Eroica’s first movement is lithe and stealthy, with delicate detail but plenty of well-targeted power at key moments, the coda’s high-rise climax being a fair case in point. The Marcia funebre has an air of ascetic solemnity about it and Krivine’s mastery of transitions benefits the palpitating leap from Adagio to Allegro vivace in the first movement of the Fourth ...
Symphonies Nos 2 & 8
London Classical Players / Sir Roger Norrington
With this exceptionally exciting new record, Roger Norrington joins Frans Bruggen and John Eliot Gardiner among a small elite of musicians working with period instruments whose interpretations of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven can stand comparison with the best we have had on record on modern instruments during the past 20 or 30 years.
The works Norrington has selected to launch this projected Beethoven cycle are, it must be said, shrewdly chosen. They suit Norrington's temperament and musicological preoccupations unusually well. The D major Symphony is a joy from start to finish, whilst Norrington treats the F major as though it was specially written for him in an electrifying performance which challenges such distinguished versions as the 1952 NBC SO/Toscanini and the 1963 Karajan set made for DG in Berlin.
Like his revered seniors, Norrington has learnt conducting in the opera house. Though he conducts Beethoven's music with the verve of a young man who has just discovered it for the first time, he is in years (53 this month) an experienced musician with the kind of control over rhythm and argument which was always the hallmark of the very best kind of operatically trained musicians. Norrington's way with Beethoven – which is recognizably Toscaninian in some of its aspects - is mapped out in his own sleeve-note where he states as his aim the recapturing of much of "the exhilaration and sheer disturbance that his music certainly generated in his day". Like Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, and others before him, Norrington achieves this not by the imposition on the music of some world view but by taking up its immediate intellectual and physical challenges.
Norrington is not unduly preoccupied by matters of orchestral size (44 players are listed on the sleeve) or by pitch (the London Classical Players have settled for A = 430). Sound interests him a good deal. Throughout these two performances the contributions of horns, trumpets and drums most rivet the attention (the introduction to the Second Symphony's first movement is glorious); by contrast, the woodwinds have, to modern ears, an almost rustic charm, a naif quality which technology and sophisticated playing techniques have to some extent obliterated. What really fascinates Norrington, though, is rhythm and pulse and their determining agencies: 18th-century performing styles, instrumental articulacy (most notably, bowing methods), and Beethoven's own metronome markings.
In his sleeve-note annotations, Norrington is somewhat cavalier on the metronome question. Beethoven's metronome marks are printed alongside the movement titles but having set this particular hare running, Norrington declines to explain why some of his tempos fall short of those advertised. In fact, the metronomes are good in the Second Symphony, the Larghetto apart, and in the middle movements of the Eighth, but not in the Eighth's quick outer movements. That said, Norrington strives to get as near to the metronome as is humanly possible consistent with instrumental clarity. He plays the first movement of the Eighth at nearly 60 bars to the minute (the metronome is 69) which is quicker than Toscanini or Karajan; and he takes the finale at arround 74 (the metronome is 84). However, Karajan's 1962 Berlin performance (from the DG set already mentioned) is even quicker and superior in articulation, Norrington plays the Eighth Symphony's third movement as a quick dance and makes excellent sense of crotchet = 126, a marking often regarded as being beyond the pale. The second movement is spot on: as witty and exact a reading as you are likely to hear.
It must be said that at these tempos Norrington stresses the anxious, obsessive side of Beethoven's artistic make-up. I can well imagine Sir Thomas Beecham opining from some celestial vantage point that the music was quite as vital and rather wittier at his rather more considered tempos; but in Beethoven urbanity is not everything. In the Second Symphony Norrington does make the music smile and dance without any significant loss of forward momentum, and he treats the metronome marks more consistently than Toscanini (who rushed the Scherzo) or Karajan (who spins out the symphony's introduction), whilst sharing with them a belief in a really forward-moving pulse in the Larghetto (again an approach to the printed metronome if not the thing itself). On his rival L'Oiseau-Lyre disc (3/86), also played with period instruments, Hogwood broadens the slow introduction in the Karajan manner. More seriously, he lacks real control of his band. The sound he draws from his players is turgid and unwieldy and his readings seem random and cavalier alongside Norrington's astutely judged readings.
The recordings are warm and vivid and generally well balanced. The fff climax of the development of the Eighth Symphony's first movement is slightly underpowered, which is odd when the horns and trumpets are elsewhere so thrillingly caught; perhaps, in the Eighth, the recording could have been a shade tighter and drier in order better to define the playing of the London Classical Players. None the less, this is the most interesting and enjoyable new record of a Beethoven symphony I have heard for some considerable time. Richard Osborne (March, 1987)
Symphony No 3. Overtures – Leonore Nos 1 & 2
Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer
This is a great performance, steady yet purposeful, with textures that seem hewn out of granite. (Once or twice they cause a slight buzz of distortion for which EMI apologise in their booklet.) There is no exposition repeat, and the trumpets blaze out illicitly in the first movement coda, but this is still one of the great Eroicas on record. As Karajan announced to Klemperer after flying in to a concert performance around this time: 'I have come only to thank you, and say that I hope I shall live to conduct the Funeral March as well as you have done'. Richard Osborne (April, 1992)
Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
It was during Osmo Vänskä’s time with the BBC Scottish SO that his Beethoven began winning golden opinions. There was an admired recording of the Pastoral Symphony, given away with a magazine, and a Proms performance of the Seventh Symphony which David Gutman described as ‘terrifically fresh and alert’ (BBC Proms, 11/99). Vänkä’s new recording of the Fourth Symphony is that, and more. His account of the Fifth also bristles with character.
Where the Fourth is concerned, I confess to a bias in favour of readings which match Apollonian loveliness with Dionysiac drive. Toscanini blazed the trail with his glorious 1939 BBC SO recording; Karajan followed in 1962 with a Berlin performance of unimaginable grace and fire; and Rattle was not far behind with his 2002 Vienna Philharmonic account. Vänskä’s reading is comparable to these: fiery but not relentless. Metronome marks are important but not mandatory. Transparent textures and a rigorous way with dynamics also feature. Of particular interest is the skill with which Vänskä keeps the bass line, and thus the music’s harmonic contour, continuously in view, never easy to do given the ‘open’ nature of Beethoven’s scoring ...