BEETHOVEN: THE NINE SYMPHONIES and Summary of Recordings
Berlin Philharmoniker, Claudio
Karita Mattila, Violetta Urmana, Thomas Moser, Thomas Quasthoff, Swedish
DG 469 000-2 5 discs
(only available as a boxed set), Full
US (released Nov 21st)
Wiener Philharmoniker, Stockholm
Philharmonic & Chor & Orchester der Bayreuth Festspiele, Wilhelm
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Hongen, Hans Hopf, Otto Edelmann
EMI CHS5 67496 2 5
discs (only available as a boxed set), Bargain
Claudio Abbado has waited until the final years of his tenure with the Berlin
Philharmonic to record the complete Beethoven symphonies - and the result
is one of the greatest integral cycles ever recorded.
The cycle is not without its flaws - the Eroica is somewhat lightweight -
but the best of the cycle rival the very best recordings ever made. The Ninth
is simply astonishing, a white-heat interpretation that generates enormous
passion and excitement - and one that is some 12 minutes faster than
Furtwangler's Bayreuth recording, just reissued as part of a remastered EMI
set of the complete symphonies. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh are dramatic
and tense, the First and Second symphonies, with smaller orchestral forces,
deliciously Romantic, and rightly retrospective. The Fourth and Eighth,
symphonies that are juxtaposed between gargantuan masterpieces of invention,
are every bit as great as recordings made of these works by Carlos Kleiber
Abbado uses the new Beethoven edition by Jonathan Del Mar - although not,
it must be said, in its entirety. The results are revelatory because Abbado
has been forced to re-examine all the symphonies and has approached them
with renewed motivation and enthusiasm. This is a cycle that has freshness
written all over it and Abbado has clearly taken on board many of Del Mar's
suggestions in relation to dynamics, phrasing, the differences between legato
and non-legato etc. There are deviations - notably in the Ninth where Abbado
keeps with earlier editions. The first movement's second theme at bar 81,
for example, remains f"- b flat" rather than Del Mar's suggestion of f" -
d". Abbado also reduces the forces he uses for some of the works so the effect
becomes more like chamber playing - three basses, four celli, six violas,
eight second and ten first violins in the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth
symphonies and tempi are more fluid, less expansive, than normal. In the
Ninth Abbado takes the adagio almost like an andante - although, as with
Furtwangler, there are sharp deviations of tempi at certain moments, such
as Abbado's pacing of the second variation which is slower than the general
tempi suggests. The andante of the Sixth is flowing, and in the First and
Second symphonies Abbado takes the minuet sections reasonably broadly, not
liked the scherzos they can often become.
If one looks at the timings for these first two symphonies one can see exactly
how Furtwangler and Abbado approach the logistics of tempo. Furtwangler's
minuet for the First is 3'55, Abbado's 4'13, and in the adagio Furtwangler
paces more slowly at 6'19 against Abbado's more fluid 5'18. Is one right
and one wrong? The answer must be a categorical no given that Beethoven's
metronome markings were often considered technically flawed, even too fast.
If Abbado is nearer to Beethoven's tempi it is not, as in some authentically
driven performances, at the expense of the transparency of the writing. If
Furtwangler is quicker than marked, or significantly slower (as he always
was in Beethoven's adagios) it is not at the expense of removing sense from
Beethoven's notation. Both are viable - and, in this case, both are often
The two Beethoven symphonies that are most closely associated with Furtwangler
are the Third and Ninth - and in both cases he has left a single recording
that sits at the apex of all recorded interpretations of those works. Both
Furtwangler and Abbado take the allegro con brio of the Eroica at almost
identical speeds, but thereafter the differences are considerable. In
Furtwangler's studio Eroica with the Vienna Philharmonic the Marcia Funebre
is timed at 17'21 against Abbado's 14'16, a timing still considerably faster
then Herbert von Karajan's first recording of the work in 1944. Abbado's
Eroica sounds less revolutionary than the work actually is being more directly
comparable with the Second than in either Furtwangler's or Karajan's case.
It makes it the only disappointment in this set.
The Ninth sees the conductors poles apart but, oddly, producing similarly
electrifying results. Abbado's recording is most similar to Furtwangler's
legendary 1942 performance - but does not have that recordings almost unhinged
anger. Furtwangler's Bayreuth performance is pantheistic, no less so than
in the sublime adagio which he measures out to a considerably weighty 19'32.
Compare this with Abbado who takes 12'48 and you might expect the performances
to be like Jekyll and Hyde. Astonishingly, this is not the case at all with
Abbado producing a similar weight of tone and suppleness of emotion.
Furtwangler's quartet of soloists were always magnificent, but Abbado's are
equally impressive. Thomas Quasthoff is perhaps more baritonal in tone, but
is still majestic in his phrasing. And despite the wide disparities in tempo,
both conductors end this symphony in a typically uplifting, electrifying
The truly great performance in Abbado's set I could not easily live without
would be the performance of the Seventh. Not only is the playing astonishingly
refined, the tempi seem to me almost ideal. Both the Fifth and Sixth symphonies
approach this level of greatness, but with the Seventh Abbado achieves miracles
of clarity - superbly balanced woodwind, dynamics of almost pure balance,
and a final movement that restores Beethoven's tempi markings to somewhere
near their norm.
DG have given Abbado a magnificent recording for this set - weighty, but
at the same time incredibly translucent. EMI's remastering of the Furtwangler
set is, to these ears, no different from earlier reincarnations of these
recordings. The playing in the Abbado set has a Berlin Philharmonic on
world-class form, playing with a greater sense of understanding, and enjoyment,
of these works than in any of Karajan's three cycles with the same orchestra.
Furtwangler's Vienna Philharmonic is often in a class of its own with a depth
of tone one hardly ever hears today. The Bayreuth Orchestra is more than
fallible, and the Stockholm Philharmonic is outclassed in very department.
Abbado's set is one for the Twenty First Century - and one that I do not
see being easily surpassed (even though we still have Sir Simon Rattle's
complete set with the Vienna Philharmonic to come). More even than almost
any complete cycle, it will probably become a first choice for many. I urge
everyone to sample at least some of the symphonies in this set - starting
with the Seventh.
A Selected Beethoven Symphony Discography
All the following discs are available and can be searched for and purchased
on the Crotchet database
Since it is very rare to find two complete Beethoven sets under review at
the same time I thought it helpful to provide a personal list of those Beethoven
performances that should make up the ideal collection.
Complete sets of the Nine under any one conductor are probably best avoided
because the results are always less than consistent.
Claudio Abbado comes nearer than almost anyone
else in giving us a wonderfully integrated complete cycle, but I would not
want to be without Herbert von Karajan's EMI
set [available as an import] which he recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra
in the 1950s. The best of these symphonies (all the odd numbered ones) can
still stand comparison with the best and the playing of the Philharmonia,
if not always as precise as the Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan's first Berlin
set (1961-2), is often more invigorating. Sir Charles
Mackerras' set, recorded in Liverpool, over several years, is often
electrifying and always compelling. It is available at bargain price. Another
super-bargain set is Andre Cluyten's cycle with
the Berlin Philharmonic, often over looked but often inspirational.
Great recordings of this symphony are few and far between.
Arturo Toscanini made an electrifying recording
with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (coupled with a magnificent Eroica) and available
on BMG as part of the Toscanini Edition. Herbert von Karajan's 1977 recording
is highly disciplined (perhaps too much so) but it is polished and refined.
Bruno Walter's First (coupled with a highly
controversial Second Symphony) is also extremely memorable. It is available
on Sony as part of their Bruno Walter Edition.
Otto Klemperer's Philharmonia recording is a weighty and taut performance
(on EMI) and is one of the more eclectic performances of this symphony. Klemperer
perhaps sees more of the Eroica in this symphony than any other interpreter.
Sir Charles Mackerras' recording (from his complete cycle) is electrifying
in ways that Klemperer's performance is not. Between them they are the alpha
and omega of the Second symphony.
Third Symphony (Eroica)
This great (and revolutionary) work has produced some outstanding recordings.
Top of the list is Wilhelm Furtwangler's 1952
recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, a high octane, visionary performance.
This is on the newly released complete set. A perhaps greater, though more
controversial, performance is the 1944 Eroica (on Music & Arts) - a noble
and compelling reading. Otto Klemperer's first Philharmonia version made
in 1956 (in mono) is truly great - although less granite-like than his later
1961 version. Von Karajan's 1944 Eroica, recorded in war-torn Germany, has
superb sound and is volatile. It is on Koch. The grandest, and most sublime
performance to reach disc, is Sergiu Celibidache's
live Munich account - a performance of such weight and transparency it is
often very difficult to listen to with uncritical ears. Toscanini's account
(coupled with the First, above) is magnificent but has problems with tempi
I find unpersuasive.
Bruno Walter's Fourth, on Sony, is as beautiful as they come. This is a
performance of magnificent intensity. Carlos
Kleiber's live Fourth with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
from 1975, and on Golden Melodram, is beautifully articulated. Again, Mackerras
offers a sublime interpretation of this symphony - one taken at fast speeds,
but with profound definition.
Kleiber's Vienna Philharmonic performance has always been recommendable (even
if the famous opening motif is not played as written). Klemperer's EMI mono
account with the Philharmonia, recorded in the 1950s, is unsurpassed for
the power and masculinity he alone brings to the Beethoven symphonies. Karajan's
Philharmonia account is also extremely fine. Claudio Abbado offers a performance
of electrifying proportions.
Karl Bohm's famous recording of this symphony often leaves its rivals
floundering. It has superb playing from the Vienna Philharmonic.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, a surprisingly perceptive
Beethoven interpreter, is lyrical and intense in this work with beautifully
captured Philharmonia playing. Abbado offers a storm of terrifying proportions.
Carlos Kleiber, in two recordings, one with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG,
the other with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on Golden Melodram,
almost corners the market in this symphony. Both are intense and dramatic
interpretations. Claudio Abbado is electrifying and is rewarded by superlative
orchestral playing. An oft-forgotten performance is Sir
Colin Davis' with the Royal Philharmonic. Made in 1961, this is a
strong, masculine, weighty performance at once beautifully controlled and
Klemperesque in its architecture. All three of Klemperer's Philharmonia versions
are highly recommendable.
Coming between the Seventh and Ninth, such strong symphonies, the Eighth
has not been lucky on record. Klemperer's Philharmonia version is heavy and
dragging, but Claudio Abbado seems to get the balance perfect. The best Eighth
is Furtwangler's April 1953 Berlin performance - a performance that seems
to encompass the worlds of rage and repose totally naturally. The Stockholm
recording (on the complete set) is the one serious let down in this EMI cycle.
The Ninth can be such a cataclysmic work few conductors do it justice. Wilhelm
Furtwangler did - on numerous occasions. His greatest recording is his last
- the Lucerne Festival recording with a Philharmonia Orchestra on astonishing
form for him. The beauty of this interpretation, the solemnity of the adagio,
the fire of the closing movement are impossible to convey in words. It stands
head and shoulders above any other Ninth ever recorded - including the over-rated
Bayreuth Ninth. His 1942 Ninth is a catastrophic interpretation to be listened
to once, but not often thereafter. It has an electricity many find compelling,
and many find it unbearable. Claudio Abbado comes closer than most recent
interpreters in matching Furtwangler's visionary conception of this work.
His recording, in the best possible sound, should now be a clear first choice
for those interested in a great, sonic Ninth. Herbert von Karajan's 1977
Ninth is deeply spiritual and almost eruptive at the close. Karl Bohm, in
a slow, often restless, but profound, Ninth offers a very different type
of reading - but one that is still unendingly fascinating. A live Klemperer
performance with the Philharmonia, on Testament, is more dramatic than his
studio recording - if ultimately less beautiful.