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BEETHOVEN: THE NINE SYMPHONIES and Summary of Recordings

Berlin Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
Karita Mattila, Violetta Urmana, Thomas Moser, Thomas Quasthoff, Swedish Radio Choir.
DG 469 000-2 5 discs (only available as a boxed set), Full Price
  Amazon UK  Amazon US  (released Nov 21st)

Wiener Philharmoniker, Stockholm Philharmonic & Chor & Orchester der Bayreuth Festspiele, Wilhelm Furtwangler
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Hongen, Hans Hopf, Otto Edelmann
EMI CHS5 67496 2 5 discs (only available as a boxed set), Bargain Price

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 and Furtwangler.

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 revelatory.

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 manner.

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.

Marc Bridle

A Selected Beethoven Symphony Discography

All the following discs are available and can be searched for  and purchased on the Crotchet database

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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.

First Symphony

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.

Second Symphony

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.

Fourth Symphony

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.

Fifth Symphony

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.

Sixth Symphony

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.

Seventh Symphony

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.

Eighth Symphony

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.

Ninth Symphony

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.

Marc Bridle

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