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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) The Complete Edition
rec. 1961-2017 BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95510 [85 CDs]
In the 1980’s I use to be a regular reader of the BBC’s Listener magazine, I remember one article in particular about Mozart entitled, Mozart the 10% composer, the premise was that whilst Mozart was regarded highly, only about 10% of his music is ever heard or recorded. The article compared this statistic with Beethoven, the case being that only about 10% of his works with opus numbers was unknown and unrecorded. Now, this present incarnation of Brilliant Classics’ complete edition of the music of Beethoven more than a way of filling those 10% of gaps left in anyone’s collection, as it not only offers the composer's works without opus number, but some of the performances themselves make this a valuable set, yes, there are those recordings included here that fail to move me, but they are in the minority.
When reviewing any set like this you tend to dip in, to choose your favourite symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and so on rather than listening to the whole set, if you did it would be next year by the time it is finished. I certainly tried to do this, but with particular sections I ended up listening to all the discs. The first of these were the Symphonies (discs 1-5). I started with my favourites, Nos. 7 and 8, but whilst I found that Herbert Blomstedt had a good understanding of the music and that his forces gave an excellent performance, I found them a little slow, especially the Seventh, the slowest of the five versions I have. It was for this reason I listened to all nine, this only served to strengthen my resolve that whilst they are good performances, and that the Staatskapelle Dresden colour the works well, they are nevertheless a little pedestrian.
The symphonies are followed by some old friends, Alfred Brendel’s early 1960’s Vox recordings of the piano concertos; these bring back good memories of my teenage years when I first got to know these works. Yes, they followed the Vox principle of using a second tier orchestra and the sound is now showing its age, But this is a youthful Brendel who is full of enthusiasm for the music. These are supplemented by unusual, the piano version of the Violin Concerto and the Concerto in E flat WoO.6, both these are later recordings and do not feature Brendel and both were featured in the Romantic Piano Concerto box (95300). The recordings are bright but set against the other five, it just shows that even as a young man how much of a master of this music Alfred Brendel was.
The disc featuring the Violin Concerto and the Romances I found to be something of a letdown. Emmy Verhey performs them just too slow, whereas this is acceptable in the symphonies, here I found that the performance robbed the works of excitement, a performance easily forgotten. Especially when followed by the Triple Concerto in which Kang, Kliegle and Jandó are in fine form.
I found the music for wind ensemble to be one of the highlights of the box. The Ottetto Italiano are in excellent form and I must admit to have listened to the two discs featuring them (15 and 16) over and over again. Theirs is an exuberant performance, one that fills the music with life and a sense of enjoyment.
Jean-Pierre Rampal features in the following two discs featuring all the works for flute, not only those with and without opus numbers, but in the case of the Trio in G for three flutes, those which are highly doubtful. The performances are typical Rampal and although no recording details are given, I have a feeling that these to are from the Vox stable.
Disc 19 poses a problem for me; it presents the Septet and the Sextet Op. 81b in really fine recordings especially that of the Eben Quartet and friends in the Sextet, which despite its age, stands up well. My problem is with the Septet which is given here in the version for chamber orchestra, my question being does this constitute an authentic recording, and therefore can this set be regarded as being complete, I much prefer the original chamber version, but I will let you decide.
Of the other chamber works the Horn Sonata fares well with Farenc Tarjáni’s original Hungaroton recording being a real winner. Whilst the disc of piano quartets is another old friend, it presents the Cummings Trio and Anthony Goldstone in the wonderful recording they made for Meridian.
The piano trios take up discs 23 to 27, and whilst Trio Elégiaque are new to me, I was more than impressed by their performance. Included are all the arrangements for piano trio including those of the Symphony No. 2, the String Quintet Op. 4 and the Septet, here performed in a traditional piano trio format, which is good as it differs from my other version by the Guarneri Trio where the violin is replaced by a clarinet (PRD 350011). The performance of the Trio Elégiaque is first rate and highly enjoyable and is recommendable in its own right, it is available as a separate 5 CD set (94327).
Of the string sonatas, I find that Timora Rosler and Klára Würtz are a well balanced and enthusiastic pairing in the works for cello and piano. Their performance, whilst it does not challenge my favourites, is enjoyable and would be a good introduction to the music. In comparison to this Kristóf Baráti and Klára Würtz in the violin sonatas are at times a little out of balance, I once again listened to all four discs, and whilst I found the piano a little too forward at times, there were other occasions when I found Baráti’s violin tone a little heavy, especially in the Op. 12, where Würtz has a lightness of touch that befits a fortepiano. However, the performance is enjoyable, if not up there with the best.
The string trios take up discs 34 and 35, and whilst the performance of The Zurich String Trio might not be the most exciting theirs is a very pleasing listen to indeed. Theirs is a performance of great subtlety and depth, one that places the emphasis on the music rather than the performers, old style Beethoven then, but enjoyable never the less.
I have a weakness for string quartets and after listening to those from the early, middle and late quartets I thought would be good to use for review purposes, I ended up listening to every quartet three times. The Suske Quartett were completely new to me and these recordings, the majority made for Berlin Classics between 1975 and 1980 are a real eye opener, even the Rasumovsky Quartets which were recorded in 1967 and 1968 have a presence that marks them out as another of the highlights in this box. Their performance reminds me of that of the Medici String Quartet on Nimbus (NI 1785), but unlike the Medici’s, the Suske ramp up the tension and the drama in the late quartets making theirs a more desirable set, I just don’t know how this has passed me by. The recorded sound is very good, even in the Rasumovsky’s, it is solid 1970’s but less reverberant than the Medici’s from the late 1980’s. this is a recording that I would be happy to recommend as a standalone set. The lesser quartet works are also well served, as are the string quintets. In the case of the quintets the The Zurich String Trio are joined by what seem to be regular colleagues as the Zurich String Quintet; they give an equally compelling performance here as the Trio did.
Again for the piano sonatas Brilliant turn to Alfred Brendel’s early Vox recordings, a series of LP’s I grew to enjoy when I started buying records in the 1970’s. Yes, this set may lack the enlightenment of Brendel’s later Beethoven recordings, and if we are to believe the rumours, Brendel himself tried to suppress these recordings, but they still have a lot to offer. Take the Hammerklavier for instance, one of my favourite of all the sonatas and the one presented first here, I have always rated this recording, and this despite my move towards fortepiano versions, it is a wonderful rendition, one that portrays the vibrancy of youth. It is coupled with the final sonata on this disc and this is given an equally compelling performance. Indeed, Brendel excels here in the later sonatas, and after listening to all 32, I still believe that the merits of this set warrants its inclusion in this set. The same can be said of his recording of the Opp. 34, 35, 76 and 120 variations, especially the Diabelli, and of the bagatelles.
What lies between the sonatas and the Diabelli however, might come as a bit of a surprise, as the three discs (CDs 54-56) present the sets of variations without opus numbers performed on a fortepiano. Alessandro Commellato has recorded these lesser known sets of variations seemingly especially for inclusion in this complete edition, and he has done it well. They are scheduled to be released separately in early 2018, and I would recommend picking up a copy if you don’t fancy the complete edition. I enjoy his tone and that of all the instruments employed here, a variety of instruments dating from between 1788 and 1823 are used, and whilst some might find the sound of these early instruments jarring, especially against the modern piano of Brendel, the sound is more than pleasing as are the performances. The smaller piano works, including the pieces with no opus number and those for piano four hands fare well too, here we return to modern instruments again and which are given performances that are more than pleasing.
The next section of this set concentrates on Beethoven’s music for the stage, with his only opera being presented here in two of the three versions. After his appointment as composer in residence at the Theater an der Wein in 1803 Beethoven set about his ambition to compose an opera, he rejected the suggested libretto, deciding instead to compose an opera based on Leonore ou l’Amour conjugal, a story of fidelity, the victory of liberty over oppression and of a wife’s love for her husband. His chosen title for the opera was Leonore, although the theatre management rejected this on the grounds that this story had already been set to music three times by other composers and given that name, he therefore agreed to call the opera Fidelio to save any confusion. The work received a disastrous premier in 1805, and this led Beethoven to edit the work in order to create a more dramatic work, this revised version of work also fared badly, and was withdrawn after only two performances in 1806. In 1814 there was renewed popularity in the music of Beethoven after the success of his Seventh Symphony, this led to increasing interest in his opera, and whilst the poet and playwright Georg Treitschke was employed to further edit the libretto, Beethoven composed new music for the opera, including a new overture.
I must admit that I have never really been a fan of the opera, and I have never fully engaged with the work. Leonore, the name that has come to be given to the early versions of the opera to distinguish it from the final version and here the 1805 version is given a very good performance under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt. He masters his forces well, with Edda Moser, Helen Donath and Theo Adam all giving standout performances. The Leipzig Radio Choir and the Staatskapelle Dresden are both in sparkling form, making this a valuable performance to stand beside the later version. Fidelio, the name that the final version is known by, is presented here by Sir Colin Davis in his second recorded version, originally presented on LSO Live. This recording is usually regarded as the finer of the two, and having now had the chance to listen to both, I must agree. This version is tighter and I find the balance between the soloists is superior to his earlier recording for RCA. I particularly like the interplay between Christine Brewer’s Leonore/Fidelio and John Mac Master’s Florestan. And whilst these performances have not fully resurrected this opera to the place many commentators think it should be, it has risen in my esteem.
The opera is followed by three discs offering the listener Beethoven’s complete incidental music he composed for the stage. These recordings are mainly taken from the Vox back catalogue, and whilst they are given stirring performances the recorded sound does at times sound a little dated. That being said they are still enjoyable, especially Die Ruinen von Athen.
Of the choral music the cantatas, whilst faring well, cannot compare with the performance of Corydon’s on Hyperion. Der Glorreiche Augenblick is given a good and committed performance from Radio Svizzera forces. Whilst we have grown accustomed for the Chorfantasie to be coupled with the piano concertos, I can remember it, in the distant past, being described as a piano concerto with a chorus, in this edition it is not until disc 71 that it appears, and I must say that Walter Klien and the Saint Louis forces give the work an engaging if now dated performance. And whilst I like the recording of Christus am Ölberge, I much prefer the performance by Helmuth Rilling for Hänssler, which is a shame as the performance I have is coupled with the Mass in C, and that recording of the Mass is included in this set, and for me is the finest of all the discs dedicated to the choral music, and that includes Kurt Masur’s star studded reading of the Missa Solemnis.
Three of the four discs of songs presented here are old friends, indeed they have pride of place on the shelf, I have always enjoyed the performance of Peter Schreier and Walter Olbertz as they have a real sense of recital, and this despite their age, they were recorded between 1968 and 1970. These Berlin Classics recordings have been the go to recordings of the songs for me for a long time now, and I imagine they will remain that way too. The third of the four discs of lieder presents the baritone Florian Prey, the son of the esteemed Beethovian Hermann Prey, and the mezzo Anna Haase with Norbert Groh in the remaining songs, their performance compliments that of Schreier well.
The final six discs of the set present the folk song arrangements and are well known to me through their original release (94925). There are many settings of British folk songs, which fed the German hunger during the period for anything Celtic. They are not them most demand music that Beethoven ever composed, but they have a certain charm that will bring delight to all but the most hardened of listeners. The performances are excellent throughout with all singers bringing the joy in these songs to the fore.
The presentation of this set is standard for all large Brilliant Classics’ large sets, individual discs in cardboard sleeves printed with the track information placed in a flip top box. Sadly there is no booklet or CDrom containing information on the works included, for this one has to go to the Brilliant website to download a file, this is fine if you have access to a computer, but the file presents a 119 page A4 document with informative notes on the works for the first 50 pages, and the complete sung texts on the remaining pages. The one drawback is the lack of translations for most of the works, yes most of these can be found online, but again, if you do not have access to a computer you are stuck.
On the whole this is a very worthwhile set, which as I said at the beginning, is more than just a way of picking up those unusual works that are new to you and probably most other people too. The Edition contains some wonderful performances, indeed it is only the recording of the music for violin and orchestra that will probably remain in the box, just too slow, but that is just my opinion, and apart from this everything else has something to say, something to enhance your own personal favourite recording. My intention was to sample favourite works and review them, and the quality of the recordings has meant that I have listened to a lot more Beethoven than I ever intended.
Discs 1 to 5
Staatskapelle Dresden, Herbert Blomstedt (1979-1980)
Discs 6 to 8
The Piano Concertos
Alfred Brendel, various orchestras and conductors (1961 to 1967)
Violin Concerto, Romances
Emmy Verhey, various orchestras and conductors
Triple concerto, Piano Concerto in E flat WoO4, Rondo WoO6
Dong-Suk Kang, Maria Kliegle, Jenö Jandó
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia, Béla Drahos (1997)
Discs 11 and 12
Overtures, Marches, Organ Music, Battle Symphony
Various orchestras and conductors
Christian Schmitt (organ) (2007)
Discs 13 and 14
Various performers (1970 to 2007)
Discs 15 and 16
Music for Wind Ensemble
Various performers (1990 to 1999)
Discs 17 and 18
Chamber music for Flute
Septet (version for Chamber Orchestra)
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (1992)
Erben Quartet, Gerhart Meyer and Rudolph Hörold (horns) (1969)
Quintet Op.16. Trio Op.1. Horn Sonata
Various performers (1982 to 2007)
Serenade Op.25. Rondo WoO41. Trio Hess 48. 12 Variations WoO40. Works for Mandolin and Piano
Various performers (1970 to 2015)
Cummings String Trio, Anthony Goldstone (piano) (1986)
Discs 23 to 27
Trio Elégiaque (2012)
Discs 28 and 29)
Music for Cello and Piano
Timora Rosler and Klára Würtz (2013)
Discs 30 to 33
Kristóf Baráti and Klára Würtz (2011 to 2012)
Discs 34 and 35
The Zurich String Trio (2002)
Discs 36 to 42
The Suske Quartett (1966 to 1980)
Discs 43 and 44
Music for String Ensemble
Various performers (1970 to 2007)
Discs 45 to 53
Alfred Brendel (1961 to 1966)
Discs 54 to 56
Piano Variations WoO 63-80
Alessandro Commellato (2016 and 2017)
Discs 57 and 58
Diabelli Variations. Bagatelles
Alfred Brendel (1961 to 1964)
Discs 59 and 60
Miscellaneous Piano Works, Works for Piano Four Hands
Various performers (2006 and 2007)
Disc 61 and 62
Soloists. The Leipzig Radio Choir. Staatskapelle Dresden
Herbert Blomstedt (1976)
Discs 63 and 64
Soloists. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Sir Colin Davis (2006)
Discs 65 to 67
Various performers (1970 to 2007)
Hanne-Lore Kuhse (soprano), Eberhard Büchner (tenor), Siegfried Vogel (bass)
Staatskapelle Berlin. Arthur Apelt (1973 to 1974)
Disc 69 to 74
Various performers (1973 to 2007)
Discs 75 to 78
Peter Schreier (tenor) Walter Olbertz (piano) (1968-1970)
Florian Prey (baritone). Anna Haase (mezzo). Norbert Groh (piano)
Discs 79 to 85
Canons, Epigrams, Jokes and Folksongs.
Various performers (1972 to 2007)