For discussion regarding what constitutes a great performance, refer to my prior notes on The Nature of the Musical Art.
Having interviewed several recordings of most Beethoven works, here are my faves:
- Gardiner 1992
- Karajan 1963
- Dudamel 2012
- Karajan 1963
- Kleiber (Carlos) 1974
- Walter 1958
- Kleiber (Carlos) 1975
- Harnoncourt 1990
- Fricsay 1958
- Perahia, Haitink 1985
- Perahia, Haitink 1983
- Perahia, Haitink 1990
- Katchen, Gamba 1963
- Katchen, Gamba 1964
- Violin Concerto: Tetzlaff, Zinman 2005
- Triple Concerto: Anda, Schneiderhan, Fournier, Fricsay 1960
- String Quartets Complete: Alexander Quartet 2009
Represented in this orchestral mix are recent, historically-informed performances (HIP) by Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Zinman; larger scale romanticized performances from the prior generation of Walter, Fricsay, Kleiber, Karajan, Haitink, Gamba; and an energetic, modern interpretation by Dudamel. No surprise to see most conductors appearing more than once in the recommendation.
These interpretations are not as far apart as might have been, for among larger orchestral settings, my preference is for those that play leaner and more briskly than the normal overweight orchestra performance.
Any discussion of Beethoven’s symphonic performances would be remiss without mention of Furtwängler. First, some qualifications. Since Furtwängler’s 75 year old recording sonics are of necessity far below today’s standards, he cannot be on my list, which reaches back only as far as the earliest stereo recordings. Further, I find his insights unevenly realized, for sometimes his performances seem slow and heavy, to the point of being ponderous (faux gravitas).
That said, in my limited Furtwangler exposure, I have heard unforgettable things, and his insight informs my understanding of Beethoven, while setting the bar higher for those that follow. For example, during the opening measures of the Ninth, he creates an unsettling sense of apprehension and tension that in its strength, is quite unique to my hearing, leaving one wondering how he did that while conducting from the same score as everyone else. My ultimate choice for these pieces must succeed in recapturing his vision.
The Eroica and the Pastorale symphonies were the toughest to find to my liking. I reviewed interpretations from HIP interpreters such as Harnoncourt and Gardiner. Though at first a refreshing change, I began to find Harnoncourt’s Eroica sounding more like a caricature of a heroic symphony. It lacks the weight of a modern-sized string section, and suffers from other distractions related to excessive emphasis on some percussion and wind instrument themes that intrude into the proceedings. The orchestra comes across sonically as a concert band with a small string section hidden just offstage in the wings. Looking for other choices, I interviewed Fricsay’s performance from 1960 and was prepared to settle for it, when I delighted in discovering a truly modern rendition of Eroica with Dudamel.
Likewise, I found Gardiner’s Pastorale tiresome as time with it accumulated. The HIP conductors seem to strive for breeziness, clipping notes and phrases; these works respond better, in my mind, to a slightly more sostenuto approach. Looking forward to a modern Pastorale that suits, nothing I interviewed got it all right. So I now look way back to Walter’s Pastorale (1958), a compact classic interpretation that sings. The Columbia Symphony (West Coast) was a Columbia Records ‘pick-up’ recording orchestra in Los Angeles. The majority were moonlighting members of the LA Phil. They clearly had empathy for Walter and played for him as if they had done so for years.
Never retire while one still has gifts of song to share! we owe Walter a great thanks that he continued conducting into his mid-80s, for these last years brought us arguably best-ever recordings of Beethoven’s 6th and Brahms’ 3rd. He possessed a late-life geniality, his great skill allowing him to imbue romantically-tinged thematic developments with the deeply-felt lyricism the composers intended.
Until I find my bell-ringing Ninth, I substitute Fricsay’s reading, perhaps a little workmanlike in the Allegro (Furtwängler sets the mood better to my ear), but more involving in the remainder. The 1958 sound is astonishingly good, with top-notch soloists. Fricsay is the last conductor standing under my ‘do no harm’ filter. It surprises me how many big name conductors cannot meet this very low bar of mine. For example, Gardiner opens his Ninth conveying not an inkling that he understands the meaning of ma non troppo.
Karajan frequently omits exposition repeats. Since I typically prefer no repeat, we are sympatico a little, but not enough to make me a big fan. That said, his 1963 Second and Fourth Symphonies exhibit sufficient energy and love for the music. When he is on his game and not slowing down the proceedings excessively (as in the Pastorale), the results are exciting. I had to pass on his Eroica; he slows the 2nd and 4th movements way too much for me.
Kleiber ‘owns’ symphonies 5 & 7, imbuing them with precision, transparency, and gravitas when called for. His tempi never drag; his big chords pack a punch, but always under control. However, his pedantry/quirkiness is on exhibit; for example, the Allegretto grace notes are emphasized and are played rapidly, creating a jarring musical joke that impedes the flow and interrupts the thematic inspiration. Harnoncourt also plays these notes rapidly, but buries the notes in the overall texture, to more musical effect. Furtwangler’s 1954 performance seems to get these notes just right.
As with Furtwangler, Kleiber’s performances are somewhat uneven. In general, I sense Kleiber is more energized, if less precise, in his live concert recordings than in his studio work, where his themes never really sing, never take flight. But no one else I auditioned could seal the deal For me. Kleiber is still numero uno.
Gamba has left us little recorded evidence, a pity. He was a pianist who grew into a long conducting career (Winnipeg, Adelaide). From these London recordings of the later concerti with Katchen, he shows energy, fidelity, and love. Aided by recording techniques that bring out the energy of the performance, I select these recordings in spite of audible deficiencies. Katchen has the most nuanced touch of any pianist I have heard. Unfortunately, the piano is so closely-miked that mechanical noise from the key action and pedals intrudes on some passages. For the early piano concerti, Perahia/Haitink are more attuned to the classical performance style to which these works best respond.
Beethoven wrote a piano transcription of the violin concerto, in which he embedded a cadenza. Tetzlaff re-scored this Beethoven piano cadenza for violin with tympani, which he plays in this recording, replacing the usual cadenza of Fritz Kreisler. His rationale was to achieve greater harmonic and stylistic relevance to the concerto. Normally, I object to inserting new cadenzas into classics; there are some outlandish ones floating around in recorded space. But here I appreciate the effort aimed at authenticity and freshness.
The Triple Concerto is not one of Beethoven’s more profound works. It is charming and congenial in tone and responds delightfully to the gentle touch of Fricsay and his three wonderful soloists. I grew up with the Fricsay/Scheiderhan/Starker version of the Brahms Double Concerto, and have always enjoyed their somewhat laid back sound. Although I have since discovered that the Brahms benefits from more digging into the music, yet I still think that, for the Beethoven, these performers seem just the ticket. Again, the 1960 sound is astonishingly good.
I like string quartets, so that is where I began with Beethoven’s chamber music. I got lucky on my first try with the Alexander Quartet. These are the only performances of the quartets I have heard; they will be the last ones I will need. They are lovingly played with precision and with sufficient passion. They are cleanly recorded (although stereo separation may be a tad overwrought, a niggle.)
I wish that Beethoven could have heard how well his music was played in my time. I think there is a lot in these performances that would have pleased him.
My taste may be a bit unusual, for most other such lists will nominate few or none of my selections. I sense many listeners may appreciate more passionate-sounding performances. If smaltz, or sturm und drang, or batons with big egos, seem necessary accouterments of greatness, a listener will likely derive more satisfaction from other recordings than these. But those who derive excitement from musical revelation may find some value in these recommendations.
I am always looking for other recordings to challenge these selections. But failing that, these are my ‘desert island’ performances. I enjoy these immensely, but recommendations, of recent or obscure performances I may not have heard, are gladly accepted.