Beethoven on the brain thanks to Matteo
October 11, 2005 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by this thread, I'm wondering which conductors offer the best interpretations of Beethoven?

My own two cents: this Ninth Symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler was recommended by a friend, and I've never heard another interpretation as powerful.
posted by tetsuo to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon (2000) is good. I'm very fond of the third symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, but I don't know if he's recorded the ninth.
posted by neuron at 12:45 PM on October 11, 2005

The world-class Beethoven experts I have consulted almost unanimously recommend the recordings of Carlos Kleiber -- whose recordings of Beethovens Third, Fifth and Seventh symphonies are not only a legend in the business, but can be downloaded from i-tunes. Kleiber (who died recently), was a conductor's conductor. But the baseline, reference lab sample Beethoven symphonies currently on the market, are those conducted by Christoph Von Dohnyanni, with the Cleveland Orchestra. All others are measured as deviations from their perfect mean.
posted by shambles at 1:04 PM on October 11, 2005

Nice spelling Shambles, you idiot! That's spelled "Dohnanyi" Pretentious twit!
posted by shambles at 1:06 PM on October 11, 2005

tetsuo, the '51 Furtwängler you mentioned is a good compromise between his 1942 version -- simply terrifying, and just too intense for many listeners) and maestro Wilhelm's own favorite, his 1954 Lucerne Ninth (BPO, on Tahra, still available)

shambles is right, Kleiber's VPO 1975 Fifth especially is a masterpiece -- very possibly, best Fifth evar (and one of the fastest, at 100-metronome breakneck speed).

it's probably out of print, but Giulini's Eroica (LA Phil) is amazing (you can find it on a DG cd).

as I said in the thread, my favorite Ninth is Celibidache's -- just too inventive. genius, really. there's an excellent recent EMI cd for that.

and Bruno Walter. ah, maestro Walter... I have so many live versions of his Beethoven... Walter to me will always be Mahler, but his Beethoven Ninth is just heartbreaking. so sweet and warm, and moving, and full of color. and his Pastorale, oh man...

I also love Giulini's Pastorale (on EMI, double cd with a good Ninth).

Abbado: the DG box set is excellent, except a very very weak Ninth. Abbado's best Ninth is on Sony, still in print. I saw it today at my local record store, only 10.99 euros

and it's a shame that Szell's awesome box set is oop in the US.
posted by matteo at 1:37 PM on October 11, 2005

Alex Ross on Abbado's Beethoven

Consider his interpretation of the "Eroica," a work that should by now have yielded all its secrets. Scholars never tire of writing about the C sharp that crops up in the opening E-flat-major cello theme: it is a detour that seems to trigger a host of chaotic, centrifugal energies in the first movement. In many performances, the cellos stress the errant note, as if to make a deliberate gesture of it. Abbado, however, has the cellos fade a little as they approach the C sharp, creating a twinge of unease. Throughout the opening movement, Beethoven’s tendency toward triumphalism is held in check, and the darkness of the music comes to the fore. Only in the tragic landscape of the Funeral March does the orchestra let loose at full strength.

Up to this point, Abbado’s "Eroica" shares the brooding atmosphere of Furtwängler’s reading, in which the hero seems to be struggling not against external enemies but against an inner drive toward negation and death. Furtwängler’s conception is, in every way, grander and deeper, but it has a flaw: it does not quite know what to do with the final two movements, with their unexpected playfulness and wit. At that point, the grand style becomes merely heavy. Abbado capitalizes on his prior restraint: his orchestra has energy left to burn, and it becomes an innocent, physical beast, shaking off the despair that had brought it to a standstill a few moments before. This is a subtler heroism, one in which a man achieves greatness by stepping back from darkness into light. His hardships become, as Beethoven wrote, "signposts of a happy life."

posted by matteo at 1:39 PM on October 11, 2005

I love the Ashkenazy renditions of the piano sonatas.

For period versions of the symphonies, I believe Christopher Hogwood does a fantastic job.

I'm not sure who I'd recommend for a modern recording... Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is always a solid bet, and I like Muti as well. With a modern performance, you're really forced to make a decision about precision or emotion, as there aren't any orchestras that nail both. Personally, I tend towards the latter.
posted by I Love Tacos at 1:55 PM on October 11, 2005

I agree about the Hogwood. If you find the symphonies over-familiar, Hogwood will wake you up good. They're like the Ramones version of Beethoven symphonies.
posted by shambles at 2:15 PM on October 11, 2005

For a stand-alone piece, Karajan + Rostropovich + Oistrach + Richter (on EMI) doing the Beethoven Triple Concerto is (to my mind) without par.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:45 PM on October 11, 2005

Beethoven ?
Klemperer !

(but Walter for Eroica)
posted by Substrata at 3:44 PM on October 11, 2005

Toscanini, Kleiber, Hogwood.
posted by languagehat at 4:04 PM on October 11, 2005

The Norrington recordings of the symphonies really changed the way I looked at them, but seem to have dated a little (more than some others - his Berlioz still stands out to me). Harnoncourt is superb.
posted by monkey closet at 2:57 AM on October 12, 2005

John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, on Archiv.

Review here on Gramophone: you may need to get a login for the site, which is free, to see the review: I don't know, but if you don't already use or browse the Gramofile reviews, you should. ;o)
posted by paperpete at 8:40 AM on October 13, 2005

I forgot about Fricsay: so very awesome
posted by matteo at 3:23 PM on October 13, 2005

Yeah, coming to this thread soooo late to the party--just thought I'd add my 2 cents. (FWIW, I myself have conducted three of the symphonies thus far, a couple of those twice.)

My favorite, baseline Beethoven is actually the above-mentioned John Eliot Gardiner and his period instrument orchestra. Plus, it's the first cycle recorded with the remarkable new set of critical editions produced by Jonathan Del Mar, published by Barenreiter. Gardiner assisted in the preparation of these editions (which are, in addition to being amazing contributions to this repertoire, beautiful new engravings), and many errors have been corrected--including things like wrong notes that have been repeatedly performed for 150 years or so!

The golden & silver age recordings mentioned by others don't turn me on so much anymore--they're so far from what Beethoven himself could have possibly intended, and they really impose a very 20th century sense of orchestral sound upon music that doesn't, in my opinion, sustain such treatment very well.

Thanks to folks like Hogwood, Harnoncourt, and Gardiner and their period-instrument movement (and its emphasis on scholarship leading to urtext), it has become clear that a smaller orchestra, playing with much more clearly defined stylistic boundaries, can reveal the subtleties of these works far more immediately than a van Karajan and his orchestra of a thousand.

Plus, simple things in the Del Mar editions make HUGE difference: tempo markings (yes, Beethoven's metronome worked just fine, and his nephew made a few notable errors in tempo notation--particularly in the last movement of the Ninth, the Turkish march variation that introduces a tenor solo, Karl marked the tempo at half of LvB's wishes, owing to an error in unit of pulse), dynamic markings (esp. LvB's extensive use of the sf marking, which, when placed accurately, dramatically alters the shape of many of his lines, etc.

So, to those who love the old greats, I hear you--they're amazing recordings. But those conductors also worked in an age that did not have the benefit of the last 30 years' worth of scholarship, and one that suffered from the aesthetic conceit that a modern sense of sound should be imposed upon all previous music.

P.S.: Simon Rattle's recent cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic is astonishing.

P.P.S.: In 1999 or so, I heard Abbado perform the Fourth with the Berlin Phil (in Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI, no less)--it was one of the top three concert experiences I've ever had in my life. They played it with an ensemble of about 45-50, it was just electric and light and transparent--a real joy.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:43 AM on April 29, 2006

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