What are the best Beethoven recordings at his own tempo?
June 18, 2015 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I have learned that Beethoven desired to have his symphonies played at specific metronome speeds, but that they are often slowed down. I am thus trying to track down recordings, preferably on CD by mp3 is okay, that are still in distribution, recorded at Beethoven's own fast tempos. Unfortunately, the glut of classical music recordings is making it difficult for me to differentiate them. Any recommendations for recordings at the fast pace would be most appreciated.
posted by mortaddams to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You've probably heard this episode of Radiolab - Speedy Beet but there are some good suggestions for recordings in the comments. John Eliot Gardiner, Paavo Jari, and Benjamin Zander's recording of the 9th all get mentioned.
posted by mskyle at 7:55 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Toscanini and the NBC symphony are generally considered quite speedy.
posted by Dashy at 8:18 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

John Eliot Gardiner's cycle is my favorite to listen to, completely aside from questions of authenticity. His orchestra also plays period instruments.
posted by John Cohen at 8:34 AM on June 18, 2015

Best answer: Roger Norrington, both in his recordings of the Symphonies and the Piano Concertos.
And (much earlier) Toscanini. There's for example a recording with the 4th Piano Concerto with Rudolf Serkin that would qualify.

The correctness or reliability of many of the metronomizations connected with Beethoven's works are a matter of debate. It very much depends on the source, and how we want to interpret the little we actually know about this.

1) Beethoven himself as source:
We know that he had some contact with J.N. Maelzel (the man who made the Metronome fashionable) before the latter went from Vienna to Paris. Maelzel helped Beethoven constructing some early hearing trumpets; that would have been around 1803, roughly.
We know substantial less about how Beethoven worked when he put metronome figures on paper (did he listen to his inner ear? Did he play the melodies on his piano?). It may very well be that he imagined the tempi too fast in his mind, and came to unrealistic figures because of that. Many of his figures are very fast, others are sheer impossible.
We know yet less about the varying opinions Beethoven may have had throughout his life about the usefulness of the Metronome. For his early works there was anyway no metronome. During the first decade of the 19th century, he may have experimented with it. Later, he may have become impatient about its restrictive quality; I vaguely remember some snarky remarks from his letters and in the conversation books about this.

2) Other sources:
This would especially have been Carl Czerny, who published his views about performing Beethoven's works with piano, and claimed to reproduce "authentic" information. The problems with this are manifold, even though Czerny was generally spoken a sincere and nice guy. First, he cannot possibly have been an original earwitness to all of Beethoven's works for piano; his contact with the composer was sporadic at times, and Beethoven didn't usually go around and discussed music with the people that surrounded him. Second, Czerny wrote down his thoughts decades after the works were composed, and his memory may have been afflicted by the passing of time. Third, Czerny believed strongly in the advancement of the arts, as in "newer is better," and had no qualms adjusting performance instructions to match the musical taste of the 1840s; he explicitly says so. Finally, Czerny was a piano teacher, not a scholar, and the standards he applied to his texts mirror the lacking edge clearly.

All this to say, it isn't very clear, what Beethoven "desired" in terms of tempo.

Nor, for that matter, is fully established what was the common practice regarding tempo stability. The clear-cut, straight up-and-down stable "Classical" tempo is a myth. Tempo fluctuations between themes or passages did occur, and are well documented in a variety of historical sources.
Contemporary practice of the early days of the metronome would anyway often have been, to listen to its tick before a piece was performed. People usually did not play along with the metronome for longer stretches of music. So occasionally it could have been that Beethoven wanted a fast tempo set-up, but left the fluctuations later on to the discretion of the performer(s)

[Not footnoted because of a lack of time; based on Beethoven research ongoing since 1996]
posted by Namlit at 8:39 AM on June 18, 2015 [20 favorites]

Just wanted to say that Namlits answer is a great example of why I come to Metafilter. Sounds like a great FPP in the making there Namlit!
posted by Admira at 5:20 PM on June 18, 2015

I was going to say Toscanini, too. Gould plays his sonatas very quickly (one reason why I don't like him for Beethoven).
posted by persona au gratin at 2:08 AM on June 19, 2015

Sounds like a great FPP in the making there Namlit!

Just to get this out of the way: since performance-practical research is part of what I do for a living, I might one day perhaps post something on Projects, but as a FPP, sadly not...

I was thinking, there's of course the Claves set of all Beethoven sonatas on original pianos, played by Malcolm Bilson, Tom Beghin, David Breitman, Ursula Dütschler, Bart Van Oort, Zvi Meniker, and Andrew Willis. When it comes to fast would-be authentic tempi, Bart van Oort's interpretation of the "Waldstein" sonata Op. 53 is probably closest to what you're looking for.

This was a highly influential project; the 20th anniversary concert in two parts will be on August 8, 2015, 5:00-6:00 and 8:00-10:00 PM at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts (Cornell University, Ithaca, NY).
posted by Namlit at 6:30 AM on June 19, 2015

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