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December 11, 2006

Experts' Expert: Tim Page picks the best recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies


Page is the very knowledgeable classical music critic of the Washington Post.

In yesterday's Arts section he reviewed a new Bernard Haitink recording with the London Symphony Orchestra of the nine symphonies, then started considering alternatives.

Long story short: He wrote, "Still, all in all, I think I'd opt for the second of Karajan's recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Gramaphon, which dates from the early 1960s but still sounds spectacular."

That recording's cover is pictured above.

Page's article follows.

    Haitink & Beethoven: A Brisk, Bright Match

    When he wasn't out storming the heavens, Ludwig van Beethoven was among our most playful and beguiling composers. Just think of the last movement of the First Symphony — a marvelous subversion of our expectations that begins as Olympian proclamation but grows less sure of its own importance with each passing note and finally erupts into a gleeful romp, exactly the opposite of what the composer had seemed to promise.

    It is this lighter Beethoven that Bernard Haitink brings to brilliant life in his new recording of the complete symphonies, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and issued on the ensemble's own LSO Live label. Haitink's Beethoven is generally swift, streamlined, objective, elemental; he phrases in broad strokes, without elaborate italicizing, and one is always aware of the music's pulse. In general his conceptions are based on dance rhythms and folk song rather than metaphysical rumination, and he gives the percussion such a hyper-prominent importance that some of the movements come perilously close to sounding like timpani concertos.

    Still, those in search of the "cosmic" Beethoven may be disappointed. Fortunately there are many other choices. Indeed, time was when a recording of the Beethoven symphonies was a rite of passage for conductors. Felix Weingartner made the first cycle in the 1930s, to be followed within a little more than a decade by Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwangler — all versions that remain in print to this day. Over the course of his long career, Herbert von Karajan made four complete recordings, Leonard Bernstein made two, and there have been admirable renditions by Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, George Szell, Roger Norrington and dozens of others — the best of which offer distinctly personal perspectives on these masterpieces.

    And "masterpiece" is the word, for there can be no doubt that these symphonies represent the very center of the classical music canon. Setting aside the ensembles that concentrate only on early music or the 20th-century repertory, there is hardly an orchestra in the United States or Europe that fails to include at least one Beethoven symphony in its yearly program; most of our major ensembles run through a complete cycle of the symphonies every few years. No other composer has such standing.

    Returning to the set at hand, which is also available on six separate discs, I find Haitink most satisfying in the more modest symphonies — the First, Second, Fourth and Eighth. His Symphony No. 5 is brusque but often very exciting, with one of the fastest final movements ever recorded. I wish that Haitink took it a little easier with the "Pastorale" Symphony, which can seem an infusion of purest musical serotonin when done perfectly, and I find his performance of the Symphony No. 7 exhilaratingly brisk one moment and a little forced the next. But it is the Symphony No. 9 that really strikes me as a misfire.

    Perhaps some of this may be generational, for I am incapable of listening to this as just another piece of music. Indeed, in general company, if you talk of a "Ninth Symphony," it will be immediately assumed that you are referring to Beethoven's (despite the fact that Schubert, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler, among others, also wrote estimable "Ninths" to close out their careers). After the end of World War II, for example, Furtwangler chose this to reopen the Bayreuth Festival in Germany; the recording of this event, which has been available continuously for half a century, is extraordinarily moving, the choral finale proudly reaffirming the brotherhood of man at the close of the most destructive war in history. More recently, Bernstein elected to conduct the Symphony No. 9 to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the amazing autumn of 1989.

    In short, no matter what our personal religious convictions may be, the Beethoven Ninth has taken on the status of secular holy music for the world. But Haitink is startlingly literalist — no great gasp of terror at the end of the first movement, no melting into eternity in the timeless adagio. The finale is spirited (with adept soloists Twyla Robinson, Karen Cargill, John Mac Master and Gerald Finley) but there are many more ecstatic exaltations out there.

    One thing is clear from these discs: The London Symphony Orchestra is now probably not only the best orchestra England has ever had but one of the finest in the world — marvelously blended, top to bottom, with lush and reflexive playing. (For further evidence, look into Colin Davis's amazing LSO recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, the finale of which often sounds as much like the late Renaissance music of Palestrina as it does like something by Bruckner's hero and model, Richard Wagner.)

    What set of the Beethoven symphonies should you buy? Bernstein's performances all have their moments (his "Pastorale" with the Vienna Philharmonic is especially spacious and appreciative). Mengelberg, on Music and Arts, is eccentric but fascinating; Szell, on Sony Classical, is immaculately polished but a little cold; Furtwangler, on EMI, brings a searching intensity to this music that many listeners find unmatched (although I still find him somewhat humor-challenged in the lighter moments; if you could cross him with Haitink, you'd have a sale).

    Still, all in all, I think I'd opt for the second of Karajan's recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, which dates from the early 1960s but still sounds spectacular. It is, if you like, a set of interpretations that sticks fairly close to the proverbial 50-yard line, with few eccentricities or surprises. But Beethoven's spirit comes through unfettered, and that is surprise enough to keep one listening, again and again.

December 11, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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