Top 3 Ludwig van Beethoven Recordings

The modern day approach of interpreting Beethoven is to perform the symphonies either with ‘authenticity’, i.e. period instruments, or with a small scale orchestra that mirrors the size of early nineteenth century orchestras, or both. And so, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner and others are lauded for their approach. Certainly there is a transparency and urgency to their recordings, which are a breath of fresh air when compared to the slow, cumbersome and indulgent recordings found later in the careers of conductors such as Carl Maria Giulini and Leonard Bernstein, when rhythms almost grind to a halt. Even a visionary as revered as Wilhelm Furtwängler must be singled out for criticism of this nature. However, whilst sticking rigidly to the tempo markings and notations is no bad thing, fear or sinning against the letter quite often sins against the spirit. Whilst much of these period instrument recordings sound, as far as we know, like they would have sounded in Beethoven’s day (the fact that so many sound similar and familiar suggests they are either all right or all wrong), that is only so in the body of the work. By taking a strictly direct, ‘play it as you see it’ approach, as fast moving as it is, often glosses over many details and arguably fails to capture the essence of the composer. This is not a problem for Mozart or Bach, when a chamber orchestra is a necessity, or even for Mendelssohn their natural heir, but Beethoven was a Romantic composer. He developed such a wide range of expression, and whilst this should be played without sentiment or embellishment, it should never be without tension, drama, an elemental force worthy of the great man. There was, after all, another generation of conductors, the last in a line of a great tradition, from Arthur Nikisch to Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter to Karl Böhm. This includes Furtwängler himself who, though unique, was always closer to Nikisch than the others, and influenced the likes of Eugen Jochum with his flexibility of tempo. They emphasised the overarching structure or architecture of these symphonies as if they were Shakespearean dramas in tone. That’s not to say that starting a section slightly slower than standard is correct, but this was often intentional in the way the tension gradually rises and increases to the crescendo. Make of that what you will, but it’s the sheer variety of interpretations from that era that stands out, some wayward but most exhilarating, at times incredibly beautiful, albeit in scratchy mono sound. It is like comparing an automaton to a living, breathing organism.

 

3

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67

Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker

Conductor: Carlos Kleiber

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Year of Recording: 1974

Image result for carlos kleiber

Kleiber grabs you in from first, perfectly executed eight notes with an intense, electrifying performance, and doesn’t let you go until the finale. In spite of that, it is full of clarity and rich texture. The way in which the strings between the third and fourth movement, starting softly but gradually increasing in velocity, build towards the outpouring of the brass at the start of the finale, mark this out as the finest example of this transition on record.

 

2

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Opus 68

Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker

Conductor: Karl Böhm

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Year of Recording : 1971

Image result for karl bohm

There are passages in this recording which are gloriously earthy and lyrical, entirely evocative of the title ‘Pastoral’, not least for the finale, which is a charming account of one of Beethoven’s loveliest melodies. The moderate tempo and ample size of the string section is just right here, helped by the usual clarity of the orchestra, as it can sometimes appear too light and rushed. Where Böhm really excels is in the Gewitter, Sturm movement, in the balance and ferocity of the orchestra’s playing. There is a genuine sense of unease in the way the instruments evoke thunder and lightning, rain and wind to a powerful effect.

 

1

Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, Opus 125

Orchestra: Philharmonia Orchestra

Chorus: Philharmonia Chorus

Soloists: Aase Nordmo Løvberg, Walther Ludwig, Waldemar Kmentt and Hans Hotter

Conductor: Otto Klemperer

Label: Testament

Year of Recording: 1957

Image result for otto klemperer

This was a tough choice, as Wilhelm Furtwängler made the work his own throughout the first half of the twentieth century, especially as both produced a great live recording with the same orchestra, and both place the wind section firmly at the front. The latter possibly excels in the scherzo, and neither are exactly fast in the first movement, but it is in the finale where Klemperer’s comes out on top in this Royal Festival Hall performance. It is faster, for sure, and maybe not so forcibly elysian in its beauty, but the greatness that separates the two is the chorus. There is a pure rush of exaltation in their singing that is energetic and seemingly life affirming, a true ‘Ode to Joy’.

 

© 2017 AGP

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