Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven cycle belongs in the pantheon of great recorded versions of this music, a fact that unbiased listeners will readily admit after a few minutes’ encounter with any one of these nine staggeringly fine performances. They have held up triumphantly in the 15 years since they were recorded, even in the face of Barenboim’s recent, less characterful remakes. However, I fear that recognition of his achievement will be hard won. Barenboim has not made things easy for himself: his work belongs squarely in the great German tradition. It will thus face strenuous opposition on both the “authenticist” and the “historicist” fronts.
The “authenticists” argue thatRead more Beethoven’s symphonies are the logical continuation of the tradition inaugurated by Haydn and Mozart, and should be played the same way, in accordance with period performance practice. The symphonies are less important as individual works than as exemplars of a compositional style, and performances are adjudged acceptable or unacceptable simply by virtue of the interpretive approach. Of course, this extreme form of bias ignores the fact that, in reality, performances emanating from the “authentic” school range from thrilling (Mackerras on EMI) to dreadful (Hogwood, Norrington I, Goodman, and many others). Get ready to hear comments such as: “Barenboim’s traditional, Romantic approach exudes a wholly inappropriate heaviness, and perhaps works best in the Sixth (‘Pastoral’) Symphony, which has an agreeable warmth.” After all, what “Pastoral” doesn’t? Okay, Karajan’s doesn’t, but you get the point.
The “authenticists” are, in any case, entitled to their preference, even if the result is a blanket dismissal of Barenboim before actually listening to a single note. The loss is theirs. Much more threatening to a proper understanding of Barenboim’s achievement is the cynical prejudice of the “historicists”. These people believe that standards of interpretation have steadily declined since some mythical “golden age”, generally represented by dreadful sounding mono radio broadcasts, remastered 78s, and pirate “live” recordings given by dead conductors of varying greatness, from (at the top) Toscanini and Furtwängler, to (in the middle) Walter and Mengelberg, to (at the bottom) anyone alive and in front of a microphone in the days before the LP, or suitably obscure and (more often than not justifiably) neglected thereafter. From the “historicists” you’ll hear: “Barenboim may offer some insight into the lesser, even-numbered symphonies, but his efforts in the great Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth naturally pale in comparison to the great versions of the past.”
Barenboim has made matters even more difficult by expressing a life-long admiration for Wilhelm Furtwängler, leading lazy listeners to ceaselessly compare him to his idol, always to his disadvantage, and notwithstanding the fact that he has already given every evidence (in Bruckner and Wagner, for example) of being just as talented, if not more so. So let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: these performances resemble Furtwängler to the extent that they belong to the same musical tradition, one that both conductors share, and that’s all. What Furtwängler fanatics tend to forget is the fact that their idol was not a solitary genius, but a genius working within the continuum of a performance style that did not originate with him. Nor did it die with him. Indeed, much of it has nothing to do with conducting at all, but rather with central European orchestral training and playing habits.
Just as “authenticists” exaggerate the role of “style” and minimize the role of the conductor, so the “historicists” extol their podium idols, neglecting the contributions of ensembles trained in the performance tradition that the conductor claims to espouse.
Many artists, including such well-known names as Klemperer, Böhm, Konwitschny, Kletzki, Tennstedt, Blomstedt, Bernstein, Giulini, and even Harnoncourt play Beethoven within this German tradition, according to which Beethoven’s symphonies constitute the summit of symphonic achievement. In their emotional range, richness of invention, bigness of vision, and sheer musical perfection, they demand the ultimate spiritual, philosophical, and musical commitment. A great performance of this school displays a dark, weighty orchestral sonority built on a rich cushion of strings; seamless, legato phrasing over large musical paragraphs; rock-solid bass lines and timpani; and flexible tempos that can vary considerably within the individual movements, but that never impede the music’s overall flow.
Furtwängler had a unique grasp of Beethoven’s heroic and spiritual dimensions, but few will maintain that he gave of his best in the first two symphonies, or the Eighth, or even the Fourth. The classical element in Beethoven was alien to him, as was (in consequence) much of the composer’s blustering humor and sly wit. Also problematic were all of those interpretive points that can only be achieved through the kind of disciplined ensemble coordination, accentuation, phrasing, and instrumental balance that conductors such as Toscanini, Szell, and Reiner pioneered, and that we take for granted today. These are the result of a consistency of execution and sheer podium technique that Furtwängler simply lacked. Barenboim’s vision of Beethoven shows none of these weaknesses. In fact, his performances are clearly as fine, or better, than anything Furtwängler ever achieved in this music. Let’s start at the beginning and see why.
Barenboim takes all first-movement (and most other) repeats but retains such intelligent textual modifications as the horn “bridge” in the recapitulation of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, and the trumpet reinforcements in the “Eroica’s” first-movement coda. Symphonies 1 and 2 are fleet (outer movements of both works), witty (the two finales), and classically poised (exquisite slow movements), with plenty of Beethoven’s uniquely abundant energy (check out the hard-stick timpani playing in the first movement and scherzo of Symphony No. 1!). When he reaches the “Eroica”, though, the style changes with the music, broadening and deepening, in tune with Beethoven’s inspiration. The first movement is trenchantly argued, propulsive, but also weighty. The Funeral March sounds magnificently gaunt, the end of its first trio bringing one of many magical transitions that reveal Barenboim operating at a level of idiomatic musical control that few others have achieved. The swift scherzo provides a virtuoso display of conflicting duple and triple meters, while the horns make some magnificent sounds in the trio. Barenboim’s finale offers near miraculous clarity in the fugal passages, and a coda that, by allowing Beethoven’s notes their full value, really gets played rather than merely poked.
Barenboim’s consistency from work to work is another point in which he surpasses many of his predecessors. The standards he sets in the first three symphonies never flag for a single moment in any of the others. So in the Fourth Symphony, the perfect transition between the first movement’s introduction and allegro and the work’s genial yet surprisingly eruptive finale comes as no surprise. The Fifth Symphony’s first movement builds in tension (as it must) right through to its last note; the gorgeously ripe cellos cap a noble second movement that flows purposefully from first note to last; the scherzo truly is, as Tovey described it, a “dream of terror”; and the finale explodes with an energy worthy of Carlos Kleiber. Barenboim’s Sixth vies with Böhm’s in sheer loveliness. The “Scene by the Brook” is quite simply the best I have ever heard: utterly calm, yet teeming with life. Barenboim has found the momentum behind the notes: no matter what tempo he adopts or how it varies, the music always moves forward inexorably. After a genuinely rustic scherzo, he demonstrates just how much interesting music Beethoven wrote into his storm; it’s a genuine summer shower, not a Mahlerian vision of the apocalypse, and it introduces a ravishingly songful finale that never drags, and in which the sonority of the muted horns offers a tangy dash of aural spice to the last chords.
The Seventh Symphony belies the myth that the German tradition must necessarily sound slow and heavy. This Seventh has wings, and knows how to fly. The basic tempo for the first movement is quick, the rhythm always pressing forward eagerly, horns blazing. Barenboim’s keenly observant strings articulate the second movement’s repeated-note first theme in such a way as to emphasize the rhythm without ever checking the music’s natural momentum. The scherzo trips along with Mendelssohnian lightness, but it’s the finale that offers the real revelation. By carefully slurring the string figurations, Barenboim (aided by superbly balanced recorded sound) allows an unusual amount of wind and brass detail to penetrate the texture, giving the music a much sharper, less monotonous rhythmic profile than usual. Masterful. As is also the Eighth Symphony, where the classical poise so evident in Barenboim’s accounts of the first two symphonies returns in the stunningly cultivated string playing (in movements two and four particularly), the amusingly pompous minuet, and the razor-sharp clarity of attack and attention to dynamic contrast.
The Ninth, of course, is Furtwängler territory, and it’s fascinating to see Barenboim beating the old boy at his own game at such places as the recapitulation of the first movement, which has all of Furtwängler’s drama and impact but so much more ensemble discipline and clarity. Indeed, the quality of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s playing throughout this cycle is second to none: no surprise really if one recalls their numerous excellent recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, and Dvorák for the much underrated Otmar Suitner. Their rhythmic precision in the Ninth’s scherzo is a wonder to behold, while the slow movement really does achieve Furtwänglerian heights of spiritual repose without paying the usual Furtwänglerian price of lousy wind intonation. A smashing account of the finale, ably seconded by an excellent choir and fine team of soloists (save only for an unpleasantly thick-voiced tenor) completes the picture. The initial, instrumental “joy” variations have tremendous cumulative power and really glow; his march swaggers at an unusually swift tempo with no hint of pomposity; and the final bars bring a heartfelt, effortless culmination, ascending to the heavens with a final burst of jubilant energy.
Barenboim’s Beethoven symphony cycle is the most emotionally complete, humane, and perfectly realized series of non-period-instrument performances of this music to have appeared in decades. The best cycles of the past few years (Mackerras, Gielen, Harnoncourt, and Vänskä) have all belonged to the “authenticist” school to greater or lesser degree. Barenboim’s achievement clearly demonstrates that a wonderful tradition is alive, vital, and still capable of renewal through intelligent understanding expressed in partnership with a like-minded orchestra, and above all, through supreme musicianship on the podium. His encounter with this music’s generosity of spirit and deep passion will provoke, stimulate, challenge, and delight.
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral"by Ludwig van Beethoven Performer:
Robert Gambill (Tenor),
Soile Isokoski (Soprano),
Rosemarie Lang (Mezzo soprano),
René Pape (Bass)
Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus,
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria
Fidelio, Op. 72: Overture in E majorby Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1814; Vienna, Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Beethoven with clarity and dramaApril 14, 2014By m. carpenter (bemidji, MN)See All My Reviews"This is a great Beethoven cycle! Personally, I think that the ninth in this set is greatest I've ever heard. At this price, it would be a bargain to buy the set for the ninth alone. However, the readings of all the symphonies share the characteristics that make it great. First of all is the sheer beauty of the playing. The Staatskapelle Berlin may be far less well-known than the city's famous philharmonic; in fact I had not even heard of it until I purchased this set. Now I wonder why they aren't better known; it's a shame they haven't recorded more! The strings, which seem to play with vigorous vibrato, have a rich, thick, golden texture, and the winds play with glorious purity and beauty of tone. On just about every recording by Barenboim that I have heard, I have noticed a wonderful and almost paradoxical mixture of size and transparency. In other words, while the full weight of the music is felt, one can at the same time almost listen from "inside" the orchestra; every detail of every part can be heard, and this means that no matter how many times I listen, I find myself noticing something new. Part of this is probably the result of the recording quality, which is excellent. Another aspect of Barenboim's conducting is his ability to begin movements inauspiciously (some might criticize for for a lack of drama, but the over-all effect is exactly the opposite) and build through the logic of music to towering climaxes. This recording is definitely "big-band" Beethoven, which perhaps makes it less stylish than many recent historically informed readings. Of course, much of this ultimately comes down to a matter of taste (if you're into really fast tempos, this set probably isn't for you)but I think one of the great things about the more traditional philosophy as executed by Barenboim is that it achieves, ironically, the very sense of transparency and immediate, uncluttered access to the music that the HIP school of thought is going for. Barenboim is not making innovative statements as a creative artist; he simply gives us the glorious symphonic music of Beethoven, carefully thought-out, beautifully played by the Staatskapelle Berlin, purely captured in digital sound."Report Abuse
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