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Desert island Beethoven cycle


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Initial post: 8 May 2011 12:19:59 BDT
Many, if not most, of us collectors hold the Beethoven symphonies to be the apex of the symphonic canon. However, do we all have one cycle that does us fine, or do we have several? Which one is our absolute favourite? Is there one cycle that is sorely needed in the event of the famed 'desert island' scenario.

As for me, to kick off, I still consider myself not to have three or four sets that may change my Beethoven listening 'landscape'. But, I do have five cycles - Karajan 1963, Bernstein 1960s, Solti 1972-74, Karajan 1977 and Norrington 1980s. Of all of these, the Karajan '77 one remains the best for me. Despite it's detractors it has the gorgeous sweep and dramatic fire that makes these works so monumental. However, Harnoncourt beckons...

OK, so over to you...

Posted on 8 May 2011 12:32:23 BDT
Daniel Hogan says:
Well for me, it would have to be the more recent recordings from the LSO/Haitink on LSO Live. Absolutely fantastic, full of energy and engaging playing, very accurate and it definitely shows Haitink at his heights as a conductor! Karajan also though. Although Kleiber did not record all of them, the ones he did record I would also have to treasure!

Posted on 8 May 2011 12:50:29 BDT
zargb5 says:
The first cycle i ever heard at the tender age of 14. I have always compared every other cycle to it and come up disappointed, though i have enjoyed some of them. My cycle would be Andre Cluytens with the Berlin Phil from the early 60's.

It's strange how the first time you hear a piece of music by a certain artist/conductor/orchestra it often becomes ones favourite version?

Posted on 8 May 2011 12:59:07 BDT
I've got the Eliot Gardiner's which have the right whoosh and zest, but I could do with more oomph, but without the overblown Hollywood explosions and sentimentality that puts me off Karajan. I've wondered whether Haitink or Barenboim might be what I'm looking for. I also have the Norrington set, which I find mixed, some being, especially the 6th as I recall, downright eccentric.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 May 2011 13:18:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 May 2011 13:21:05 BDT
T.J.Byford says:
RK, why is it when we know that no one conductor holds to key to every symphony, we still buy complete Beethoven symphony cycles? The record companies must just love us!

Over the years I have acquired the Karajan set, but his mono Philharmonia cycle and which I find the most satisfying of his 4 sets, Toscanini (a real surprise), Norrington (hardly ever play now), Konwitschny with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and finally, added only within the last couple of weeks, the SA-CD set with Haitink and the LSO.

For my Desert Island Discs choice, the laurels go to Franz Konwitschny's 1960 cycle, in excellent stereo, in a well-judged cycle effortlessly played throughout, but energetic when required, and nothing "showy" for its own sake. For me, everything just feels right.

Oops, just been reminded by JF that Gardiner did a set. Shows how much I play it as I have it and overlooked it. Still, much preferable to the Norrington set.

Posted on 8 May 2011 13:34:00 BDT
Konwitschny was my introduction to numbers 7 and 8 years ago and it was only recently that I was able to track down the complete cycle mentioned by TJB; it is a fine cycle but not my No 1 choice. I have three complete cycles from Karajan (Philharmonia and his first two Berlin cycles) plus a few individual performances; the Philharmonia cycle is probably the best, the first Berlin cycle the most recommendable as it is stereo). The first complete cycle I bought was Jochum with the Concertgebouw in the Beethoven Bicentennary Year. I still have great affection for nos 4, 8 and 9. I also have complete cycles from Bohm, Klemperer, Davis, Mackerras, Kempe, Toscanini, Monteux, Kubelik, Krips, Gardiner and two from Haitink (Concertgebouw and LSO). My favourite Beethovenian is Erich Kleiber but he didn't record a complete cycle (I have 3,5,6,7 and 9).

If pushed for a desert island choice it would be down to a choice beween Krips, Klemperer, Mackerras and Monteux. Krips is let down by indifferent sound quality and so I would probably go for Mackerras as a sane cycle that would bear a lot of repetition.

Posted on 8 May 2011 15:06:08 BDT
GC - Is that Mackerras's RLPO cycle or the later SCO/Philharmonia one that you're nominating?

Posted on 8 May 2011 15:35:00 BDT
I'm not averse to a little bit of extra heft with Beethoven's symphonies so I would probably opt for Barenboim's Teldec/Warner cycle even though none of the individual performances would necessarily head my list in a 'various artists' survey. The sound is very good, the Berliner Staatskapelle play well and the accounts themselves are satisfyingly lush and muscular without being gratuitously bombastic and/or leaden-footed.

Posted on 8 May 2011 16:05:14 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 May 2011 20:36:14 BDT
I have six complete CD cycles - Karajan on DGG (early '60s), Klemperer, Mackerras (Liverpool), Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Cluytens - and for a cycle it's the last of these which gets my vote, although I do have the later Jochum LSO set from LP days and wish this would get a reissue (are you listening, EMI?)

Cluytens is fantastic across the board, but especially in the even-numbered symphonies - I'd pick out his 2nd, 4th and 8th as among the very best ever. When I got these on CD, as part of a 50-CD set, I feared my happy memories of them (my first ever classical records CFP - clearly I am not the only one to remember these LPs thus!?) would be ill-founded. They are not!

Trouble is, although cycles can provide a fascinating picture of the conductor as much as the errrm cycle itself (!) there are also countless individual performances that stand out. And yes I am one of those predictable people who still finds Carlos Kleiber's 5th jaw-dropping; but so is his 7th on the same CD. I have a fantastic Tennstedt 6th, and a Colin Davis 3rd that both merit special affection too.

I'd rather have a self-tailored set rather than one cycle if I was really forced to move to a desert island....

Posted on 8 May 2011 16:21:41 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 May 2011 09:27:52 BDT
Mandryka says:
There's no answer. No cycle is really satisfying. For the even numbered symphonies and 1, then Casals at Marlboro is the best I have heard, except maybe for Kubelik's 4. For 2, Brueggen. For the Eroica you really have to go to Mengelberg and Pfitzner and Furtwangler (who's good in 4 too) to get a satisfying recording. For 9 and 5 and 7 I just don't know. I've never been satisfied. It's a curse.

But forced to take a cycle I would settle for Brueggen's.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 May 2011 16:43:44 BDT
RH1952: The Mackerras/RLPO set on Classics for Pleasure

In reply to an earlier post on 8 May 2011 18:06:32 BDT
Fompous Part says:
The Krips LSO cycle is available as a download for 6.99; is it worth it?????!!!!?

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 07:11:26 BDT
K. Beazley says:
G'day Ryan,

Great thread! My desert island set (in fact, it would be one of my choicest desert island recordings) is the live Mackerras set on Hyperion. every time I play it, it takes my breath away. Remember when it was thought that the metronome markings were impossibly quick? Well, I don't know if Mackerras is quicker or slower (he'd have to be close), but the lilt & the swing that Mackerras brings out at even the tempos he adopts is a marvel. In fact, the impression I got from the first listen was, "this is the music of a young man impatient to get where he's going, which is to change the world as he sees it", yet the interpretation was that of an octogenarian conductor who could've gotten away with a far more sedate, "regular" reading of the symphonies. This set radiates both Beethoven & Mackerras - Beethoven because of the fidelity in interpretation by the conductor, & Mackerras because of all the tiny details that shine through that you just know are the result of great scholarship & thought.

I also have the Harnoncourt, which, before the Mackerras came along, I would have been just as happy to take along, & the late '70's Karajan/BPO (I love your description of "the gorgeous sweep and dramatic fire" - sums it up beautifully, although I would add the words "grandeur" & "weight").

Kim.

Posted on 9 May 2011 09:58:52 BDT
Last edited by the author on 9 May 2011 10:14:24 BDT
FP: The Krips set has been sporadically available from various sources and has been remastered more than once. In one of its incarnations some or all of it was in mono. The version I have comes in a tin can and claims to be stereo and I think is supposed to be the best remastering. This is it - Forever Beethoven (Coll) (Tin), it only costs 8.30 and I would suggest is better than the MP3 download unless you have space problems. The sound quality is reasonable though at times I think it is more like electronically produced stereo of a mono source. I bought the set (in a different format) because the superb performance of the 9th was how I got to know the work; it was on a single LP from Woolies. I would say all the performances are good and apart from caveats about the sound an excellent bargain. Somewhere, possibly on Amazon (or Amazon.com) there is a lengthy discussion of the various remasterings; if I can find it again I will let you know.

Added later: It is the reviews on Amazon.com I was thinking about; there is a comment from the engineer who did the remastering explaining his approach. Some of the other reviews are worth reading too.

Posted on 9 May 2011 11:12:46 BDT
Nugent Dirt says:
I cant think of anyone who comes close to LvB as the supreme symphonist. I have 6 cycles: Gardiner, Norrington, Mackerras/Liverpool, Zinman, Barenboim and Karajan '62. I like them all but possibly the Zinman tops the lot. I like the relatively quicker pace and lighter touch. I've got my eye on the Harnoncourt and Haintink sets too.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 11:51:05 BDT
T.J.Byford says:
GC, I've just spent the last few minutes listening to the sample mp3 tracks on Amazon, using an off-board USB DAC and quality headphones, and came to the conclusion that these are genuine stereo recordings. The quality is quite variable from poor, where the recording sounds decidedly rough to barely acceptable, but there is a constant and objectionable background hum throughout which only disappears in the 9th. This is clearly the most obvious stereo sound, but the 9th is objectionable from another perspective, the sound suddenly appears as though the orchestra were recorded in a bathroom. The 7th exhibits track reversal!

For a quick comparison, I switched to the Karajan Philharmonia set, which I ripped to my laptop in mp3 for convenience, and if surely there was an argument for quality mono sound to indifferent stereo, this is it. That the Krips set is indeed genuine stereo, albeit of dubious benefit on this showing, this seems to be confirmed by ArkivMusic.com who also confirm the recording date as 1960.

At just 6.99 for the download for the entire set, I initially saw no reason not to, as I do have some original, non-Beethoven, LP's of his and I like them very much. But, here, and whether due to the mp3 transfer or not, I am somewhat relieved that I didn't simply jump in with two feet.

You have the CD's. What is the sound like on those?

Posted on 9 May 2011 13:56:40 BDT
TJB: I have two CD sets. I bought the Bescol issue many years ago and they were dirt cheap, however the sound didn't seem to be real stereo. A couple of years ago the set reappeared claiming to be real stereo and remastered, as it was very cheap I tried again. I also read the reviews on Amazon.com and the engineers comments. I have mainly listened to this set on portable CD players.

I did some comparative listening and this is also the first time I have heard the discs on my new hi-fi.
I listened to the 1st movement of No 7 and the sound seems fine and genuine stereo, better than I expected it to be; the tracks are in the correct order. I compared it the old Bescol release, which doesn't seem like real stereo and recorded at a higher dynamic level. I then listed to the Karajan/Philharmonia version which I bought as a download and burnt to CD. I found the mono sound a bit harsh and thin, I am sure this is because it is mp3 format. The Krips version has a far more spacious sound. I then listened to the Krips No 9; the acoustic is different and in the first movement the orchestra sounds a bit recessed and not as clear as in No 7 but I wouldn't describe it as bathroomy. There is a drastic change of acoustic at the start of the finale but I don't think this a major problem; I was more interested in the interpretations.

The reviews suggest that the sound varies from symphony to symphony and the engineer said there was some deterioration of the master tapes. On balance, I would say go for the CD set, I don't think you will be disappointed. The accompanying booklet is bilge ('Love, indeed, was still to fan Beethoven's lonely heart more than once with its gentle breath') but the issue was designed for sale in a supermarket chain.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 15:08:32 BDT
T.J.Byford says:
GC, thanks.

I ripped the Karajan Philharmonia CD's to mp3 at 320kbs, but the most significant improvement in playback is undoubtedly the use of an off-board DAC, rather than purely plugging 'phones into the pc's output as this is then listening to nasty pc DAC's. The von K's sound quite smooth and belie their vintage. I was admittedly listening to Amazon's inferior mp3 taken from an undisclosed original, and to my ears the sound is not acceptable due to the continuous background rumbling. The engineer's comments have now been taken on board.

The real horror is why were these tapes allowed to deteriorate in the first place?

I enjoyed your "bilge" quote. I was browsing Amazon for SA-CD discs at the time and came across a set of the Nine by von Karajan, promoted with "Extra Tracks". (Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap?) Hopefully, these were some overtures, but what a find if it included previously unheard of missing movements to some of his symphonies!

Posted on 9 May 2011 16:30:39 BDT
I caught a bit of Roy Goodman's Hanover Band doing a bit of one of the scherzi from I ought to know which symphony. It was very brass heavy and extremely mercurial and motile. Really made me sit up and listen. Supposed to be an authentic period instrument sound but it sounded more like science fiction. I'd be most interested in exploring further but the set is rather costly compared to most.

Posted on 9 May 2011 18:30:50 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 May 2011 14:38:49 BDT
Piso Mojado says:
Furtwaengler for me as I've never heard him excelled except perhaps in the Second. I could wish his horns clearer in the Seventh. The only other cycles I have are Zinman's, and Sir Rattle's with Vienna Philharmonic, along with nearly complete Boehm and Solti, some Karajan, Schalk, Goodman, Klemperer

Posted on 9 May 2011 19:14:33 BDT
Period:
Gardiner on DG/Archiv
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies

Modern:
Gunter Wand with NDR-SO on RCA
Beethoven - Complete Symphonies
Probably the only recording among my 12 where all the symphonies satisfy me - although there might be recordings of individual works that are better.

I can't say I wouldn't miss the rest if I went to that desert island... how about Carlos Kleiber in 5 and 7 for instance...

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 21:02:43 BDT
zargb5 says:
What good taste you have. The Cluytens on cfp were about the first lps i bought with my paper round money. They got lost or worn out over the years - so i tried many other cycles karajan 70's DG and set his awful digital set from the 80's mackerras, Harnoncourt, rattle. Like you say the Kleiber disc is a desert island one and only recently did i manage to get the Cluytens set on cd and was not disappointed. I thought i had probably remembered them better than they actually were.

I really didn't like the Zinman, Norrington or Vanska discs. But it seems nobodies opting for them anyway.

Posted on 10 May 2011 06:00:41 BDT
JayJayDee says:
I like the Vanska set.
And the Barenboim set.

And the old Klemperer set.
And the (second stereo) Karajan set.

And 1 through to 8 of Zinman.

Oh yes, and Gunther Wand.

(Oh the folly of duplication!)

Apart from that it's good to have a few individual discs of 'way back' recordings to remind you of how each one of the symphonies first entered your imagination.
The George Szell 3rd and 8th on Sony Essential are blinding performances that have rarely been equalled. But that's because I bought a Columbia disc of the Szell 8th/Schubert Unfinished with my paper round money in the mid-sixties! I'd probably be unmoved by his 4th, 5th and 7th.

Posted on 10 May 2011 12:13:29 BDT
Thank you all for your thoughts so far. It's certainly been an education to me - even after owning 5 cycles and considering myself well across the available sets!! Kim: thank you for your comments in particular. I was vaguely aware of a Mackerras cycle. But I never knew of one by Josef Krips. Interesting stuff. Nugent: I may have to beat you to the e-counter for the Harnoncourt if it comes down to the wire, as I am coming close to ordering it too :-)

T. J. Bydford was certainly right when he said that the record companies must love our quest for the perfect cycle. Too true. However, it is the fun of collecting so many cycles with their various qualities and vices that perhaps make this quest so endlessly entertaining offering new insights into centuries-old music. Wonderful.
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Posted on 10 May 2011 14:30:23 BDT
Paul B says:
If I could only keep one of the many complete sets I own it would have to be Barenboim's. It is the only complete cycle I know without a weakest link, (often, but not always the 9th). It also has the benefit of fantastic sound.
I agree with JJD that the Zinman set is very fine of its type, but with a totally unengaging disaster of a 9th. For a similar approach to Zinman, you can't beat Mackerras's dirt cheap RLPO set. The 9th there is in a different league altogether.
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