But however hard wrought, Beethoven’s works are so audacious and indestructible that they survive even poor performances. – Anthony Tommasini, NYTs Music Critic
You'll see endless rave reviews about how this or that conductor and orchestra finally makes this or that work hang together as a whole--not a good sign. – Amazon Reviewer, on Kubilek’s Mahler Cycle
Bach, and to a less extent Mozart and Haydn, wrote more individually for individual instruments, and many of their works are incredibly delicate, like an extremely complex recipe. I cannot recall how many times an erstwhile “boring” piece by Bach or Mozart came alive through a particular performance and only that performance. I went through five recordings (using certain test pieces only of course) before I settled on Richter’s Well Tempered Clavier. My Partitas and Sonatas for Violin playlist is a composite of Julia Fischer, Kyung-wha Chung, and Viktoria Mullova, having found Perlman bland, Szeryng ponderous, and Milstein too stiff and austere. Pires, Pogorelich, and Argerich for the Partitas and English suites, not Gould. I reason that a large part of many users’ antipathy or indifference to Bach or Mozart can be attributed to the lack ideal listening circumstances; to truly appreciate Bach or Mozart you need to be a connoisseur or someone who can play the violin or the piano. Unlike Beethoven, where there are prominent definitive or near definitive recordings (The Karajan Cycle, Kleiber 5, Furtwangler 9, etc) the evaluation of the interpretations of Bach and Mozart are more diffuse. If there are “definitive” versions of a Bach work, they are a false one, usually divisive and repellent in manner (I shudder to think how many people gave up on Bach because they were repulsed by Gould). Some swear by Grimaux’s Violin Concertos, but I prefer Julia Fischer and Mutter/Karajan. I am utterly indifferent to different recordings of Beethoven’s violin concerto.
For the cello suites, Casal partisans abound, and Fournier champions are impressive. I, for one, will stick with the modern Rostropovich and Ma. However, each new school seems to add an audience.
In the string quartets the contrast in the contrast in quality between the various recordings of Haydn and Beethoven’s quartets are noticeable. Although for the late Quartets I prize the Takacs above all, the Alban Berg (1989 live) are only marginally less excellent and incredibly listenable, as are the Emerson and Amadeus. However, for Haydn’s Opus 76, after digesting the Takacs recording on Decca all others were unlistenable, including a venerable account by the Alban Berg on EMI. The less said about the Kodaly and the Aeolian, the better. Bach (user) said that Beethoven wasn't writing notes that were cello-ey or violin-ey when he wrote the Grosse Fugue, but Haydn seemed to always have the individual instrument in mind; even in Mozart's later symphonies, the sweetness of the strings is essential to me, which is why I stick to the recordings Karajan made with the VPO with Decca in the late 50s/early 60s (Karajan: Legendary Recordings - get it, it's some of the best things he conducted in the best sound).
I have Beethoven's sonatas by Gilels and Pollini, and again, the difference, if any, is marginal.
Of course my ability to have nearly unlimited access to a wide selection of recordings was only made possible by the internet age; for most, going through 5 to 6 recordings of a work that has not yet sparked your fancy is exhausting and expensive, former a prerogative of the relatively rich.
What are some other composers that suffer the most/withstand the best from the poor performance? Mahler belongs in category 1, definitely.
Of course there are exceptions, the Hammerklavier being the chief one.
Example of the exhumation of Bach's Cello Suites:
"There can be few classical music lovers who are not familiar with the true fairy-story in which, in 1890, the thirteen-year-old Pablo Casals, newly enamoured of the cello and foraging with his father in the back-street music-shops of Barcelona, happened across the Grützmacher's edition of Bach's lost "Cello Suites" on a dusty shelf. Prodigiously talented, Casals was already studying by day in the Escola Municipal de Música and moonlighting in a café trio; the re-discovery of Bach's neglected suites changed both his life and the course of twentieth century music for good.
He practised them assiduously for another thirteen years before finally feeling able to perform them in public. To do so, he had to evolve new techniques and arrive at an understanding of this remarkable music. He came to espouse a philosophy of performance based upon the principle that no matter how abstracted, stylised and removed this music had become, it was still essentially the music of dance and as such required the performer to invest it with a Terpsichorean vigour, vitality, elegance and grace. It was another quarter of a century before he could be persuaded by EMI to record them.
Casals released these suites from the fate of many a Bach masterpiece over two hundred years, of being considered a dry, technical exercise of no particular value beyond its use as practice fodder to engender facility and flexibility. Such was Casals' emotional investment in this music that he found performing and recording them physically exhausting - though in later years he would willingly perform from them for grateful visitors such as Rostropovich. The recordings here were made two at a time, first at Abbey Road, then in Paris between 1936 and 1939; it must surely have been an additional emotional spur to Casals, fierce Republican and champion of liberty, that they coincided with the ghastly events of the Spanish Civil War." - Who pays these poor suckers to write these reviewers?
Category 1: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Mahler
Category 2: Beethoven, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky
Opera is more complicated... I haven't listened to enough to make up my mind...