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Thread: Beethoven Complete Symphony Cycle Quandary

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    Senior Member samurai's Avatar
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    Default Beethoven Complete Symphony Cycle Quandary

    I have been considering for some time now whether I should purchase the Herbert von Karajan Beethoven cycle recorded in 1963 or the more recent John Eliot Gardner one, which is performed on period instruments. Although I have listened to excerpts from both conductors on Amazon {30 second snippets}, I can't really discern much difference. I have read that there is a difference in the sound between HIP performances and those played on "modern instruments" {for lack of a better term}. Even though I really couldn't hear any difference during my Amazon foray, perhaps that was only because of the relatively short time devoted to each work on the site? If any of my fellow members have more experience with this than I do--and I'm sure there are many--could you please advise me as to what you find to be the major differences--if any--between the sonorities {?} produced by an HIP performance and that of a "regular" one. And if there are differences, are they really that noticeable, especially to untrained ears such as I possess? In your listening, do you favor one over the other, or can you listen to both with equal comfort?
    Thanks for your help in this matter.
    Last edited by samurai; Nov-06-2011 at 06:07.
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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    My advice: get both. Both should be available at cheap box-set prices. For example, the Gardiner set has been re-released on budget price box-set pictured below. At Amazon, it's a box of 5 CDs at between US$16 to US$20.

    As for the other question, we have recently discussed this. And it boils down to personal preference. Some think the HIP versions sound "feeble", while others think it sounds refreshingly "modern" in the sense that heavy crusts of 20th century German conducting has been removed and giving a different impression of the score. Major difference would be orchestral pitch, tempi, metronome markings (folloing them as per Beethoven or not), sound of the instruments (yes, they do sound different), vibrato and much more, including repeats of sections of movements.

    Go to your local CD shop or library or where they might have these available for proper listening, and then decide. Many of us have several versions of these symphonies - the heart of western classical music as some say, and having several versions usually is the best way to go. The nuances of the score will be ever more apparent.


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    Senior Member Conor71's Avatar
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    I have both sets and prefer the Karajan for reasons of interpretation - the JEG set is more modern and sounds better though.
    They are both really excellent sets - I personally can't tell much difference between them as far as the Orchestra goes despite the JEG using smaller forces.
    Some listeners really prefer HIP interpretations though - I dont think you will lose no matter which set you choose! .
    Last edited by Conor71; Nov-06-2011 at 08:00.

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    If you expand HIP into Historically Informed Performance, you will note that Period Instruments are not specified. Many recordings from the late 20th and 21st Centuries use a mixture, or no period instruments, and yet are 'historically informed' - it would be difficult not to be so informed.

    If the Period Instrument dictum is to be strictly heeded, some of the instruments used for the first two symphonies should be replaced when performing the 9th. Beethoven's career bridged most of the conversion period for strings.

    All of that is my way of pointing you toward the conclusion that you should acquire the recordings you like. If you can go the suggested library route, you may discover that the set theory is contraindicated.

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    I think Gardiner is _recorded_ more vividly, which is why I like his recordings. You can hear details clearly. And you can hear more energy from the smaller forces; i.e., his opening of his 9th symphony is like hearing the spiking of labor contractions. But I wish he would have put more soul in his slow movements. I have Karajan's 1970s cycle, and it's different enough that I agree with HC's advice to see if you can spring for both of them.

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    You should also consider the ridiculously cheap but terrific set with David Zinman and the Tonhalle orchestra of Zurich on the Arte Nuova label. This uses modern instruments but with marked HIP influence, and uses the latest research on textual matters edited by
    musicologist Jonathan Del Mar .
    One unique and intriguing feature of this Beethoven cycle is that the woodwind soloists
    sometimes embellish their lines like opera singers , which some musicologists believe may have been done in Beethoven's day .

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    Senior Member elgars ghost's Avatar
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    I agree with HC - get both Karajan and Gardiner. Beethoven's symphonies are tailor-made to test the 'chalk and cheese' theory.

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    I agree with HC. Get both. The price for both sets would run just over $30 US and it should be stated that Beethoven's symphonies are among those works that you will almost certainly wish to experience through various interpretations. Hell... get the Joseph Krips "tin can" box set as well ($6 US!!!!) and later you might wish to look into Bernstein and Cluytens... all at rather budget prices and all top-notch interpretations.

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    I've never bought a set of LvB symphonies. I think if I were to do so, it'd be COE/Harnoncourt, which successfully blends old and new approaches. Impressive recorded sound, too.

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    Senior Member samurai's Avatar
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    Men, Thanks for all of your advice and input on this topic. I am now strongly leaning to purchasing both the Gardiner and HVK renditions.
    If I understood Hilltroll 72's post, an historically informed performance is not defined solely by use of "period" instruments? If this is so, then what are the elements necessary to comprise such a performance, or have I completely misunderstood the concept/terminology being used here?
    Last edited by samurai; Nov-07-2011 at 05:31.
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    Quote Originally Posted by samurai View Post
    If I understood Hilltroll 72's post, an historically informed performance is not defined solely by use of "period" instruments? If this is so, then what are the elements necessary to comprise such a performance, or have I completely misunderstood the concept/terminology being used here?
    One would hope that ALL period-instrument performances are 'historically informed' (although some I have heard have made me wonder!). However, you can still have a 'historically informed' performance on modern instruments. This will affect such things as articulation, attack, tempo, and technique and will affect the sound of the music. To be aware of the performing practices of the time a piece of music was written (and, therefore, those things that influenced the way a composer WROTE the music) can only help in getting the performer closer to the composer's original intentions.

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    I have many sets of the nine. Gardiner is in a class of its own. For sheer brilliance and excitement I'm hearing these revolutionary works as they were first heard. Just try No 7 and the 'Eroica' they make every hair on your head stand on end.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Atticus View Post
    I have many sets of the nine. Gardiner is in a class of its own. For sheer brilliance and excitement I'm hearing these revolutionary works as they were first heard.
    What about the Immerseel? Whilst not on period instruments the Vanska and Zinman are also very exciting HIP renditions.

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    Senior Member regnaDkciN's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by superhorn View Post
    You should also consider the ridiculously cheap but terrific set with David Zinman and the Tonhalle orchestra of Zurich on the Arte Nuova label. This uses modern instruments but with marked HIP influence, and uses the latest research on textual matters edited by
    musicologist Jonathan Del Mar .
    One unique and intriguing feature of this Beethoven cycle is that the woodwind soloists
    sometimes embellish their lines like opera singers
    , which some musicologists believe may have been done in Beethoven's day .
    The solo oboe passage in the first movement of the 5th mainly suggests to me that Zinman was quite familiar with Peter Schieckle's "New Horizons in Music Appreciation."

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    Quote Originally Posted by regnaDkciN View Post
    The solo oboe passage in the first movement of the 5th mainly suggests to me that Zinman was quite familiar with Peter Schieckle's "New Horizons in Music Appreciation."
    Ha! George Szell does the same thing.

    Actually, I've used the Schickele recording in a music appreciation presentation. It's very funny, but it'also reflects pretty much what the first hearers were thinking at the time.

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