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Thread: Granate's Beethoven Symphony Challenge - Table 5 (Germany 1)

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    Senior Member Granate's Avatar
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    Default Granate's Beethoven Symphony Challenge - Table 5 (Germany 1)

    General introduction to the threads

    This thread is one part of my Beethoven Symphonies Challenge. It will be divided in six episodes or “tables”, and will compare a number of Symphony cycles in terms of performing quality and sound. The content of the six tables is closed, so please, don’t ask for any cycle to be included.

    When each thread is opened, it means they offer my impressions of my favourite cycles and some remarks. You can ask me for my opinion of a lesser rated cycle inside the board and I’ll try to reply whenever I can.

    Each “table” (except T1) is divided according to the location of the orchestra.

    • Table 1 Mono + Historically Informed Performances.
    • Table 2 Cycles made in the USA.
    • Table 3 Western Europe 1 (Netherlands, France, Italy).
    • Table 4 Western Europe 2 (Switzerland, Austria and the UK).
    • Tables 5 & 6 German orchestras

    Depending on the time, I may do further challenges between the winning sets from Tables 2-6. There is no cutting line in that case. It’s possible that one table sends 2 runner-ups and others have 4. Luck can always be a drawback. A decent cycle in the results may not be a waste of time.

    Please, take these threads as a recording recommendations and advice for potential buyers. I’m both taking notes of each symphony recording and filling an Excel board with all the cycles and their marks.

    Recordings tested on Superlux HD 668B headphones, not speakers.



    Table 5 – German Beethoven Cycles (Hamburg, Berlin, Münich)

    Conductor Orchestra Release
    Abbado, Claudio Berliner Philharmoniker 2008, DG
    Cluytens, André Berliner Philharmoniker 1960, Erato
    Jansons, Mariss SO des Bayersischen Rundfunks 2013, BR-Klassik
    Jochum, Eugen BPO + SOdBR 1961, DG
    Karajan, Herbert von Berliner Philharmoniker 1963, DG
    Karajan, Herbert von Berliner Philharmoniker 1977, DG
    Karajan, Herbert von Berliner Philharmoniker 1986, DG
    Wand, Günter NDR Sinfonieorchester 1989, Sony

    Conductor Symphonies Orchestra Release
    Fricsay, Ferenc Nos.1,3,5,7,8,9 Berliner Philharmoniker 1959, DG
    Maazel, Lorin No.5 & No.6 Berliner Philharmoniker 1960, DG



    I didn’t expect this table to leave me with such a cold feeling. I thought I would have to make a tough winner choice, but many of these cycles had their foot on the pedal. This first half of German Beethoven cycles was supposed to be very strong, counting with the BPO cycles by Karajan, Cluytens and Abbado. True thing, I had listened, in previous tables, to a bunch of analogue cycles I loved.

    What I expect now is that Table 6 provides a lot of contenders, but if all Beethoven cycle sound styles I imagine are covered, I can’t be that sure.

    I had a blackout when I first tried to write about this table. I find more liveliness, and a bit more personality, in these cycles than the Dutch or French ones, but they might have arrived just too late. The first Eugen Jochum cycle for Deutsche Grammophon offers early but safe recordings in mono and stereo from Berlin and Münich. Only No.3 (mono) caught me off-guard.



    Beethoven
    Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125
    Imgard Seefried, Maureen Forrester, Ernst Haefliger, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
    Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale Berlin
    Berliner Philharmoniker
    Ferenc Fricsay
    Deutsche Grammophon (1958/2001 Remastered Edition)


    In previous LP releases, these symphonies shared room with Fricsay and Maazel stereo recordings. The two Maazel’s (No.5 & No.6) remain still immature, without taking advantage of the refined Berliner Philharmoniker. The Ferenc Fricsay recordings don’t shine the way I’d like but both No.3 and No.9 are very competitive. The No.9 is a very famous recording that grows a lot in the Adagio and Choral finale.

    The bottom half of the table is the place of four cycles that didn’t catch my attention at all. Only the second Abbado Berlin cycle has enough charisma to deserve the fan-favourite title in the modern times. The last Karajan Berlin cycle (80s), usually famous for its negative reviews, shows a brilliant and clean sound that slightly helps to bear with limp and boring interpretations. The exception is the famous No.3, lifted up by a polished brass section and perfectly conducted in the Funeral March. Then, two cycles are considerably well-recorded and have nice first symphonies, but are unforgivably dull and uncompetitive: those were the second Karajan in Berlin (70s) and the new Mariss Jansons in Bavaria (BR-Klassik). Claudio Abbado’s second cycle in Berlin (recorded live in 2002 in Rome and released in 2008) achieves a pristine sound quality but with an orchestral style that uses the new and HIP Beethoven edition. I don’t like it, but it has a very notable No.9, brilliantly conducted.



    With all those sets addressed, it’s time to name the three best cycles of this Table. They were the three protagonists, but maybe I should talk about a single winner, Günter Wand, which has fortunately become a reference in a style that was still empty: a dynamic and colourful Beethoven in digital sound. The other two, Karajan 63 and Cluytens, are both analogue and from Berlin but they apparently have nothing in common.



    Beethoven
    9 Symphonies
    Gré Brouwenstijn, Kerstin Meyer, Nicolai Gedda, Frederic Guthrie
    Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale Berlin
    Berliner Philharmoniker
    André Cluytens
    Warner Classics (1960 / 2006 or 2017 Remastered Edition)


    In spite of the competitive first recordings and a positive first impression, André Cluytens’ cycle stays on the threshold of the final. Seemingly flawless but unsatisfactory. Being considered as “the worst of the best”, I don’t doubt it’s the most regular cycle. It’s both the style and the sound that remain convincing in all the symphonies. Those that weren’t that strong, deserved a good mark. In the beginning, the Berliner Philharmoniker had a similar sound to the Viennese orchestras, with sumptuous and colourful strings. I expected that elasticity turned in Cluytens’ favour, but as the other cycles steeped higher, this set couldn’t. That is my main complaint. It is not extremely competitive, and never seems to grow. There’s not a single highlighted symphony, except some bits like No.9’s finale or the broad pace of No.6. If this was the only cycle at home, it would be a very safe and enjoyable purchase.

    The enigma of this Erato set, in my opinion, is the remaster of the cycle we should choose. I’ve listened to two editions: 1990s (issued in 2006 and 2011) and the new Original Tapes remaster released in 2017. I’m undecided. I think that, unlike many recordings in the 90s, this cycle was well remastered. Despite the general lack of spatial definition in that era, Cluytens’ musicality is never undermined. It’s even sweeten. The new 2017 Warner remaster (luckily) doesn’t affect either the sound or its impact. It sounds unapologetically analogue but the soundscape is solid and brilliant, almost like the harshness of the WPO strings. The big problem happens sometimes in symphonies like No.3, when the remaster sounds unexpectedly old, like when you take many frames out of a film. Despite the differences, I don’t find any step, back or forward. If you really like this cycle, try both remasters before the first one becomes OOP.



    Beethoven
    9 Symphonies
    Gundula Janowitz, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, Waldemar Kmentt, Walter Berry
    Wiener Singverein
    Berliner Philharmoniker
    Herbert von Karajan
    Deutsche Grammophon (1963/2003 Remastered Edition)


    Although the revolutionary Karajan 63 BPO cycle was one of the biggest fan-favourites, the first symphonies were leaving be too cold. For this challenge, I chose 2003’s remaster because it was the one it convinced me the most on Spotify. It’s not an expansive Beethoven, for the better or worse, but with an otherworldly power, especially in odd symphonies. It’s epic and very intense, on a very different league than the winner of this table, but when those qualities aren’t needed, the quality flops. That’s the case of No.1, No.2 and the stone-cold No.6. No.4 and No.8 are rather fine. Watch out for Symphony No.9, the crowning jewel of the cycle that demonstrates great composure in the orchestra, chorus and singers, with a Janowitz that rocks the hell out of the soprano part. I thought Cluytens was the one going to the final, but the quality of the odd symphonies in this cycle was too high for being left out. A new review in the final may throw more light.



    Beethoven
    9 Symphonies
    Edith Wiens, Hildegard Hartwig, Keith Lewis, Roland Hermann
    Hamburgischen Staatsopernchor
    Chor und Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks
    Günter Wand
    Sony Classical (1989/2018 Reissue Edition)


    The biggest surprise, the winner of the table, and now one of the most hyped sets in the upcoming final is Günter Wand’s digital cycle in Hamburg. It doesn’t only have depth and density in double-basses and strings, RCA offers pristine sound and Günter Wand gives dynamism and excitement without forcing the pace. The biggest merits are in the first half of the cycle, but maybe because of the surprise effect. The best marks were given to No.1, No.2, No.4 and No.5, while the others are very consistent too. No.9 is a small step back, without very strong singers and with an odd fast pace.

    I’ll need the final episode with the winners for a more elaborated approach. This is one of the sets that are most likely to win, if it didn’t already with his Digital rivals. The new 2018 box has a bargain price.

    Direkt till Finale: Herbert von Karajan BPO 63 & Günter Wand SOdNDR

    Apologies for the delay. I wrote this text in Spanish one week ago and I didn't do anything until today. It was hard to write and I like this second version. I'm still too unhappy with my expressions in Table 4.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    I'm probably with you on most of this one. Karajan 63 and Wand are definitely the best of these and benchmark sets. I don't rate either of Abbado's cycles (in particular I find the VPO cycle dull). Like you said, Karajan's odd numbered symphponies are the best but I don't think there's a duffer in the set. I even like his serious-sounding Pastoral (but prefer his 77 and 86 Pastorals). The big thing with Wand is his consistency. The sound is consistently fine, Wand judges his tempo perfectly and convincingly for each performance and the playing is superb. It's a great cycle. Of the others Karajan 77 is a good solid set but without the heft of the 63 cycle, Jansons is beautifully played (with a lovely Pastoral) but could do with a bit more clout, Karajan 86 is much better in the remastered form and Cluytens is a decent set too but I agree that the strings can sound a bit thin at times.

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    Senior Member D Smith's Avatar
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    I've quite enjoyed your Beethoven cycle reviews Granate even when I haven't agreed with them. But I concur wholeheartedly with your top choices this time. Wand's set is conducted 'just right' (to my ears) and it's a cycle I return to again and again. Karajan's 63 was what I grew up with and his 9th still remains my favourite. (I do like his 70's set as well with a much better 6th). Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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    I partially agree with the above.

    Abbado's Berlin accounts are far too driven and cold for me.

    Cluyten's set is good, if not exceptional, with sound that shows it age (I have the set in the "Cluyten's Complete Orchestral and Concerto Recordings" box).

    I find Karajan's '77 set more consistent than his '63 however, and it has the benefit of fuller sound.

    Yes, Karajan '63 is superb in almost all of the odd numbered symphonies, particularly the ones that call for power and intensity: 3, 5, and 9. But none of the even symphonies in the set work for me at all and the 7th seems unfeeling in the 4th movement. The '77 7th is better played and the even symphonies are all excellent - except for the 8th, which Karajan never managed a handle on in any set, IMO. The '77 9th is also excellent, roughly on a par with the '63, though each have their own different virtues. So 5 to 4 in favor of '77.

    I'm in full agreement with the above comments on the Wand: to me it's by far the best set of all the ones I've heard. Excellent conducting, playing and sound. The only let down is the 3rd, and Wand re-recorded that the next year live (coupled with the Leonore Overture No. 3) in a superb reading that matches the level of the rest of the set.

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Here’s a nod to Haitink with the London Symphony Orchestra from 2006. Haitink has always sounded a bit stodgy (to me) in Beethoven. But here he gives a nod to HIP with smaller forces, a lighter approach, brisk tempi, and a good energy level. He mostly uses Beethoven’s tempi and the newer Barenreiter edition. Above all, his performances are really musical.

    A very good cycle that can be lived with for a long time. And the MP3 version is really cheap right now at $13.99.



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    Senior Member Granate's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Here’s a nod to Haitink with the London Symphony Orchestra from 2006. Haitink has always sounded a bit stodgy (to me) in Beethoven. But here he gives a nod to HIP with smaller forces, a lighter approach, brisk tempi, and a good energy level. He mostly uses Beethoven’s tempi and the newer Barenreiter edition. Above all, his performances are really musical.
    Hello KenOC, and thank you for your ad on Haitink LSO. This set was reviewed in Table 4, so you might post there as well...

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    Senior Member Robert Pickett's Avatar
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    Just chipping in with my halfpenny's worth, for me the best of these cycles has to be Cluytens. Yes, it's the one I grew up with, on old CFP records, but it has remained a staple as much as Kubelik's Mahler has in my collection. I find them immensely satisfying, the most consistent "traditional" set I have (alongside Jochum and Kletzki), and I wouldn't be without them. My CDs are of the earlier remastering, and I have no issues whatsoever with the sound, even if they do not lie about their age. Oddly enough, I really fell for Gunther Wand's set when I first bought it; enthusiasm has waned, and I don't return to them very often. These are "safe" in my book, but not much else.

    Of Karajan's four cycles, I find the third one from the mid-'70s the most compelling, I find the earlier DGG one here praised a bit hit and miss.

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    All of Abbado's Beethoven recordings I could go without ever hearing again, save his 9th on Sony which is surprisingly excellent.

    Cluytens should never be overlooked. I concur with Robert here in that I find it extremely consistent and immensely satisfying. Top value for a traditional cycle with great playing from the Berlin Philharmonic.

    Karajan is Karajan. Each cycle has merits and caveats and are all worth exploring for Karajan's unique approach to everything he did.

    Wand deserves to be at the top as his cycle is amazing in every aspect. Have to COMPLETELY DISAGREE with Granate's statement that his "No.9 is a small step back, without very strong singers and with an odd fast pace."

    Wand's 9th is one of the GREATEST ever put on record, with EXCEPTIONALLY strong singing and with ABSOLUTE PERFECT pacing!!!

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