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Thread: Listening to Beethoven's 9 symphonies in a cycle

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    Default Listening to Beethoven's 9 symphonies in a cycle

    Do you ever listen to Beethoven’s 9 symphonies in a cycle of home concerts? If so, in what sequence do you listen to them?

    I fear my own listening habits have generally been rather lazy. I suspect some other members of this forum will have been much more imaginative!

    Nowadays many CD sets seem to present the symphonies in simple numerical sequence, and when Nos. 5 and 6 share a disc, the Fifth is usually placed first. Yet I don’t think any of the classic Beethoven conductors ever presented them in that sequence. (In particular, they nearly always followed Beethoven’s own practice of playing No. 6 before No. 5.) See also my next post.

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    Complete inventories of Toscanini and Furtwängler concerts from 1935 onwards list only one complete Beethoven symphony cycle by each conductor (in 1939 and 1948 respectively), as far as I can see (as distinct from unconnected concerts subsequently packaged in sets by record companies).


    Toscanini’s familiar 1939 Beethoven cycle was laid out in 6 concerts as follows:

    Fidelio Overture + Symphonies 1 + 3.
    Symphonies 2 + 4 + Leonore III.
    Coriolan + Symphonies 6 + 5.
    Egmont + Septet + Symphony 7.
    Leonore I + Symphony 8 + Quartet Op 135 (Lento assai & Vivace) + Prometheus (No. 5) + Leonore II.
    Choral Fantasy + Symphony 9.

    Furtwängler’s 1948 Beethoven cycle (London) was laid out in 5 concerts as follows:

    Egmont + Symphonies 6 + 5.
    Leonore III + Symphonies 8 + 7.
    Coriolan + Symphonies 4 + 3.
    Symphonies 1 + 2 + Violin Concerto [Menuhin].
    Symphony 9.

    Only the Second survives from that cycle, but the sequence can be approximately reconstituted using other recordings of 1947–1951 (though their orchestral sound & even their style fluctuate considerably!).

    During his final period (1953–1954), Furtwängler always programmed Beethoven symphonies in unconnected concerts, always ended the concerts with the odd-numbered symphonies, and always replaced Beethoven’s Second with his own (!). The usual layout was as follows (inside the brackets, I cite concerts of the period that were recorded complete and in decent sound):

    Furtwängler Symphony 2 + Beethoven Symphony 1 (1954-03-30, Stuttgart).
    Egmont + Symphonies 4 + 3 (1953-09-04, Munich).
    Symphonies 6 + 5 (1954-05-23, Berlin).
    Symphony 8 + Grosse Fuge + Symphony 7 (1954-08-30, Salzburg).
    Symphony 9 (1954-08-22, Lucerne).

    I find that group of performances much more stylistically harmonious than the 1947–1951 group described above.

    When Karajan presented complete Beethoven cycles in concert, he usually presented them in the following sequence:

    Coriolan + Symphonies 6 + 5.
    Symphonies 4 + 7.
    Symphonies 1 + 3.
    Symphonies 2 + 8 + Leonore III.
    Symphony 9.

    He deviated from the above sequence only when he wished to inroduce concerto soloists or to accommodate special circumstances.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever in my life started a Beethoven symphony cycle with the Sixth (as both Furtwängler and Karajan did). Have any of you tried that? And I don’t think I’ve ever played Leonore III at the very end of any music session (as Toscanini, Furtwängler, and Karajan all sometimes did).

    What about Bruno Walter? Did he ever perform the Beethoven symphonies in complete cycles? And if so, how did he group them?
    Last edited by gvn; May-28-2020 at 03:11.

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    Senior Member Rogerx's Avatar
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    Do you ever listen to Beethoven’s 9 symphonies in a cycle of home concerts? If so, in what sequence do you listen to them?
    No never, one each day I can take , but that's it .
    “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” ― Mark Twain

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    I don't think you have to ask me. Lol. I can take them whatever order they come when listening for pleasure. When I'm reviewing the cycles (the only time I ever listen to a full cycle in one sitting) I usually start with the 7th and go from there, as a decent 7th usually* means a decent cycle. As a preference I'd like to do my reviews starting with the 7th and 8th, then work backwards, leaving the 9th till last but it depends on how the recordings are paired and usually that isn't the easiest way to do it.
    If I sense I might be hearing a special cycle I'll listen to the 9th after the 7th, then the 5th, 3rd, 4th and 8th, Pastoral, 1st and 2nd but that rarely happens. As a personal preference I like the pairings below when listening for pleasure as they work best for me:

    1&2. 3&8. 4&7. 5&6. 9

    *not always the case
    Last edited by Merl; May-28-2020 at 08:06.

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    I have never listened to a cycle as such. I don’t think any composer meant us to. I remember being at a concert Of Bach’s 48 Book 2 and half way through thinking JSB would have thought we were all nuts sitting listening to them like this!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Merl View Post
    I don't think you have to ask me. Lol. I can take them whatever order they come when listening for pleasure. When I'm reviewing the cycles (the only time I ever listen to a full cycle in one sitting) I usually start with the 7th and go from there, as a decent 7th usually* means a decent cycle. As a preference I'd like to do my reviews starting with the 7th and 8th, then work backwards, leaving the 9th till last but it depends on how the recordings are paired and usually that isn't the easiest way to do it.
    If I sense I might be hearing a special cycle I'll listen to the 9th after the 7th, then the 5th, 3rd, 4th and 8th, Pastoral, 1st and 2nd but that rarely happens. As a personal preference I like the pairings below when listening for pleasure as they work best for me:

    1&2. 3&8. 4&7. 5&6. 9

    *not always the case
    I find it amazing that I gradually developed the same pairings, which I have been using for the past seven years! About once a year, I listen to the cycle in the course of a week, two symphonies per day, in this order: 4,7; 3,8; 5,6; 1,2; 9. I have all kinds of subjective and personal reasons for these pairings and this order. What a startling coincidence that my “system” is so similar to yours.

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    I listen to all nine - in order - annually. (I do the same with the symphony cycles of Mahler, Bax, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev.) Since all 9 fit on five disks it's not that much time. I usually listen with scores in one hand, a nice scotch in the other. That the symphonies are paired out of order doesn't make a whit of difference. Last summer it was the Paavo Jarvi set. Remember when Lorin Maazel did all nine consecutively in concert in one day? I can't recall if he used the same orchestra or multiple ones, but damn he must have had a lot of stamina to pull that off.

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    Only did it once, as a teen, when I got the Victrola Toscanini box and listened straight through in whatever sequence was on the discs. I had "known" most of the symphonies from other recordings. The most memorable thing about it was it was the first time I actually "listened" to the Pastoral -- closely, intently, and with fresh ears (It also had the best sound). I was blown away.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Simplicissimus View Post
    I find it amazing that I gradually developed the same pairings, which I have been using for the past seven years! About once a year, I listen to the cycle in the course of a week, two symphonies per day, in this order: 4,7; 3,8; 5,6; 1,2; 9. I have all kinds of subjective and personal reasons for these pairings and this order. What a startling coincidence that my “system” is so similar to yours.
    I don't know what it is about those pairings that just seem 'right' but they do. Tbh, I'll have them in any order but those pairings are ones I feel just work well. 2&7 and 1&3 are a common pairing too.

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    No, but I do that sometimes for my favourite symphonists. Even then, it is usually spread over a few days.

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    Thanks for all the replies. I'm keen to diversify & enrich my somewhat mindless listening customs, so I'm keen to hear as diverse a range of responses as possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Art Rock View Post
    I do that sometimes for my favourite symphonists.
    This interests me. Which symphonists do you play in complete cycles? And when you do, how do you group their symphonies?

    Quote Originally Posted by Art Rock View Post
    Even then, it is usually spread over a few days.
    Yes, I'm definitely talking about playing a cycle spread over a few days--NOT trying to do all 9 symphonies by Beethoven (or anyone else) in a single day, Maazel fashion!

    Having said which, there's a DVD in which Hengelbrock conducts all 4 Brahms symphonies (in numerical sequence) in a single live concert. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I don't think it works as badly as one might expect.

    I imagine Brahms definitely expected people to play 1+2 and 3+4 in pairs, and he wouldn't have thought it strange for those pairs to be played on successive evenings. So all four do "fit together" in a sense.
    Last edited by gvn; May-29-2020 at 01:24.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mbhaub View Post
    I listen to all nine - in order - annually. (I do the same with the symphony cycles of Mahler, Bax, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev.)
    I must try that--with Bax especially. I suspect it might add considerably to my understanding & appreciation of his symphonies if I followed them through in sequence.
    Last edited by gvn; May-29-2020 at 01:23.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Simplicissimus View Post
    Originally Posted by Merl
    As a personal preference I like the pairings below when listening for pleasure as they work best for me:

    1&2. 3&8. 4&7. 5&6. 9
    I find it amazing that I gradually developed the same pairings, which I have been using for the past seven years! About once a year, I listen to the cycle in the course of a week, two symphonies per day, in this order: 4,7; 3,8; 5,6; 1,2; 9. I have all kinds of subjective and personal reasons for these pairings and this order. What a startling coincidence that my “system” is so similar to yours.
    Interesting to see how many of us nowadays are willing to listen to 5 & 6 in that order--and even PREFER to do so. I can't recall ever hearing that sequence in my youth, nor can I find any record of such a concert by any (say) pre-1970 classic Beethoven conductor. In those days the sequence always had to be 6 & 5 (or play them in separate concerts).

    Maybe in our postmodern society we're no longer convinced that a "lighter" symphony is inherently inferior to, or would sound anticlimactic after, a more "serious" one?

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    Quote Originally Posted by gvn View Post

    This interests me. Which symphonists do you play in complete cycles? And when you do, how do you group their symphonies?
    Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Brahms, Bax. Not always, but sometimes. I play them in numerical order (which except for Bruckner is of course also chronological order).

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    Norrington's later set (from Stuttgart) has then in numerical order which followed what he did in the concerts the recordings were made from. I have just finished listening to them almost in that order - I say almost because I started with 9 and then (having loved it) went to 1 through to 8. It worked very well for me - some of the contrasts between the works were informative.

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