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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Which Beethoven Cycle(s) Do You Own?

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Beginning with my Friday post of this week, I am entering a new long-term project on ITYWLTMT, which will showcase all of Beethoven’s symphonies and concerti. This is not going to be done “shot gun” style, but rather once a month (or so), stretching well into 2012.

In preparing for this “Beethoven Project”, I wanted to kick off with a post on the Beethoven “Complete Cycles” which I own – all four of them – and thought this could be a good topic for TC'ers to chime in with their two cents .

What do I look for in a Symphony Cycle?

Through my 30-plus years collecting and listening to Classical Music, my tastes and opinions have undergone shifts (same as most of you, I am sure). Putting aside emotion or sentimentality (though they always come in play), when I look at a “complete cycle” of anything, the operative expression is unity of vision. In the case of symphonies, unity of vision implies consistency in interpretation, consistency in approach, and the edition/version of the score.

Case in point: for those of you who sampled my blog post of July 29, I proposed two very different approaches to a trio of Mozart symphonies. The triptych (in both cases) was part of a “complete cycle” of Mozart symphonies, from different eras, by conductors who came to the music from different points of view. Both valid, but for most people, one “vision” will beat out the other. Things like recording quality have some weight in this choice, but (arguably) the approach makes or break the cycle. More importantly, though you may prefer, say, Leinsdorf’s “Prague Symphony” over Pinnock’s, it may be that the Pinnock cycle will find its way on your iPod rather than Leinsdorf’s because you tend to favour “period performances” rather than over-the-top massive orchestras.

That’s the way it is for me, anyways.

So, what’s on my iPod when it comes to Beethoven Symphonies?

On my iPod I have one “complete cycle” and a number of individual recordings of the symphonies, some from cycles I own, others from recordings I especially enjoy. For the purposes of today’s article, let me discuss the four cycles I own, and pepper in some musings.

Cycle #1: Rene Leibowitz and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1961-62)

My mom subscribed to the Reader’s Digest (Sélections du Reader’s Digest en français), and also received tons of mailers every month, peddling books and… records. When she received the mailer advertising Leibowitz’s cycle in 1979, I nagged her and begged her to get them. I was starting to collect music at the time, and thought my collection would benefit from adding these records.

The records came by mail, in a box, with only a few words scribbled inside the box cover in lieu of liner notes. The recordings sounded magical on my beat-up all-in-one stereo and turntable, and I must have listened to the recordings, over and over, for months! I bet I wasn’t alone – with over 40 million readers in 70 countries, there must have been thousands of copies of this cycle sold to music lovers everywhere.

Nostalgia aside, these recordings are very solid, and I especially treasure the less-heralded symphonies (2, 4 and 8 in particular) as I think Leibowitz’s old-world style make them stand out.

For your enjoyment, Leibowitz conducts Beethoven's 8th (YouTube):

The recordings were re-mastered and re-issued by Chesky, and the Leibowitz recordings have made a come-back. Well-worth checking out! (Many YouTube selections + Torrent)

Cycle #2: Leonard Bernstein and the Wiener Philharmoniker (1978)

In 1982 and 1983, the Vermont PBS affiliate available in Montreal through Cable presented a series entitled “Bernstein / Beethoven”, hosted by Maximilian Schell, and featuring Bernstein discussing the symphonies, and featuring an overture with a symphony. What a great series!

Like everything Bernstein did starting from about 1975 for Deutsche Grammophon, a Bernstein performance of note would find its way onto a DG record “live in concert”, and that was the case for these symphonies. I received the set as a gift while I was in Graduate school, for Christmas 1984. By then, I had a better stereo and my Leibowitz set was tainted by excessive wear.

Here is a sample: Beethoven’s 7th (YouTube):

Definitely an “old school” performance, I especially appreciate Bernstein’s work on the more (in) famous symphonies (3, 5, 7 and 9). These recordings were my “go to” set for well over 15 years. (Torrent)

Cycle #3: Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra (1988)

I read somewhere that, after a brilliant performance of Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra on tour in Europe, the maestro said that “We give a great concert...and George Szell gets a great review”.

As I took some CD’s out of the local library in Calgary in 2001, I borrowed the Dohnányi set, and was awestruck. The sound quality, the command of the music, and the unforgettable Ninth.

UPDATE: Here is the complete 9th from this cycle:

Dohnányi’s third, sixth and ninth have my vote as the stand-out performances from this cycle. Individual discs and their re-issues are discussed at the label's website.

Cycle #4: Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra (2005-06)

I read a lot about “new editions” of the Beethoven symphonies, and was a bit perplexed. I saw this as some sort of a coup perpetrated by the “period movement", trying to re-invent Beethoven by going for smaller forces, more cerebral, etc, etc. May Mahler roll over in his grave, he who thought Beethoven deserved “bigger orchestras” (as Christopher Walken would say “more cowbell!”).

I heard an early attempt, by Sir Roger Norrington, and was unfazed. Then, I stumbled onto the below promotional video from the London Symphony, and I was smitten:

I purchased a few of the symphonies, and then the whole set. In a way, I’m not surprised – Bernard Haitink has the Midas touch when it comes to, well, everything he does. I don’t think there’s anything he’s done during his Amsterdam years, or his Dresden years, or in his many collaborations with the Boston and London Symphonies that missed the mark. He’s definitely one of my favourite conductors, and his Beethoven is superb.

He uses the Beethoven scores as edited by Jonathan Del Mar, and they strike the right balance between orchestral power and simplicity, and the approach feels authentic, without being cerebral. The set is discussed on the label's website.

That cycle is the epitome of “unity of vision”, and it is “the one” complete Beethoven cycle on my iPod.

As the montage series unfolds over the coming months, I will sample from these cycles and other sources, and will discuss individual performances in my collection.

How about you? Which Beethoven cycle(s) do YOU own?

Comment against the blog or on the below thread:
Which Beethoven cycle(s) do YOU own?

August 19 2011, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "This Day in Music History - August 19, 1990" to our Pod-O-Matic podcast. Read our English and French commentary August 19 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.
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Updated Oct-23-2011 at 17:25 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Recorded Music