Gidon Kremer picks the best-ever Beethoven concerto

Gidon Kremer picks the best-ever Beethoven concerto


norman lebrecht

November 26, 2015

At least that’s what he was asked to do by the French magazine, Diapason.

But for Gidon there is no such thing as best and no acceptance of the record industry’s repeated claims of perfection.

So he proceeds by way of Oscar Wilde and Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Lockenhaus and Leonard Cohen, to give a tour d’horizons of what goes on in an artist’s mind when preparing and considering an interpretation of great music.

He has sent us the English original of the article, which runs to 44 fact and anecdote filled pages.

Here’s the longlist he compiled.

1 Joseph Szigeti / Bruno Walter / British Symphony Orchestra, 1932

2 Bronislaw Huberman / George Szell / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1934

3 Fritz Kreisler / John Barbirolli / London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1936

4 Jascha Heifetz / Arturo Toscanini / NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1940

5 Yehudi Menuhin / Furtwängler / Berlin Philharmonic, 1947

6 Christian Ferras / Karl Böhm / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1951

7 Zino Francescatti / Dimitri Mitropoulos / New York Philharmonic, 1955 (live)

8 Nathan Milstein / William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, 1955

9 Jascha Heifetz / Charles Munch / Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1955

10 Leonid Kogan / Constantin Silvestri / Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, 1959

We will not reprint the whole essay – you can read it here. Nor will we give away Gidon’s final choice of his favourite recording of the Beethoven violin concerto. You may be in for a surprise. A shock, even.

But here are a couple of excerpts to whet the appetite until you curl up with the full article this weekend.

gidon kremer

A concerto should be a “conversation” and in no way a “competition” between a soloist and an orchestra that is controlled and led by a conductor – a genuine demonstration of concertare. It must be clear that in a major work such as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, the protagonists should be equally important. What then becomes interesting for a listener (as well as for all participating musicians) is how (on what terms) the expected “conversation” takes place. An ideal performance should provide space for all participants to feel part of the presentation.

We can be sure that if a conductor were to decide that he were more important than the soloist, it would be considered an affront and an indication of profound disrespect for all the work by Gidon Kremer, Searching for Ludwig 8 the soloist to read the dots and strokes left by the genius creator (occasionally meaning months or even years of work to master the extremely difficult solo part).

In my own experience of having played a large variety of works, I have also seen “disrespect” assuming a different guise. Nowadays (although I wonder if it really was different in the past), some conductors – even some truly gifted ones – have no compunction about turning up at the first rehearsal shamelessly underprepared. It is as if the ability to “manage” rehearsals efficiently and quickly, not to mention the following concerts, takes precedence over matters of artistry.

I recently witnessed an artist (who is best left unnamed) literally sight-reading Alban Berg’s mysterious violin concerto – with absolute ease … but zero meaning. Cases like that reinforce the necessity of establishing a “pact” for a harmonious reading of any great score. In the selected recordings of Beethoven’s masterpiece, I had to consider relationships between famous “names” such as Menuhin and Furtwängler, Szigeti and Walter, Kreisler and Barbirolli, Ferras and Böhm, Francescatti and Mitropoulos.



It has been one of my life’s privileges to have played with many wonderful partners (some of them conductors, such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini and Nikolaus Harnoncourt). I learned to distinguish between those who spoke “my language” (or let’s be more modest, “whose language I tried – while I was still ‘learning the ropes’ – to understand and speak”) and those who, for all their greatness or mastery, remained “estranged” from me.

They included some of the members of the “Premier League” (Lorin Maazel, Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, for example) – and possibly the feeling was sometimes mutual! My search for the most genuine and intense dialogue became one of the parameters of my comparison. I wanted to find a recording that would demonstrate an ideal “partnership”. Did I actually need to look further – wasn’t it bound to be Heifetz and Toscanini?


heifetz set 59


I recalled how, when I was a student, David Oistrakh reflected on my rendering of the very romantic “Poème” by Ernest Chausson. I was seriously in love for the first time and indulging my emotions. My teacher interrupted me soberly with a comment on my glissandi. “Gidon, you can’t use so many slides – that’s how violinists played 30 years ago.” Somehow, though, many youngsters still seem to feel that they have to fill in shifts between notes and that greater effect is produced by introducing slides. I am tempted to comment, “80 years too late.”

Interestingly, in his study of even more archive recordings of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Professor Mark Katz also observes that less use is generally made of glissandi these days; the emphasis is more on letting music “speak for itself”.11 Now that’s a point I agree with! But what does it really mean in connection with Beethoven’s concerto?

To sum it up – times have changed. Bearing in mind that the late twentieth century accentuated the absolute need to focus on published manuscripts, what was permissible (or even “in”!) some decades ago has left us with many examples of glissandi – albeit employed with sincerity, great authority and full technical command – which have turned out to be slightly … wrong.



  • Daniel F. says:

    I was so hoping Kremer, who is a model of thoughtful, exploring musicianship, would take on the “traditional” slowing down for the g minor and E-flat Major portions of the first movement’s development section. NO such slowing is indicated in the score, yet no modern violinist or conductor, at least to my knowledge, avoids this tradition. Interestingly the recording of Adolph Busch, which Kremer never mentions, shows that the soloist did not wish to slow down (or if so only very slightly) but was not allowed to pursue his course by the conductor—his brother, Fritz Busch. As for what Kremer DOES address, it is all fascinating and wonderful and, remarkably, avoids the snobbishness of those refuse to acknowledge the accomplishments of Heifetz and Milstein along side those of Menuhin and Szigeti.

  • Michael Endres says:

    Fascinating essay.
    The grandiose recording by Josef Wolfsthal ( 1899-1931 ) from 1929 was not mentioned.
    I can’t help but posting about this miracle of a performance here:

  • Milka says:

    He certainly is one for going on and on and on and on……..and on…..and on ……

    • Harold Lewis says:

      Milka certainly is one for going on, with a trite and superficial comment, ……and on, with a trite and superficial comment, ……and on, with a trite and superficial comment ……

      • Glenn Hardy says:

        Yes, but at least this time it’s not the usual caustic nastiness masquerading as hard-hitting truth-telling.

  • FreddyNYC says:

    The recording by Renaud Capucon – with Nezet-Seguin – is destined to become a classic – beautifully played and recorded……

    • john albert wills says:

      No one seems to consider Georg Kulenkampff. I have most of the other recomendations mentioned but I just
      seem to keep coming back to Georg.

  • Charles G. Clark-Maxwell says:

    >>He certainly is one for going on and on

    It’s like reading Peter Donohoe’s blog !

  • Charles Timbrell says:

    How could David Oistrach’s several superlative versions be omitted?!

    • Pavel says:

      Specially the one with Andre Cluytens recorded in 1959.

    • Jean-Michel Molkhou says:

      You are right . Gidon did’t receive any of the 8 Oistrakh versions because we decided on my suggestion that I would select one. For me (critic for Diapason since 30 years), The King David got already an honor place in the competition. After re-listening the 8 version, I chose The Clayton’s for the set.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        I would have included – and possibly chosen as the all-out winner – Gidon’s version with the Schnittke cadenza. A magnificent interpretation, still provoking new thoughts when I listen for the xxxth time.

        • Daniel F. says:

          I love Kremer for bringing the Schnittke’s wonderful cadenza before the public. I was privileged to hear Batiashvilli perform it at Carnegie Hall with Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra a few years ago. To that point the performance of the concerto had been routine, but immediately after the cadenza , “something happened” to both soloist and conductor and from the coda of the first movement until the end of the piece the rexult was pretty extraordinary. A “magic” possible only in live performance and due to the impact of that Schnittke cadenza.

    • Milka says:

      He was too busy in writing page after page about himself to include you choice.He seems
      to lack erudition the subject requires .

      • M2N2K says:

        You probably do not realize how ridiculous this comment is for those of us who personally know Gidon as one of the most brilliant and erudite musical minds anywhere.

        • Milka says:

          My requirements are perhaps more stringent than Mr.Kremer and friends can muster.

          • M2N2K says:

            Then you should show which statements made by Gidon in this article are erroneous and why. Otherwise your comment demonstrates nothing but your own ignorance in yet another musical issue.

  • Stephen Owades says:

    The starting list of ten classic recordings was not compiled by Gidon Kremer. As the essay makes clear, these were the choices—and the discs—sent to Mr. Kremer by the editor at Diapason, not a “longlist he compiled” as Mr. Lebrecht claims. So it’s not right to blame Kremer for omitting one old (or new) favorite or another; indeed, he made his final top pick a recording that was not included among Diapason’s ten.

    Gidon Kremer’s essay is fascinating, and well worth the time it takes to read.

  • Holger H. says:

    I don’t get the statements regarding slides/portamento.
    Of course as with anything it can be overdone.
    But to do away with it as “out of fashion” seems superficial too me.
    I thought “serious” interpreters like Kremer and Oistrach don’t give a damn about fashion and only care about art?
    Or do they refer to it as only a fashion itself, yet of a short period in the past only?

    A good portamento in the right place is a wonderful and expressive quality. Nothing wrong with it at all.

  • M2N2K says:

    Concerning slides, David Oistrakh used to say to his students the following (I am paraphrasing of course because it was over four decades ago but the gist of it is certain): “Every slide gives me pleasure twice – first, when I find a place in the piece where I can use it, and second, when after trying it I later decide not to use it after all!”. Obviously this was an exaggeration – he did use slides occasionally – but he definitely felt that their usage should be minimized, particularly for students who were not musically mature yet to make those decisions and may have been influenced by listening to recordings of several great violinists from the first half of the 20th century who used slides quite a lot.

    • Mark says:

      Personally, I prefer the playing of Elman, Kreisler etc. who used slides liberally, to the cleanly impersonal sort of fiddling we hear today. And on a few occasions when I attended Kremer’s concerts, I could never enjoy the harsh and commonplace tone he produced.

      • Tony says:

        ‘harsh and commonplace tone’?
        Obviously you were sitting in the ‘cheap seats’. Mr Kremer has a wonderfully interesting tone – or rather – a ‘palette’ of tones.

        • Mark says:

          No, always the first tier at Carnegie Hall. Incidentally, the late Henry Roth, one of the eminent historians of violin playing, shared my opinion.

          • M2N2K says:

            Indeed he did, but Henry Roth always valued purely violinistic qualities much higher than interpretative ones which I believe is an erroneous prioritization because music does not exist in order to be played on violin – no, violin exists in order to play music on it. That is why he called Itzhak Perlman the best violinist of late 20th century, while I think that Gidon Kremer was a far more interesting violin-playing musician of that time. His sound was never huge, but it was always expressive and attractive.

    • Mark says:

      All this might be a matter of taste, but I must disagree with you, M2N2K – the composer creates a work for a specific instrument because his inspiration at the moment finds its fullest realization in the expressive and virtuosic potentialities of that instrument. Consequently, only a musician who possess a total command of the instrument can render this composition to perfection. Is a movement is marked “cantabile”, would a violinist who is unable to produce a beautiful tone be able to perform it well ? Kremer is “interesting” in the same way Peter Pears or Marie Garden were “interesting” singers – unfortunately, all their intelligence could not masque their humble vocal endowment. I recall hearing Kremer play the Schumann Violin Concerto in Israel – the performance was vigorous, tonally harsh and completely devoid of the Romantic spirit so richly realized in Menuhin’s classic recording.

  • Holger H. says:

    I really wonder, why Kremer did not protest against the huge nonsense to choose “the best” or even more idiotic “the best ever” Beethoven recording in the first place. There is no such thing.
    This is what happens when the wrong culture (American?) takes over, and makes out of everything a competitive sports event. Even of a classical composition and its recordings.
    Of course journalists have nothing better to do (like making some good music) because they are impotent to do anything better, than sitting on the sidelines and giving self referential points.

    The best Beethoven recording is the one that touches and enriches MY life the most NOW. It might be this one, today, and another one tomorrow, and for someone else something completely different.

    In the name of music, stop the idiocy.

    • Will says:

      It’s really interesting that, when I hear G.Kremer play, I am pretty well convinced that he has a ‘foot in both camps’ i.e. the ‘modern’ school of playing and the ‘authentic’ movement. This is partly due to his restrained use of vibrato and also his crystal clear ‘articulation’.
      I wonder whether, if he had had a ‘free rein’ in his choice of recordings, he would have even have mentioned any of the several ‘period instrument’ recordings? Probably not, as they are all in their own ways rather dreadful.
      I could’n’t believe not too long ago on the BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Building a Library’ that the critic Roy Goodman dismissed pretty well ALL the GREAT ‘modern instrument’ recordings and in the end recommended a very pallid and mediocre version whose only ‘virtue’ was that the player used gut strings.
      Going down thru’ the list of ‘period versions’ I can definitely ‘dismiss’ all of them, which include Huggett/OAE / Mackerras; Chase/ Hanover Band/ Goodman; Beths/Tafelmusik/ Weil; and the most dreadful one by Tongetti with a sour and harsh Australian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Halstead.
      There’s only one word for it: deceitful. I wonder what R. Taruskin would think?

    • Daniel F. says:

      I think his attitude is roughly the same as your own actually, and can be inferred from the vast number of variables he introduces as aspects of the consideration he must give to the question as posed and also from the fact that his actual choice turns out to be one, which by the same kinds of criteria he has been imposing throughout, fails truly to “measure up”. I don’t think competition, considered broadly, is unique to America. “Handicapping” or “ranking” is, after all, what discerning critics and musicians have always done, albeit in subtler ways than the raw terms of the question Gidon Kremer was charged with. Beethoven, of course, is so capacious a composer that one can find virtues a plenty in conductors as seemingly disparate as Roger Norrington and Otto Klemperer with plenty of virtues left over for a good many in between. This is, again, ranking of a kind, though without the rigidity of win, place, and show betting.

    • Milka says:

      He can’t stop — it’s the ego that has to be fed
      Forty odd pages of I this and I that, or on one hand this and one the other hand that . To point that its the wrong culture (American) when all the major musical sports events
      are European based (Chopin , Queen Elizabeth ,Tchaikovsky Wieniawski etc ) speaks
      of ignorance .

    • Bruce says:

      “The best Beethoven recording is the one that touches and enriches MY life the most NOW. It might be this one, today, and another one tomorrow, and for someone else something completely different. ”

      This is actually a pretty good paraphrase of Kremer’s point of view. It sounds like you agree with him more than you think.

  • Milka says:

    “violin exists to play music on it ” M2N2K – from Kremer to this nonsense

  • Bruce says:

    “In Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, as in his late quartets, and in Schubert’s songs and piano sonatas, every note is in the right place. That makes them monuments of modesty, substance and purity. Rather than food for enjoyment, entertainment or leisure, they strike me as a source of reassurance – an ocean of positive energy whose waves will continue to break upon our shores for eternities to come.”

    Beautifully put. Reminds me of reading Hesse’s essays on the arts.

  • Frank magnus-Hirshfield says:

    Music has been part of my 85 years and the 85 years I truly believe would have been shorter without Music.

    Reading the above…the Intelligent from which I learn and the infantile,from which one can also learn….I remind myself of the last time I am in the U.K and a winter’s night stuck because of Storms in Folkestone….

    Opposite the Public Bar (en face de la Gare) was a Church from which outpoured the Beethoven….played on the Violin I later learned by a French Girl whose playing…(yes I attended this piece played by Menuhin, Oistrach whose performance made the stones of the Building Weep.

    Everything is now competition and the best Patissière competes with the best Wrestler who Competes with the best Cook and he against the best Pianist who competes with…the best Sheep Shearer etc etc.etc etc.

    ‘My’ Folkestone violiniste did not seek Opponents nor Comparisons…it was for me a cold,windy, wet and up till then a frustrating evening with Ferries cancelled but her playing of the Beethoven on the Violin was SUBLIME….Does one need anything else,

    I repeat,does one need anything more ?

  • says:

    It would be interesting to know why mr. Kremer did not mention the Schneiderhan/Jochum version of the Beethoven concerto. A classic version, that should be in anyone’s list.

    • Arpeggione says:

      Because the list of 10 recordings that Kremer had to choose from was sent to him by Diapason – the compilation of choices was not his.