A Beethoven a Day: Have you got a second?

A Beethoven a Day: Have you got a second?


norman lebrecht

January 11, 2020

Welcome to the eighth work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

2nd symphony, opus 36 (1802)
If a second novel seldom lives up to the promise of the first, how much more so with a symphony? In some ways this is the most problematic of Beethoven’s symphonies. Coming after the explosive promise of the first symphony, the work seems to go neither forward nor back. After a ruminative opening passage, there’s a lot of bombast in the first movement, some gentle relief in an unusually long Larghetto and two snappy allegros to end, but nothing much to whistle at the bus stop. Was Beethoven’s mind elsewhere? He wrote the symphony while suffering the first symptoms of encroaching deafness. Maybe he keeps writing forte to see if he can hear himself think. One US musicologist has ventured a theory that the belched opening of the finale is a reference to the composer’s stomach problems (give it a rest, doc).
One of the most scintillating performances is delivered by Sir Thomas Beecham, who generally disparaged Beethoven’s bombast, preferring the lightness of Haydn and Mozart. His ultra-classical 1957 interpretation is delightful.

Herbert von Karajan, in a contemplative 1953 recording in London, takes his time with the introduction to draw out anticipations of later symphonies, including the Ninth. For Karajan this, far more than the first symphony, is the gateway to Big Beethoven.

At the polar opposite, this is the symphony with the most to offer period-instrument performers. My friend Stephen Pollard, musically aware editor of the Jewish Chronicle, swears by a 1986 recording from Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players: ‘I remember the visceral excitement of hearing this when it came out – it was, to use that hackneyed phrase, like hearing the piece for the first time. But time hasn’t diluted the sensation. It remains as fresh, vibrant and compelling a recording of anything as I’ve ever heard. And the climax of the first movement still brings goosebumps!’

My memory of Norrington in the 1980s is how, during coffee breaks, he would take at least half the players into the control room to listen and democratically discuss how they were fulfilling what Beethoven wanted. This performance is pretty captivating.


John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique piles on plenty of pressure to no great interpretative purpose and with frequently unpleasant wind noises.

Among the big beasts, avoid Toscanini: too hectic and terrible sound.

Not Furtwangler’s finest half-hour, either, in a 1948 London session with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic (2002) and Adam Fischer with the Danish National Orchestra (2019) find middle ground where historical fidelity coexists with agreeable modern sound to deliver a portrait of Beethoven in excruciatingly painful transition.

NB: By way of a wild card, a Philadelphia reader Michael Carasik calls my attention to a 2014 performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the Nobel-winning Russian novelist. Since pretty much everything is on Idagio, I had to give it a listen and agree – the tempi are simply organic.




  • AngloGerman says:

    Furtwängler’s reading is by far the only pleasant one of the list, regarding a truly difficult Symphony (as in his Bruckner recordings with due respect).

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    This piece is problematic in the sense that it is the least interesting of the cycle. I find the most problematic of the nine is the 6th Symphony in relation to performances. It is the symphony that fails most conductors & orchestras, particularly traditional ones as opposed to period ensembles.

  • Jimbo says:

    Interesting article. Personal taste? I find almost everything conducted by Roger Norrington brings a fresh perspective … he’s a much underplayed tour de force and needs treasured in THIS life!

  • Olassus says:

    Best Beethoven Second I ever heard was Claudio Abbado with Orchestra Mozart in Bologna in 2010.

    All repeats observed. Incredible lyricism. Natural phrasing and expression. It really made the case for a work I had always considered the weakest of the nine. And beautifully played by the Italians, btw.

    But DG never released it.

    Abbado led seven of the symphonies, five Beethoven overtures, the violin concerto (Faust), and piano concertos Nos. 2 and 4 (Pires and Lisiecki) with this orchestra, all recorded, almost none of it released. Too bad. It would generate a lot more interest, even incomplete, than the cycle from VPO/Nelsons!

  • JDRichmond says:

    Monteux had a nice way with the 2nd and the 4th.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    “One US musicologist has ventured a theory that the belched opening of the finale is a reference to the composer’s stomach problems (give it a rest, doc).”

    Is that representative of Beethoven scholarship?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Well I think much more highly of the second symphony than does our genial host; in fact I have come to prefer all the even numbered symphonies of Beethoven to the supposedly superior odd numbered ones. I think the writing for strings is far more assured in the second than in the (admittedly fun to play) Symphony No. 1.

    So my preference had best be considered with that bias in mind: Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony. It was a Decca (labeled “London” here in the USA) recording first released here on the RCA Victor label. Later Decca reissued it in the USA on their Stereo Treasury bargain label but somehow managed to muffle the sound, as they often did on Stereo Treasury and other bargain labels (it was very sad what Decca did to the originally glorious sound of the Brahms Serenades conducted by István Kertész on their bargain CD reissue, but I am wandering from the topic here). I have not heard a subsequent reissue of Monteux’s Beethoven so if possible I’d suggest hunting down the RCA Victor Red Seal LP and perhaps any original Decca LP. To me Monteux gives it just the right doses of power, snarl, and humor.

  • Brian Bell says:

    Funny that the 1957 Beecham wins honors. Easily the fastest rendition of the first movement I’ve ever heard is also with Beecham, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in 1926.


    The fun begins at about 29:30.
    A better transfer than this can be had from Pristine
    PASC- 366.This Beecham LvB Second was part of the first complete Beethoven Symphony cycle that came from English Columbia for another Beethoven anniversary, the centennial of Beethoven’s death in 1927.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Toscanini 1938 and 1949/51 (sound quality is certainly not bad, as NL suggests it is), Klemperer Philharmonia live 1960, Weingartner LSO 1938, and Monteux San Francisco Sym. 1949.
    All have been reissued on CD in one form or another – single disc or boxed set.

  • Brian Bell says:

    The idea of recording all nine of Beethoven Symphonies (actually, as much music of Beethoven as possible, 12 of the 16 String Quartets were recorded by the Lener Quartet) for the centennial came from a young employee of English Columbia, and Louis Sterling attempted the feat at quite a clip for the time (3 months?). Felix Weingartner recorded 5-9, and 1 was given to Sir George Henschel, 2 to Beecham, 3 to Sir Henry Wood and 4 to Hamilton Harty. Wood’s is quite an experience, the Scherzo is quite impressive. Henschel’s First is very straightforward, his only recording as a conductor. Weingartner rerecorded all his Symphonies save the 6th. The Ninth and Fifth have better renditions from him. I am extremely partial to the 1927 7th, the introduction in the first movement especially. I know of no other issues of the set save from Pristine, though Weingartner’s 6th is available widely, including Naxos. That has the best transition from the Scherzo to the storm imho.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Surely one of the most transcendent things Beethoven ever right, and in the same year as the tortured Heiligenstadt Testament:


  • Esther Cavett says:

    Yes, the Norrington is simply wonderful.

    BTW, re: Beethoven, did you see Danny Boy’s page-turn incident in Berlin around 30 mins 16 secs where he stops playing ? He’s played this triple concerto countless times over the years but never seems to have got it by memory :


  • Edgar Self says:

    Beecham and Pierre Monteux were famous for it. Furtwaengler is in compromised sound, but he knows how it goes. A few passages sound amazingly like Mendelssohn in the primo.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Weingartner also recorded a noble “Egmont” overture and triple concerto, both with the VPO like his second Ninth.

    Soloists in the triple concerto are a VPO concertmaster, an Argentine with the unlikely name of Ricardo Odnoposoff, cellist Stefan Au ber, and pianist Angelica Morales, one of Emil von Sauer’s manypupils and wives. With Sauer himself as soloist, Weingartner recorded the two Liszt concertos. They were both among Liszt’s students in Weimar.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I like ALL Beethoven’s symphonies with Daniel Barenboim live at 2012 Proms-

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    As one of Norman’s picks in his consideration of the Eighth symphony performances by mentioning favorably Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, I would also add their recording of the Second as well. Tempos very well judged, superb playing by the members of the BSO and the acoustic of Boston’s Symphony Hall, the site of the recordings, is unmatched. Hard to believe these recordings are almost sixty years old.

    The BSO recorded the Nine only once and that was with Leinsdorf. IMO the whole set is under appreciated today.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Have you considered the Lan Shui version on Orchid? That version brings out the sense of play in the symphony. Shui, Adam Fischer and Giovanni Antonini tip the had to the opera buffo tendencies in the symphony. However, Adam Fischer’s version subdues the darker undercurrents in the first two movements.