A Beethoven a Day: The Big One

A Beethoven a Day: The Big One


norman lebrecht

January 24, 2020

Welcome to the 21st work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Symphony no 1, opus 21 (1800)

Beethoven was not quite 30 when he rolled out his first symphony on April 2, 1800 and no-one in the room can have been unaware that he was taking huge risks. The first 12 bars consist of a so-called ‘musical joke’, not in the sense of having the audience helpless with laughter but of forming a bit of a tease before the work picks up speed and gets the punters nodding along. It was five years since Haydn’s last symphony and Vienna was ready for change. There is a big statement in the third movement and the finale opens with another tease before bursting into blitz momentum. In all, the symphony lasts no more than 25 minutes, still a Haydn-like length.

Arturo Toscanini understood this symphony better than anyone. From his scratchy first recording of the finale at La Scala in 1921 to his exhilarating chase with the NBC Symphony 30 years later, Toscanini emanated an assurance that this symphony marks the gateway to modern humanity. Pay no attention to the poor sound: this is great conducting at its greatest, a maestro shaping music to his own ideas.

The earliest Otto Klemperer (Berlin, 1924) is no less imposing, with the conductor holding the orchestra back as if on a leash, before he let rip into a new epoch. The later Klemperer, with the Philharmonia in 1960, is much more beautifully played and even more tightly controlled. There is also a 1937 recording from Felix Weingartner, who would have heard from Brahms and Bruckner how they thought this symphony should go.
No-one conducts like this any more. Maybe we should be grateful for that; it’s all a bit authoritarian.

Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia in 1953 is still old-school in the tightness of his control, but always prepared to linger over a lovely phrase or sensual hint. Karajan gets more focussed on beauty and shape in several successive recordings; this is, by far, the freshest and most attractive.

Hermann Scherchen plays fast and loose with players of the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 1950s, incredibke tension and not much over 20 minutes in length. George Szell, in 1964, aims for classical lightness and, with the powerful Cleveland Orchestra, achieves transcendence. It ranks with Toscanini for absolute certainty of purpose.

Christopher Hogwood who recorded a 1980s set of the symphonies with the Academy of Ancient Music seems, by comparison, full of bluff and bluster, also rather dull. If it’s period instruments you’re after, look no further than the supple, elegant and witty Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players in 1989: the class difference is unmistakable. Some find Frans Brüggen (2012) even lighter and more likeable.

David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich uses a new edition of the score in 1998, and the clarity is perceptible. If you want heaviness, go to Gunter Wand, Colin Davis, Wolfgang Sawallisch; there’s no shortage of it.

Among 21st century conductors, Riccardo Chailly stands out above all others with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, adding bounce and brilliance to the proceedings in sound quality of the greatest lucidity. If there is an ideal Beethoven first, this might be it.



  • Esther Cavett says:

    Klaus Tennstedt recording – you want to get up and dance !

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Toscanini 1939, Karajan/Philharmonia, Klemperer live 1960, and Szell for this delightful work.
    Surprisingly, or maybe not so, none of the period instrument practitioners I have heard achieve the clarity, transparency, and musical energy of any of these four recordings.

  • Beethoven 1 says:

    Furtwängler conducted a marvellous version of Beethoven 1, so did Harnoncourt !

  • If might be only one director today it would be Chailly for me.

  • fflambeau says:

    Another great comparative review.

    My own tastes go with Klemperer for an older recording (his late one which is 6 minutes slower than von K) and David Zinman for a newer one.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    One recording surprisingly often overlooked is Ferenc Fricsay’s studio performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in the early Fifties. It has all the energy and vitality plus tearaway speeds present in Chailly’s estimable Leipzig recording nearly sixty years later.

  • Bone says:

    I can almost see the puzzlement on the audiences faces after the first two chords: “V-I? Is that it?” I love when conductors push and pull the “tease” out and, for,this reason, Furtwangler stands above any other I’ve heard. But I have to admit I haven’t heard Toscanini yet – looking forward to it.

  • Andreas B. says:

    My recommendation, published just today!

    Beethoven 1st with Karajan-Akademie Berlin conducted by Cornelius Meister:


    A spirited reading by a group of stunning young musicians, very well recorded and filmed.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Glad to agree with Bone and Beeethoven I on Furtwaengler. I had that 1921 Toscanini single of the finale with La Scala Orchestra when they toured the U.S., backed I think by the Rakoczy March, and I have Zinman’s admirably sleek, modern version with Auerich Tonhalle, but Furtwaengler lavishes such care, wit, and imagination on this early masterpiece, and the VPO play so beautifully that I cannot resist them.

    Id also agree with Flambeau about Norman’s excellent comparisons and comments.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    In all the comments about B’s symphonies, nobody has mentioned the Kurt Mazur set with the Leipzig orchestra. As I am generally unfamiliar with it, I am not qualified to comment, but I am curious.

  • BrianB says:

    Toscanini’s BBC Symphony 1st of 1937 is superior to his NBC recording in terms of flexibility and subtlety. Really no two bars are exactly alike, compellingly cohesive though it is. And it has the exposition repeat in the second movement.
    You stated “There is also a 1937 recording from Felix Weingartner, who would have heard from Brahms and Bruckner how they thought this symphony should go.” Documentation, please? A surmise that they discussed how it should go doesn’t justify your absolute “would have” without further proof nor would Brahms and Bruckner necessarily have agreed how it should go.

  • BrianB says:

    Addendum: There is an even more remarkable Toscanini performance than either the NBC or BBC–New York Philharmonic Symphony in 1936. The plasticity and powerful molding of line in a context of classical breadth are apparent immediately and is properly mindful of the later Beethoven to come. Just one small detail–listen to the lead-in to the recapitulation at 4:47. It’s the kind of thing he didn’t always seem to have time for later in his career.

  • BrianB says:

    Sorry, you tube link to the Toscanini 1936 Philharmonic performance.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    This symphony is enormously fun to play.

    I do recall a good conductor I played under agonizing about the third movement (marked Menuetto but it is Allegro molto e vivace after all, as is the whirlwind finale, so this is no elegant dance). After playing the trio and returning to the initial 8 bar statement of the — let’s call it a scherzo – theme, he asked us to honor the repeat which in normal classical tradition is only played the first time through, not after the trio. “It just sounds wrong” not to play the repeat was his justification. And yeah, 8 bars at that tempo is pretty skimpy musically. We tried it the “correct” way but he shook his head and in performance we took that unorthodox repeat.

    I have heard a recording or two that agrees with him; can’t recall who conducts. Academically he was incorrect, and maybe more crucially, I think Beethoven was making a joke within a joke, after breaking the rules in the first movement to make one joke, now following the “rules” for a minuet and trio movement is the joke, caused by that chopped-off sounding 8 bar theme, a joke that that conductor refused to get. I think it was meant to “sound” wrong, but this time deny the blue-noses a basis for complaint.

  • Edgar Self says:

    This first symphony has a marvelous country-walk andante that Furtwaengler and the VPO play in an ideal way.