A Beethoven a Day: The cycle question

A Beethoven a Day: The cycle question


norman lebrecht

January 15, 2020

Welcome to the 12th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition.

Many readers have written in asking for a recommendation for recorded cycles in Beethoven, especially the symphonies.

Sorry, I can’t help.

In all of my listening, I have yet to encounter a boxed set without flaws. Not just minor lapses, but fundamental, stagnant black holes like the indeterminate Pastoral in Hebert von Karajan’s otherwise imposing first Berlin cycle of 1963 (he went on to record seven or eight more), or the far-too rushed Eroica in Nikolaus Hanoncourt’s refreshing 1990 set with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.  Boxed sets, I’ve always understood, are for Christmas. Beethoven is for the other 364 days of the year.

The one exception I would contemplate is the set that Rafael Kubelik recorded for DG in the 1970s, each symphony played by a different orchestra and informed by a different sensibility – the 1st with the LSO, the 2nd with the Concertgebouw, 4th with Israel Phil, 5th with Boston and so on. Find it if you can. It is much more than the sum of its parts.

And still they come. In the past decade, I have admired parts of Riccardo Chailly’s set with the Gewandahaus of Leipzig, Barenboim’s set with the Berlin Staatskapelle and Andris Nelsons’ with the Vienna Philharmonic, which seems to be a work in progress for the conductor more than a lifetime statement. The latest are fro two Budapest brother conductors, Adam and Ivan Fischer.

My reticence in respect of box sets is not shared by some among the group of experts I have assembled to guide me in this Idagio trawl, so let me give you a few of their recommendations by way of first-aid and consolation.

Stephen Rubin, publisher, head of Holt Macmillan: Klemperer/Philharmonia and Toscanini/NBC

Leonard Slatkin: George Szell/Cleveland

Amir Mandel, chief music critic of Haaretz: René Leibowitz and the Royal Philharmonic (cool)

Peter Alward, former head of EMI Classics and Salzburg Easter Festival: Karajan/Philharmonia (smart!), or John Eliot Gardiner

Richard Bratby, The Spectator: Karajan 1963

Allan Kozinn, ex-NY Times critic: Szell

Tim Page, ex-Washington Post: You will disagree with me — and I’m sure that some of my love for this set is sentiment — but the 1962-63 Karajan still seems the golden mean in the symphonies.  I’d rank Cluytens, Haitink and the last Abbado highly along the same lines.   Furtwängler was wonderful of course and I’m newly smitten with the Lucerne Ninth…  And — as you mentioned — Schmidt-Isserstedt.   

Schmidt-who? Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt was chief conductor of the Hamburg State Opera during the Nazi era, having sent his Jewish wife and son to England for safety. After the war, he became an advocate of English music in Germany (especially Tippett) and of German music (especially Beethoven) in Britain. His son, Erik Smith, was a producer with Decca which, having the Vienna Philharmonic under contract, booked Schmidt-Isserstedt to record the Beethoven symphonies. Try some here.

If ever there was a happy medium in Beethoven performance, it is this cycle. The conductor has no radical ideas, but his momentum is secure and he commendably inhibits the orchestra from imposing its local tricks on the repertoire. Relistening to the set, I am struck by the balance Schmidt-Isserstedt strikes between steadiness and fleeting inspiration. He is a master of his craft, an old-world Kapellmeister, and the orchestra respond with what might easily be mistaken for enthusiasm. It’s almost enough to make me give up my suspicion of cycles.



Oh you still want a Beethoven of the day? Let it be the Septet, opus 20
It’s not certain that Beethoven invented the septet form, but he certainly established it with this 40-minute work for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. Rather than miniaturizing the sound of an orchestra, he creates an alternative sonority, at once astringent and appealing, in which each instrument has its own palette of colours within the ensemble. First heard at the concert where Beethoven premiered his first symphony, the symphony was an instant hit, his most steady earner for the rest of his life. Schubert took it as a model for his indelible octet, while the less scrupulous Hummel and Spohr produced slavish imitations. The 3rd movement (of 6) shares the minuet of his 20th piano sonata.

A 1959 performance by the Vienna Octet seems incontrovertible in terms of tempo and atmosphere.

Joseph Silverstein leads a particularly frisky version in 1994 upstate New York

Leonidas Kavakos and Munich friends in 2019 appear, by comparison, undernourished.

The Berlin Philharmonic Octet have taken possession of this work in such emphatic fashion that tempi and intonation over three recordings ranging from 1964 to 1994 are almost identical. I’m not sure suh consistency is musically revealing. I’d go back to Vienna.


  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Too many to choose from.
    (I agree about the Karajan 1963 set. His performance of the Pastoral is strangely unconvincing.)
    If pushed I would opt for Klemperer with the Philharmonia.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    You’re right, Norman: one set won’t do it all. But there are a number of sets that will not merely satisfy, but also nourish and inspire, despite occasional flaws.
    Toscanini/NBC either the 1939 set or the mostly early 50s one (both sets are superb)
    Karajan/BPO 1963
    Klemperer/Philharmonia live 1960
    Weingartner/various orchs.
    Schuricht/Paris Conservatory Orch.
    Anyone of these will fill the bill more than beautifully.
    (If you’re concerned about sound quality, go for Karajan/BPO ’63, Szell, or Harnoncourt, all three of which are in lovely stereo.)

  • Been Here Before says:

    Agree. It is impossible to find a perfect Beethoven Symphonies set. However, Karajan’s 1963 is still an unsurpassed golden standard.

    The other one I really enjoy is the Klemperer/Philharmonia set, despite sometimes slow tempi. It is grand and romantic without being sentimental.

  • Rory Arnese says:

    Will this survey include the WoO (Werke ohne Opus) pieces ? Most of course are very minor works, but there’s a sort of grey area where some like the great piano variations in C min have no opus.

  • Alasdair Munro says:

    If you want a low cost alternative the Readers Digest set by the RPO with Leibovitz conducting is very good.

    • Brian says:


      Or Günter?

      • Dave says:

        He is both. The surname translates as Wall, by the way.

        This is a very fine cycle, faithful to the texts – most if not all of the repeats are in – although the last movement of the 9th is strangely disappointing on the vocal side of things.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      My favorite as well. Günter Wand was amazing in all he did. Another good choice would be the almost unknown set by Hermann Scherchen. Check it out!

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        I really like the Westminster recording of Scherchen’s fast paced “Eroica” with the Vienna Phil. I also love the Haydn “Surprise” and “Military” symphonies he did with them as well.

  • fflambeau says:

    I think the article missed some good choices. Here are a few others:

    Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin;
    Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berlin Philharmonic;
    Toscanini, NBC Orchestra;
    Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic;
    G. Wand, NDR;
    Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony;
    Chailly, Gerwandhaus Orchestra;
    Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra;
    Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra

  • We privatize your value says:

    Herbert Kegel with the Dresdner Philharmonie (not Staatskapelle) – that’s also a magnificent cycle!

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt recorded a wonderful Beethoven violin concerto with Henryk Szeryng. He’s very underrated I think

    • microview says:

      Didn’t Ted Greenfield dub his Beethoven 9th as the one ‘for very day listening? Which notion threw fellow critic Tom Heinitz into a fit of apoplexy

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    My favourite complete Beethoven symphony cycle became Thielemann/Wiener Phil at first listening – the best of the good old style in 21th Century sound recording technology.

    Don’t forgett the exceptional recordings of individual symphonies: 5 & 7 with Kleiber/Wiener Phil, 6 with Abbado/Wiener Phil, 8 & 9 from Karajan’s 1963 cycle.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Reading your daily Beethoven feature is a true delight, whether one agrees with you or not. I’m looking forward to your take on the 5 Concertos, as a full cycle or separately.

  • M McAlpine says:

    As you say not a complete Beethoven cycle without flaws. The most exciting is the 1963 Karajan set as long as you supplement the sixth with the 1950s or 1977 Pastoral which are beautifully played.

  • Gustavo says:

    I’m fine with Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi.

    I didn’t really care about Beethoven, but these recordings changed my attitude completely! This music is more than just “Wiener Klassik”.

    I also find the cycle by Haselböck on period instruments interesting…

    • Esther Cavett says:

      Oh no, this is going to end up like one of those GoogleGroups classical music forums where somebody writes “What’s the best recording of Brahms violin concerto ?” and every recording EVER made gets listed in people’s replies 😉

      • Gustavo says:

        This is what collecting classical music is all about.

        Luckily, there will never be the one and only cycle.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        If you own just one or relatively few recordings of a piece (or sets of pieces) you tend to get imprinted on what you have, even if it is rather obscure. If your shelves groan with duplicate recordings, then you want to find a way to brag about them. When I wrote for Fanfare (“The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors”) I’d get letters from a guy who could and did go into astounding, almost measure by measure, analysis of his 50-plus recordings of Schubert’s 9th. Then he took to sending me cassette tapes to prove his points, bewildering assemblages of snippets ….

        So in that spirit, and consistent with Esther Cavett’s posting, let me put in a good word for (no snickering please unless you’ve actually heard it) Eugene Ormandy’s set, topped by really quite a fine 9th.

        • Bernard Caplan says:

          My first complete set was Ormandy’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nothing to snicker at, it is very fine indeed.

  • LvBeethoven says:

    Incredibly surprised that noone mentioned Norrington / London Classical Players until now. So passionate, real, and transparent.
    Jansons/BRSO comes close to this transparency with a modern orchestra.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Indeed, HIP cycles have been almost overlooked in this discussion. Brüggen is highly regarded. I have Immerseel and like it quite a lot.

      • Bernard Caplan says:

        Hogwood & Norrington seem to be the pioneers of HIP’s & were among my first CD sets together with a fine set on Teldec of the Cleveland under Christoph von Dohnanyi with a particularly fine Pastoral just as good as the legendary Bohm Pastoral.

        • Gaffney Feskoe says:

          I agree with you about the Dohnanyi/Cleveland set which includes a superb Fourth and Eighth. Surprised no one has mentioned the Bohm/VPO set yet.

  • Charles says:

    I have a few cycles, including the Karjan 1963 and Kubelik.

    I grew up with no musical background and not much money. They may be sniffed at, but many of these box set collections helped me get to know classical works cheaply.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Nothing to sniff at.
      Boxed sets are a great, and IMO, the best way to get to know a lot of music and at not too great a cost.

  • Steve says:

    Another, IMHO, well worth including would be Konwitschny with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. A particularly convincing Seventh, if I remember correctly. I believe that the original recordings included all the repeats but many of these were excised when they were reissued later.

  • Louy says:

    Et Monteux avec le Lso et les Wiener.

  • Schmidt-Isserstedt says:

    wonderful to read that – i absolutely agree, the Schmidt-Isserstedt recordings are among the best ! excellent Beethoven cycle. don t forget Günter Wand !

  • James says:

    My “cycle”:

    Symphony No. 1 – Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus
    Symphony No. 2 – Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus
    Symphony No. 3 – Jarvi, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
    Symphony No. 4 – C. Kleiber, BR
    Symphony No. 5 – C. Kleiber, Vienna Phil
    Symphony No. 6 – C. Kleiber, BR(?)
    Symphony No. 7 – C. Kleiber, Vienna Phil
    Symphony No. 8 – Jarvi, DKPO
    Symphony No. 9 – Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus

    • Anon says:

      Sorry James, but Kleiber never conducted Beethoven’s 6th. I know a guy who is doing his PhD on Carlos Kleiber, and has obtained most of the audio and video recordings, including the secret ones, of Kleiber in existence, and he told me that the 6th was never recorded.
      He did tell me an interesting anecdote though: Carlos practiced/studied many pieces that he never conducted, and one time Karajan (who was his elder) came to his house to get a conducting lesson on the Sacre du Printemps!

  • Ed says:

    Michael Gielen/ SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. Wonderful!

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Barenboim /Berlin

    This is my favorites

    I would opt for individual performances

    No 1- wand
    No 2 – Sawalliach Szell Wand

    No 3- Both Klemperers E Kleiber /Concergebow
    No 4- C Kleiber

    No 5- Both Kliebers Giulini LAPO, Gardiner (second SGD recording )

    No 6- Bohm Klemperer C Kleiber

    No 7 C Kleiber(Orfeo) Honneck

    No 8 Chaillly

    No 9- Furtwangler (Lucerne 54)

  • Gustavo says:

    What about Dausgaard?

  • Jon H says:

    The Karajan and Toscanini I’ve kept. I like individual symphonies this way or that way – but so many conductors have been influenced by the Toscanini that it’s a good reference to have. Maybe the desert island choices involve Giulini, Monteux, and Walter…

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    Surprised to see no mention of Charles Mackerras in this discussion.

    Whole cycles?

    Mackerras 1 (9th is better in 2)
    Blomstedt (Dresden 1970s)

    With chamber orchestra, Jarvi takes some beating.

    If I were to assemble a fantasy set, it’s this:

    1- NDRSO/Wand (live 1990s)
    2- Minnesota/Vanska
    3- Concert des Nations/Savall (for the sound profile)
    4- BRSO/Kleiber (live 1986)
    5- Pittsburgh/Honeck; or VPO/Kleiber (for 1st movement)
    6- VPO/Bohm
    7- VPO/Kleiber
    8- Leipzig/Chailly
    9- ORR/Gardiner (the singing – wow)

    Of all those, though, the only ones I can never see me changing my mind about are 6 and 7 (though actually Honeck’s 7th is *this* close).

    Of the others, I’ve always found the ‘old school’ frankly dull – with the outstanding exception of Wand, who I’d suggest perhaps manages to combine clarity, fidelity to the score, drive and warmth better than any other contender. Many manage two of the four; to combine all four so successfully is near miraculous.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      Sony is about to release the box set of Antonini’s recent Kammerorchester Basel cycle. It might make for some interesting competition to the existing chamber orchestra cycles available. I find Antonini and his Swiss players steadier compared to Adam Fischer’s recent Naxos set. When Fischer deviates from a set tempo and comes back to it, there is less momentum. Antonini’s players are more locked in and tend to interact better and shape conversations out of the discourse.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Well, whatever Beethoven cycle anyone thinks is the best, we must all agree that isn’t it wonderful that anyone can own a set of these towering masterpieces for so little money? Szell, Leinsdorf for $20 or so. What a steal!

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      The classics of yesteryear aren’t the only cycles that can be had for such prices. Modern classics like Harnoncourt, Gardiner or Rattle’s Vienna Philharmonic cycle are available at these price points too.

  • Rob says:

    Don’t forget our Mahler expert, Wyn Morris. His Beethoven is ALIVE!!!!



  • As one of the participants, let me explain my preference for complete sets rather than individual performances. Even accounting for flaws, I prefer to listen to those who have been involved with the music for most of their lifetimes as performers. The majority of cycles tend to be recorded within a relatively short period of time, and reflect the overall arc of years spent studying and performing the pieces. Relating one work to the next is critical in understanding how a musician reaches his or her conclusions over the course of their careers.

    Of course there are outstanding individual recordings of any given piece. But overall, for those who have traversed a cycle of symphonies, quartets, sonatas, etc, I find greater satisfaction and understanding through the eyeglass of time spent with all the works. In a couple of cases, my own choice of set did not reflect how I approach the pieces as a performer, but rather ones that met my own test of at least sixty-five years listening.

    This examination of the recorded product is most interesting. What might also be instructive is to hear from readers whether or not a live performance matched up with their taped versions. As it turned out, I was never really a Szell fan. But that Beethoven cycle was simply amazing to my ears.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, Leonard!

    • Peter San Diego says:

      What about the question of repeats? I do wish Szell had been given the chance to include them; for this reason, I prefer his Concertgebouw 5th to the Cleveland.

    • Amos says:

      Mr. Slatkin,

      I agree with you regarding the primacy of the Szell/CO Beethoven cycle with the 3rd, 7th and 9th imo reaching the level of seminal recordings. I gather we disagree about Szell’s overall body of work in that I regard the vast majority of his recordings of the Central European composers from Haydn to Mahler to be of similar quality to the Beethoven with Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Strauss (symphonies, concerti and tone poems) taking pride of place. Given that you have studied and performed these pieces for a lifetime I would greatly appreciate it if you would discuss why your admiration of Szell is limited to the Beethoven cycle.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A piano sonata cycle is mucheasier: Paul Lewis.

    Most disappointing symphonies cycle: Rattle/VPO on EMI
    Cheap introductory “dictionary” cycle: ZinmanZ/uerich Tonhalle

    Otherwise I stick with individual Furtwaenglers, the best ever.

  • Ken says:

    I’ve been warming recently to Ivan Fischer’s Beethoven symphonies. (I believe the full set is available on DVD but not CD–yet.) I hear new textures in his performances, a tone that is cerebral yet warm, Beethoven with all the drama, conflict, and joy he demands. Some of Fischer’s interpretative flourishes can be a bit offbeat, but I venture to say that with so many cycles floating around, a bit of daring is welcome, and more often than not, superlative.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Eugen Jochum.
    His performances have a lot to recommend them.
    I would be interested in readers’ opinions of Karl Böhm and his Beethoven cycle.

  • msc says:

    Davis in Dresden is one of my favourites, although his 9 is, puzzlingly, a bit of a mess.

  • Jonathan Z says:

    Norman, you have been economical with the truth. The Septet doesn’t share its Minuet with the Piano Sonata op 49 no 2, it shares the opening idea. In the Sonata it is used as the basis of a Rondo movement that I believe belongs to his juvenile period. In the Septet it is completely rewritten as a much more interesting strict Minuet and Trio. The Trio features lovely Horn writing which is muchmore mature than the Sonata.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    As I have mentioned elsewhere on Slipped Disc, I would put in a vote for the Leinsdorf/Boston Symphony cycle. Tempos and balances well judged throughout, and recorded in an unsurpassed Boston Symphony Hall acoustic. Also, the musicians of the day in the BSO were among the finest to be found anywhere IMO.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Mention is made of the conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. His grandson once lived in Norwalk, CT. and he worked for a small record shop (back when there were such things). For those who knew who grandpa was, grandson would tell great stories about him.

  • Gustavo says:

    Someone out there needs to start a crowd sourcing project to generate the best Beethoven cycle.

  • twirl says:

    But was Beethoven himself perfect? Certainly not. Music should strike fire from the heart of man, not be ‘perfect‘. So in this definition my choice is obvious: Reiner (eight symphonies with CSO and 2nd with Pittsburgh), Eugen Jochum (first set with Berlin FO), Scherchen (first set, various orchestras), Mengelberg (NOT 1940 set, but live recordings), Schuricht (german orchestras, NOT french), Ormandy (vinyl restoration, not Sony).

    (But also, if you still seek for perfection — there are Wand, Rattle and unsurpassed Weingartner. Also take a look at Karajan’s 70th video complect (not audio-1975, these are different recordings).

  • Monsoon says:

    As someone who is usually in the tank for Szell, his Beethoven cycle doesn’t do it for me. There’s just something missing. The spark in the piano concertos with Fleisher just isn’t always there. And the some of cut repeats just kill me, such as the exposition repeat in the 3rd. His 9th, however, is superb and seems to be completely overlooked. And the coda — wow!

    I hope his live Missa Solemnis from 1967 gets dug out of the Cleveland radio archives this anniversary year. Absolutely phenomenal performance.

    • Amos says:

      The Missa has already been released by the CO as part of the 7 CD centennial box set (1997). It is superb. For what it’s worth I disagree with you regarding the symphony cycle. Limiting myself to the 7th I don’t see how the performance could be described as anything but the last word in vitality.

  • Jack says:

    Zinman – Tonhalle

  • John says:

    The Schmidt Isserstedt cycle has been in and out of the catalog. It takes some searching to obtain the complete cycle. The Ninth seems the easiest to obtain, probably on the (sales) strength of the vocal team of Sutherland/Horne/King/Talvela.

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    The trouble with Beethoven symphonies is that they are so familiar that conductors struggle to impose something (their egos, mostly) on performances to make them ‘different’. New insights (not quite the same thing) are fine, but why not just let the music play itself? This is what makes the Schmidt-Isserstedt cycle one of my favourites too. One of the most satisfying performances of the Eroica I ever heard, live in Bath Abbey, was conducted by the late Denys Darlow, with whom I worked for many years (the main item was a big choral revival of Herbert Howells); they had a run-through at the rehearsal and just played it in the evening – and it was Beethoven (not Toscanini, Karajan, etc.). Time to look again at the printed page and see what’s really there, rather than what people think is there! (Norman Del Mar’s ‘Conducting Beethoven’ is a good guide.)

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Although I don’t think this set it was mentioned in this thread, your reasoning also applies, IMO, to the underrated set by William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

  • Tom Beers says:

    Thanks for recognizing the Kubelik and Schmidt-Isserstedt sets, both worthy. But I’ve increasingly come to believe there can’t be a ‘best’ Beethoven cycle if only because the composer’s protean imagination defies any one executor’s realization. More, I’ve concluded that conductors like Karajan and Szell offer the least persuasive Beethoven if only because their mania for executive perfection (often realized, I admit) manicures the ‘rough edges’ that are essential to the music. Give me Bernstein (in New York) or Scherchen (in London and Vienna) when I want to hear THAT Beethoven. Or, from among the HIP crowd, Bruggen and his Dutch players.

  • Roberto says:

    No one mentioned Haitink?

    My favorite is Karajan’s second cycle for DG (from the mid 70s). A lot of energy there and stunning sound. Very fast Eroica. Probably the tempi that Beethoven had in mind. And this is not HIP.

    Haitink recent cycle with the LSO and Zinman with Tonhalle are very good recent – or not that recent – recordings. Their scherzos had repeats. Karajan did not like the repeats in the scherzos. I think his case was that modern audiences don’t need to be reminded of the themes because we can easily listen to the piece again.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I know I missed this post by two months, but I couldn’t help chipping in by mentioning my fondness for Gardiner, Mackerras and Antonini as lodestars among recent cycles. I know some commentators would object to the period practice fraternity promoting the hurry culture in the music. However, they have made the music sound more bestial and less monumental. I know it may be wrong to prefer Gardiner to any of the continental period instrument cycles but his approach is more robust and incisive.

    Norrington tends to underplay the moments of high emotion. The Hanover Band set tends to be uneven and soggy. Harnoncourt’s strings in his Teldec cycle are a bit recessed compared to the other instruments. Bruggen is fine but not always steady. In fact I couldn’t help disagreeing with his laid-back and Arcadian approach to the Seventh, when the primal rhythms are crucial and suggest The Rite of Spring.

    I am still fond of Mackerras’s Hyperion box with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The Liverpudlian version was good, but Mackerras feels more at ease with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the first eight symphonies and the Philharmonia for the Choral. I find this cycle quite fastidious, detailed and spontaneous.

    Antonini’s cycle might get some attention when Sony releases it in April. I’ve had a very dear Singaporean friend who hails the give-and-take between the players and the interplay between the sections when they shape the phrases into rhetoric and conversation.

    I do not intend to disparage the classics of yesteryear like Karajan or Klemperer. They set standards for their own time. In Beethoven, there are multiple avenues to excellence, and I hope these cycles can set standards for our time too.