A Beethoven a day: The greatest of Eighths

A Beethoven a day: The greatest of Eighths


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2020

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

8th symphony, opus 93

Of the nine Beethoven symphonies, the second and the eighth are the least performed. The low profile of the second is understandable: it is no great advance on the breakthrough first symphony. The eighth has another problem. It succeeds the furies of the seventh symphony by regressing almost all the way back to Haydn-like purities. Its lightness and simple form are, however, deceptive.

The year is 1812. Napoleon is charging into Russia, slaughtering thousands in his mission to bring the whole of Europe under French rule. Beethoven begins his eighth symphony in a vacuum of anxiety. By the time he finishes, Napoleon is in full retreat and there are ominous bangs and crashes in the finale. On first hearing, in February 1814, the symphony was declared a flop. This may have been down to Beethoven’s bad conducting – the orchestra took its beat from the concertmaster – or to its indeterminate agenda. Beethoven referred to it confusingly as his ‘little Symphony in F’, a nod to the Pastoral Symphony with which it shares a key. He considered it a superior work to the seventh symphony, without explaining why. At 26 minutes it is unwieldy – too long to fit in the first half of a concert and too short for the main course. It is an oddbod, a misfit, an orphan. Conductors have the choice of either looking back to Haydn or ahead to the unheralded glories of the immortal Ninth.

In the earliest known recording, from Berlin in 1924, Otto Klemperer takes the second option, loading the symphony with excess portent. Klemperer would record the symphony three times more, getting ever heavier though not without reason. There is always logic in his doctrine and the climax is never less than conclusive. A modern echo can be heard in Daniel Barenboim’s muscular, sententious 2000 reading with the same Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra, beautifully played.

The opposite extreme would be the head-over-heels onrush of the period-instrument ensembles, most propulsive of them John Eliot Gardiner’s ORR and Franz Brüggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century, smashing Beethoven’s speed limits in a bid to make some scholarly point or another. Some find this irresistibly exciting.  Myself, I would turn to Toscanini if sheer excitement is the order of the day.

The prime alternative to Klemperer’s deliberation and Gardiner’s speed trap is Wilhelm Furtwängler, who left four recordings, full of lightness, wit and invitations to the dance. In the second movement he is irresistible, imitating either Maelzel’s newfangled metronome or Haydn’s Clock Symphony with a sneaky wink that belies his absolute mastery of time. His 1954 Vienna Philharmonic performance at the Salzburg Festival, three months before he died, is monumental.


Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2011 captures something of the same ease of movement, an approach that feels organic rather than intellectualized.

There are, altogether, 114 recordings of the 8th symphony on Idagio of which I have listened to at least two-thirds, relying on an international panel of friends with trusted taste to make sure I have missed nothing of moment. Such as Erich Leinsdorf’s Boston breezer of 1969, a full minute faster than the norm and with a filigree internal balancing of winds, strings and (especially) percussion that improves greatly on the Klemperer sound while pursuing hidden depths.

George Szell with his Clevelanders are likewise exemplary. Only Mariss Jansons with his Munich orchestra, recorded in Tokyo in 2012, achieves a more perfect sound picture, outstandingly so in the finale.

Others I would urgently recommend are Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1991), Riccardo Chailly (2011) and Philippe Jordan (2017), each adding sparkle to the proceedings. Leonard Bernstein is not to be ignored, nor is Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, who I will discuss in greater detail elsewhere in this survey. Simon Rattle and David Zinman hold the middle ground between modern and period practice. Never underestimate Neville Marriner or Rafael Kubelik.

My Spectator colleague Richard Bratby advocates Charles Mackerras with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra: ‘I was at the recording session, the last in the cycle. Sir Charles was ill; I picked up his prescription and helped him down to the station with his luggage afterwards. Maybe that’s the only reason why I love this one but the warmth and romantic beauty of the 3rd movement Trio moved me deeply – I remember the horn section crowding into the playback room (the lovely old art deco Green Room at the Phil, now demolished) and watching the smiles spread across their faces as they listened).’ Sadly, it’s not on Idagio yet.

Final choice? Harnoncourt, Jansons, Leinsdorf, Furtwängler, Klaus Tennstedt. Just listen here at https://www.idagio.com

Would you believe there are academics out there who want to get rid of Beethoven?


  • Brahms says:

    One minor edit, Beethoven in all probability began work on the material for the 8th symphony before 1812. He originally envisioned it as a piano concerto, re-working the material in 1812 into a symphony.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    The Eighth is so seldomly played that I had been hearing “Pieces of Eight” for years before I ever heard the actual Beethoven…


  • Paul says:

    I just joined Idagio for the free membership specifically because of your post here. Although at first glance it looks like there may be a lot there to dive in to and enjoy, the first recording I listened to was an extreme disappointment simply because the recording cut off too early at the end and it left out the last 3 chords of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 1 op. 138 (Claudio Abbado, Wiener Philharmoniker
    1989, Wien, Großer Saal, Musikverein).

    I would much rather hear applause at the end of a recording than for the audio to be ended so abruptly that it cuts out final chords. Hopefully, Norman can pass along this anomaly to Idagio. (The same performance is available on Youtube with the score and including all the finale chords.)

  • Jim says:

    Well, thank you for this, but…
    There is quite a bit here that is “negatively defined.”
    For instance, the second “is no great advance on the breakthrough first symphony.” So all the second has done is disrupt your expectation of some kind of advance in what – size? grandeur?
    I have lately been working through Lewis Lockwood’s book “Beethoven’s symphonies” which does a good job of explaining what is so good about the second even though it did not (seem to) turn the world upside down.
    Similarly, the eighth disappoints because it is “too long to fit in the first half of a concert and too short for the main course.” Again, the crime is to violate your expectations (heck, if Beethoven doesn’t do that for you, it’s probably time to go back to colouring-in books)
    A description of ‘little Symphony in F” seems to about as unconfusing as you could get.
    Anyhoow, I have gone and listended to Harnoncourt, as recommended, and have been thoroughly delighted by doing so. Thank you.

  • Nick says:

    You forgot the brilliant version with Pletnev/RNO on DG!!!

  • Rob says:

    Norrington and Toscanini are my top choices.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    “Napoleon is charging into Russia, slaughtering thousands in his mission to bring the whole of Europe under French rule.”

    Was it as simple as that? I stress that I do not *know*. It’s just that the picture of Napoleon motivated by nothing but a desire to be king of the world or something similar seems a bit too much in accordance with the other side’s propaganda.

    Elucidation from a real historian would be nice.

  • Mahlerrocks says:

    Great project, Norman. Looking forward to following along.

  • Augustine says:

    Not sure I understand what your Idagio links are for. As an Idagio subscriber I was expecting a Norman Lebrecht Playlist or a Slipped Disc Playlist. Am I missing something?

  • Pedro says:

    Where is Karajan? His six official recordings ( five audio and one video ) are all very good and can’t be ignored, starting with the superb one he did in Vienna right after the war and ending with the DG’s final recording in the 80’s which in my opinion is truly outstanding.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Agree. ‘My Eighth’ is from Karajan’s 1962-63 Beethoven cycle.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I think Norman has, in the past, explained his dislike for Karajan’s lushness in this type of repertoire (and indeed almost any other type of repertoire).

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I have to mention and add to the list Hermann Scherchen’s recording for Westminster. This man just heard Beethoven in a different way than others it seems.

  • Barry says:

    In general, I think Furtwangler was the greatest Beethoven conductor, but for the eighth symphony, Scherchen is tops (his King Stephen Overture is also phenomenal).

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    You can just never hear enough Beethoven, or about Beethoven.

  • Ed says:

    I love Michael Gielen´s recording.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    For me: Toscanini 1939, Mengelberg, Karajan 1963, Weingartner, and a dark horse – Keilberth / Hamburg State Phil.

  • Murray Citron says:

    I guess the fine Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony version didn’t make the cut huh?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    My choices above refer to the Eighth Symphony.

  • Stuart says:

    Norman, I love this series and look forward to future posting as you work your way through Beethoven. The 8th is so little done but it is a fine piece. A fine, informative start. I have recordings by Toscanini (1939), Chailly, Gardiner and Haitink. It is interesting that the Gardiner which you seem to think rushed and the Chailly have very similar timings movement by movement (Chailly is a bit faster in several of the movements.) Great series.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I was glad to see your reference to Leinsdorf’s performance with the Boston Symphony. I think his entire cycle of the nine is under- appreciated. Curiously, it is the only cycle of the nine that the BSO ever recorded. I was hoping for a cycle with Nelsons, but he just recorded it with the Vienna Phil.

  • Tom Beers says:

    Agree about Leinsdorf’s too-little-appreciated RCA/Boston Beethoven cycle. Part of the problem was RCA’s seeming inability in the late 1960s to release Lps that revealed the fine sound quality of their tape masters. Too often, Leinsdorf’s Lps sounded harsh and congested. When remixed for CD decades later, those problems disappeared. All of the Leinsdorf/BSO Beethoven recordings are worth hearing. Along with the Eighth Symphony, I particularly treasure their Seventh: rock-solid projection of structure ala Klemperer, but more propulsive. Also, Leinsdorf takes the important third movement repeat (rare for the time).

  • Edgar Self says:

    I first heard the Eighth on RCA 78s from Koussevitky and the Boston Syphony of all people and have seldom heard it live save in complete cycles.

    Stravinsky said everyone talks about Rimsky-Korsakoff’s orchestration but nobody mentions what Beethoven does in the trio of the Eighth’s minuet with just a clarinet, two horns, and double basses.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Actually there are two Gardiner versions of the Eighth. Do you refer to the DG Archiv version or the Soli Deo Gloria version from 2014?

    Also, could I mention Antonini again? I like the way they bring out the off-kilter tendencies in this work.