Name Day overture (Zur Namensfeier), opus 115
An 1815 birthday gift to the Polish Count Radziwill, this six-minute wrap contains as much personality as a Hallmark card – until you listen carefully and pick up hints of the Ode to Joy from the unborn Ninth Symphony. Nothing in Beethoven is altogether without interest.
David Zinman with Zurich’s Tonhalle is probably closest to Beethoven’s markings in a sidebar to one of the most understated, underrated Beethoven cycles on record. Music director in Rochester and Baltimore from 1974 to the end of the 20th century, Zinman was treated by the record industry as a useful standby conductor for touchy soloists and tricky works, but never got to record the big beasts on his own merit. Record producers said he was too collegial, too nice for his own good.
In Zurich, with an orchestra composed of almost all European nationalities, Zinman found a bargain-basement label that enabled him to take a personal approach to Beethoven that struck a reasonable compromise between historical authenticity and big-band sound. This filler makes a useful introduction to a richly rewarding series, all of which can be found on Idagio in absolutely sparkling sound.
Among other contenders, Riccardo Chailly gives the Name Day a real crack of the whip in Leipzig (2009). Herbert von Karajan is so ponderous he will paralyse your eyelids. Neville Marriner also errs on the slow side. Hermann Scherchen (1952) is the odd man out, light-footed throughout.
The real shock comes when you examine the composer’s chronological catalogue and find that, while sending these tidbits down to the printer, Beethoven is polishing off the his last three piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, work that command the summits of music for all time. How did he do that?