A Beethoven a Day: What did you say your name was?

A Beethoven a Day: What did you say your name was?


norman lebrecht

January 22, 2020

Welcome to the 19th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

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?


  • fflambeau says:

    Again, a nice summary. Thanks for these.

    David Zinman has been underrated for years but seems to be making something of a splash as an older conductor. I hear more and more of his performances on the radio these days.

    He is very, very good. A top notch conductor. He took the Zurich group from something near obscurity and turned it into a major force. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: it’s a central, major city with lots of funding.

    • Amos says:

      Completely agree. Often forgotten is his history as a Monteux protegee. In the discussion about the differences between 20th and 21st-century conductors PM should have been mentioned. Reading his biography it was striking how he struggled throughout much of his career to secure concert dates.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “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 his last three piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, works that command the summits of music for all time. How did he do that?”
    I’ll tell you how, dear Norman – he was a bloomin’ GENIUS, that’s how!
    [BTW, I like Karajan’s Zur Namensfeier Overture precisely because of that touch of ponderousness. HvK certainly won’t “paralyse your eyelids”(?), but he – abetted by the playing of the superb BPO of the day – is sure to tickle your eardrums.]

    • Hilary says:

      You’re right, HvK’s tempo isn’t unduly slow but the weighting towards strings and a preference for homogeneity robs the music of its rasping essence. Scherchen is less upholstered and gets closer to the spirit of the piece to my ears.

  • Rory Arnese says:

    It’s a minor piece. It could be by Mehul or any of those guys

    • BrianB says:

      I believe Mehul was an innovative and sometimes daring composer, writing an entire opera which excluded the violins altogether, favoring the dark colors of violas–eventually probably leading to Brahms A Major Serenade, Op.16. Minor certainly, compared to Beethoven but capable of writing superior music compared with some of Beethoven’s output such as this Namensfeier–and greatly admired by Berlioz.

    • Hilary says:

      Barring the portentous intro I beg to differ.

      Listen very carefully to the rollicking 6/8 body of the piece. There are rhythmic displacements and obsessions which you won’t find in some of the commonplace composers of his time. This is remarkable music.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Sorry but the likes of Zinman and Chailly just sound rushed. And Karajan ponderous? When his set came out he was criticised for taking speeds too fast compared with the likes of Klemperer. His 63 cycle was cutting edge and is tremendously exciting. Ponderous is the last word one would use. Amazing how critics like to get into the latest fashion!

    • BrianB says:

      Klemperer himself, as revealed by recordings, favored rapid tempi before the Grand Old Man period of his last years. He was quite in line with Weingartner and Toscanini, or for that matter a younger Bruno Walter, in that respect.

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t know about this overture, but I love Zinman’s Beethoven cycle. I don’t even listen to Beethoven symphonies and his was probably the first cycle I acquired (as part of his 50-disc anthology). Even the first two symphonies, which often sound like trifles to me, come through as vigorous and consequential. And he does the 9th in 46 minutes – what do other conductors do with the other 28 minutes the CD was supposedly designed for?

    And the Zurich Tonhalle sounds like a great orchestra, not surprisingly.

    With all the talk over years of “where is the next great American conductor?” Levine, Slatkin, MTT, etc? It may have been Zinman all this time.

  • Chris Hazell says:

    This is one record producer who never saw David Zinman as a useful understudy, and I am offended that I should be lumped in with any who thought he was. Regardless of repertoire, he always brought new insights into standard repertoire and there are many, many instances in his Beethoven Symphony cycle where I heard things I had never heard before. He brought fresh interpretations which said more about Beethoven than the conductor, which is as it should be, but sadly is just not the case in so many other performances.
    I think another look at his discography will show that he DID get to record many of the ‘big beasts’ (eg Mahler, Richard Strauss)

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Norman. Are you allowed to discuss recordings that aren’t on Idagio? (Not a criticism, I am just curious.)

  • Herbert Greenberg says:

    Chris Hazell’s comments are spot on. Having had the privilege of performing the Beethoven cycle with maestros
    Stanislaw Skrowaczwewski, Klaus Tennstedt, Herbert Blomstedt, William Steinberg, and David Zinman, Mr. Zinman’s interpretation of the Beethoven cycle as well as the big beasts, takes a back seat to no one.