DG risks dream team on Beethoven’s triple

DG risks dream team on Beethoven’s triple


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2020

The recorded history of Beethoven’s triple concerto is littered with disasters, none more embarrassing than Herbert von Karajan’s conduct when he was confronted by the three Soviet stars, Richter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich.

Richter said: ‘It’s a dreadful recording and I disown it utterly…’

Now DG have unveiled their team for the Beethoven centenary.


What could possibly go wrong?


  • Javier Yearson says:

    Yo-Yo Ma and Mutter, Very good! But Barenboim, ouch!

    • Gustavo says:

      Yes, why not Ax?

    • Olassus says:

      Yo-Yo Ma, Mutter and Mark Zeltser all recorded this concerto with Karajan in 1979, Ma and Zeltser on load from CBS. Some of us, including Norman, are old enough to have attended the joyous RFH concert a few months before those Berlin sessions.

      The Richter/Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Karajan, made Sept. 15-17, 1969, in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, is a classic, despite the comment. Everyone should hear it.

      • Bruce says:

        Both those recordings are pretty terrific IMHO. I enjoy the Mutter/ Ma/ Zeltser version more because they sound like they’re having more fun, but the sense of a gathering of old masters is palpable in the Oistrakh/ Rostropovich/ Richter version.

      • Hilary says:

        I suspect it’s a classic *because* of the tensions which Richter recounts. Performers sometimes have a rather skewed perspective (see ‘Flute’ by Richard Adeney).
        More amicable associations can lead to anodyne results like the Beethoven cycle with Weissenberg.

      • Nick says:

        I agree Olassus. Richter could say anything he wanted – entitled to his opinion. We are entitled to disagree. The DG is a wonderful recording.

    • Calvin says:

      They can substitute in Emanuel Ax and call it the AxMaMutter concerto

    • Nick says:

      I agree, Javier. But the concerto, fortunately is mostly for cello!!

  • Andy says:

    Maybe it will be good. I love that concerto. I have the Barenboim/Perlman/Ma recording which I’ve always liked, and also Argerich/Maisky/Capucon which is really good.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I can understand why Richter did not like Karajan, but the recording that came out was by no means dreadful. I doubt that Karajan’s conduct was particularly bad during those recording sessions. He was just being that post war Karajan that we all know very well & have outgrown since his death.

    • Andy says:

      He cut the rehearsal time to allow more time for himself to be photographed, that’s pretty poor.

      • Bone says:

        He refused to alter the photography session that was scheduled. The recording was completed and Karajan was correct: the Gestalt result is exceptional. Did each individual enjoy the experience the same way? Obviously not – but I question anyone’s criticism of the result. Almost makes me wish every concerto recording session had some bad vibes to create a bit of tension.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      It’s a shame you don’t listen to Karajan’s music-making with your ears instead of your biases, Mustafa. If I had to pick a single greatest conductor of all time, it would be Karajan. His Bruckner is unreachable and there are not enough superlatives in the world to describe it. That DG Bruckner cycle is quite simply one of the greatest legacies in all of classical music recorded history. His Wagner is superb. His Beethoven 1970s cycle is tremendous and my favorite of all I’ve heard. His Brahms was consistently excellent. His Sibelius is still the standard by which others are assessed, etc., etc. If you don’t want to listen to Karajan’s work, by all means don’t. But to suggest that his artistry is negligible or substandard shows either extreme bias or an inability to separate real quality and often inspired music-making from everything else.

      • Joel stein says:


        • Nik says:

          You can leave a message after the “tone”.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          Yes, unreachable. While there are some individual recordings of some of the symphonies that are as good as if not better than Karajan’s (as exceptional as his are), as a set, it is unreachable. I do not believe there will ever be another complete cycle of the Bruckner symphonies that equal what Karajan gave us.

          It’s not just that Karajan’s interpretations go right to the soul of Bruckner’s transcendent music without any eccentricities, but the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic of that era is beyond jaw-dropping. The orchestra consistently achieves unbelievable balances, incredibly beautiful sonorities, and it’s literally perfect playing. The honor goes to Karajan AND the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s a team effort and it is hard to imagine how it can ever be surpassed.

          So yes, unreachable.

          • Joel A Stein says:

            That is not what “unreachable” means-leave a message after the tone is closer. Out of the way, remote, unattainable…..

          • Tamino says:

            That may be so, but Furtwängler did some Bruckner, particularly No. 8, that by itself is unreachable… also for Karajan. Furtwängler didn’t live in the golden recording age though, so he didn’t complete a full recorded cycle, I give you that.

          • John Kelly says:

            I remember HVK and the Berliners at the RFH in 1981. Bruckner 5. Absolutely stupefying sound, playing and wonderful interpretation. His Bruckner 8 with the VPO at Carnegie also among the top 20 concerts of my lifetime

          • Aninalos says:

            Your appraisal of Karajan I note concerns orchestral works but doesn’t apply to the Beethoven cycle when possibly strong personalities in the soloists may well argue with the conductor hence Heifetz Bernstein

      • Hilary says:

        “his Bruckner is unreachable”

        Really? The lilting 2nd subject of the 4th Symphony has staccato phrasing but it’s a bit too gluey/cultivated for my tastes. Worked wonders for some music of course but the banishing of rough edges has limitations.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Karajan’s style is rather out of fashion now. What you describe as “beautiful sound”, many others view as overblown constipated treacle making every piece of music blandly the same. I guess it is a matter of taste.

  • Amos says:

    Recently found this performance with the Stern/Rose/Istomin Trio and George Szell/CO. Leonard Rose’s playing is especially notable.

    • Richard Yaklich says:

      Are you sure that is Szell? The recording I know is with Ormandy

      • Amos says:

        They recorded it with Ormandy but the performance I’m referring to is a concert with GS/CO in Severance Hall. It can be found here https://pastdaily.com/ if you search the site for Szell. The site has a number of live performances from WCLV broadcasts which are must listening for anyone interested in the Szell-era in Cleveland. To belie the notion that GS rarely performed 20th century music, one concert contains Benjamin Lees Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra and Walton’s Hindemith Variations.

  • Zacharias Galaviz Guerra says:

    Honestly this ever-enduring tirade against Karajan is a bit exhausting. “Confronted”? With his own Berliner Phil?

    Yes Richter was at odds with Karajan, and vice versa. Richter was never quite easy himself. Meanwhile Rostropovich was thoroughly enchanted and loyal to Karajan! Oistrakh was more diplomatic throughout. When one brings titanic artists of such magnitude together, of course there will be clashes. And the recording has wonderful merit and dynamism, infused with the powerful individualism of each member.

    Art comes first, and each member knew this.

    • John Wills says:

      Often regretted Karajan didn’t ask Gilels rather than Richter. I’m sure it would have been a more harmonious quartet.

  • I have seen the trio in concert it’s very good to make a record. Concerning the others records about the triple, a long time ago Haitink has made a recording for Philips (it’s on the Decca box Philips years) and it was not a disaster. It was excellent! But nothing Haitink recorded was a disaster anyway….

  • Anthony says:

    Allstar combination classical music releases rarely work for me. They are unimaginative go-to cynical marketing packages for major labels, and moneymaking jollies for the big names.

    It feels like a movie of Macbeth with Robert Downey Jr., Will Ferrell and “Wonderwoman” Gal Gadot in the star roles.

  • John Marks says:

    IIRC, the vonK R/O/R Triple Concerto is really really sharp–higher than A = 445 Hz, IIRC.

    Now, back then, the BPO did tune as high as 445, but it could have been a case of the recording deck’s running slow.

    But in any case, not really a relaxing listen!


    • G.G. says:

      My dream was that it was recorded by Günter Hermanns for DG. I think EMI didn’t the same top-notch work for Karajan/Berlin.

  • hkpat says:

    A dream team cast of living artists, IMHO, would have been G. Sokolov, G. Kremer, M.Maisky, under the baton of M.Pletnev.

  • Gustavo says:

    Note Denial’s hand.

  • sam says:

    Three dinosaurs.

    DG’s choice speaks volume about the state of classical music today. Go nostalgic, play it safe, repackage and resell the old stuff. At this point in their careers, we know exactly how they sound and what they’ll do.

    You’d think for the centenary, DG would look forward, with today’s most exciting young artists, instead of looking backwards.

    • Tamino says:

      “There are two kind of fools in this world: One kind says something is old and therefor good. The other kind says something is young and therefor better.”

      Try to overcome your ageist approach, and focus on the music instead.

    • anon says:

      Maybe it’s the only three they could get. Today’s young guns wouldn’t be caught dead recording this piece.

      • James says:

        There is a new recording with a very talented trio of younger-generation soloists: Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein and Stefan Jackiw, conducted by Alan Gilbert on Pentatone.

  • Monsoon says:

    Meh. It’s a second-rate work that only gets programmed because it’s by Beethoven and is an excuse to bring together a bunch of famous soloists.

    • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

      Yes, five stars go to ‘Monsoon’. Whilst there are some nice moments in the final, Polacca movement, it’s very much a 2nd rate work

      • Hilary says:

        compare the 1st subject of the 1st movement with the opening of the slow movement. There’s nothing second rate about the way Beethoven has transformed this unassuming motif into something very different.

    • minacciosa says:

      Most decidedly second-tier Beethoven. I find it interminable.

  • pastore says:

    I believe it was a well-known Dane who said ” – – there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so “.

  • Richter said all kinds of things you can take with a grain of salt. For instance that he played badly on his first american tour. He played at a very high level. And the Triple Concerto he did for DG was just fine, as you would of course expect with artists of that caliber. He just didn’t like Karajan. (Can hardly blame him.)

    • Robert Roy says:

      Apologies for being a pedant but wasn’t the Richter/Karajan/Oistrakh/Rostropovich recording on EMI? If not, I’d love to hear the DG recording. (Genuine question – absolutely no sarcasm intended!)

    • Hilary says:

      3:10 of the Rondo is a good litmus test as there is.
      The Richter et al recording/EMI brims with good spirits. The oscillating minor 3rd like birdsong. Wonderful wiry sound from Oistrakh.
      Anda and co. on DG are disappointingly literal at the same point. Argerich and co. on Warner are a bit too flashy.

  • Caranome says:

    DG has never been about anything except selling records and commercially successful, let alone being the avant garde. These 3 are the biggest names and proven commercial successes (esp. Ma) in the business. So all this debate and angst about which other trio is better, what’s considered artistic integrity, and other minutia is pointless. DG is saying: We are going to make money on this, via selling to the vast audience beyond SD’s ornery circle. End of story.

  • esfir ross says:

    Why they didn’t invite Mark Zeltser-he’s still around but no performing career. My countryman and former collegue made me proud playing with such stellar musician. Mark Z. was a wonderful pianist and a very nice man.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Richter also said of his classic recording of Brahms 2 with Leinsdorf, “I find nothing good about it.” His assessment of the Triple concerto recording is similar. I fear Richter was not the most enlightened critic of his own recordings.

  • Waldstein says:

    “none more embarrassing than Herbert von Karajan’s conduct when he was confronted by the three Soviet stars, Richter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich.” What an rubbish comment!

  • minacciosa says:

    We don’t need another one of this work. Ennui ensues. Their time would have been far better spent on Paul Juon’s Episodes Concertantes.

  • Akudavu says:

    Is Barenboim still a pianist ?

  • pimpumpam says:

    Anyone but Barenboim

  • MacroV says:

    I know Yo-Yo Ma and ASM are two of the biggest stars in the business, but I have trouble seeing why many people would buy this. With so many other recordings out there (this is at least Yo-Yo’s third, right?). Barenboim may be a giant but I doubt he’s a big seller.

    And call me a heretic, but the charm of this piece has always been lost on me. Would have been more interesting to see them play Miklos Rosza’s Sinfonia Concertante (with DB merely waving the stick).

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Couldn’t DG find a better orchestra for the recording?

  • Gordon Davies says:

    Anyone familiar with Trio Zingara, under Edward Heath, English Chamber Orchestra, 1988?

  • Neil says:

    Any of the pianists mentioned here would be over-kill for this modest piano part.

  • Richard says:

    The Stern/Rose/Istomin performance with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is still the best.

  • Grabenassel says:

    ….my favorite team would be Rieu/Hauser/Clayderman….;-)

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Given Andre Rieu’s willingness to truncate works for his audiences, and given that the Triple Concerto is not even close to first-tier Beethoven, there is an opportunity here that should not be squandered!

  • M2N2K says:

    The Triple is only “second rate” by Beethoven standards. It is still far more successful than any other attempts at similar instrumentation. Comments by Sviatoslav Richter should never be taken literally. Interaction between the four musical giants was certainly difficult, but the musical result is still quite formidable and indeed better than most.

  • Edgar Self says:

    It’s Beethoven’s up-dated idea of a concerto grosso, or concerto for trio and orchestra. One unlikely kin is the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, also for piano trio and orchestra.

    It’s a possible offshoot of Beethoven’s studiesand admiration for Handel, like his sixth piano trio in E-flat, Op. 70/2. I enjoy its rare performances and recordings, motoric first theme, lyrical adagio, and rhythmic finale with one of hi rare polonaises, of which there are only three examples.

    Another possible fruit of Beethoven’s Handel studies is his only chaconne, the 32 Variations on an Original theme in C minor, WoO, which is structurally similar to Handel’s keyboard Chaconne in G that Edwin Fischer and Fou T’song recorded.