Beethoven vs Shakespeare. Who wins?

Beethoven vs Shakespeare. Who wins?


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2020

Welcome to the 76th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Coriolan overture, opus 62 (1807)

As a child in Bonn, Beethoven was taken to see performances at the elector Max Friedrich’s court theatre. There is no evidence of what he saw, but the company had several Shakespeare plays in repertory, including HamletKing LearMacbethRichard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Beethoven later bought a German edition of Shakespeare’s plays and talked of replacing it with the superior translation by the philosophers Schlegel and Tieck.

Like every composer of the Romantic era, he regarded Shakespeare as a significant forbear. There are clues to his Shakespeare interests. The slow movement of the first string quartet reflects the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet; the ‘Ghost’ trio has been ascribed to Hamlet or to Macbeth. There is a Tempest sonata and possible hints of The Winter’s Tale in two of the last string quartets. One modern biographer likens Beethoven to Hamlet – a gifted man unequal to his circumstances, drifting beyond the reach of the rest of the human race. None of this tells us much more than we intuitively suspect about Beethoven and Shakespeare.

The one work that connects them is the Coriolan overture, written for an 1802 play by Heinrich von Collin which may, or may not, have been based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In Shakespeare, the autocratic general Coriolanus is hated by his people, flees Rome and joins its enemies, the Volsci. As they are about to besiege the city, Coriolanus listen’s to his mother’s pleas and abandons the assault, asking the Volsci to kill him. The ending is both heroic and pathetic.

Collin’s play received a one-night revival in March 1807 at an event at Prince Lobkowitz’s palace, where Beethoven’s overture proved a great success. His fourth symphony and G-major piano concerto had their first performances on the same occasion. Collin vanished into the mists and his play was never seen again.

Beethoven used doubled winds and percussion in his overture, a sound heavy enough to break windows in the next street. The overture was not intended for domestic entertainment, rather for the dramatic stage. Richard Wagner would lead its chorus of fans, asserting that this overture was proof of Beethoven’s genius. The violence of Shakespeare’s climax – ‘Cut me to pieces!’ cries Coriolanus to the Volsci – is driven home by Beethoven, before the music drifts out into nothingness. Beethoven, like the Roman general, was seeking oblivion, an end to pain.

Short as it is, this overture affords a rare opening into Beethoven’s state of mind. Music directors love putting it on their programmes, if only to see the audience jump at the first percussion crash. In a century of recording, conductors compete as to who can frighten us the most.

There are about 100 recordings, some of which offer a masterclass in the canyon that divides the best conductors from the rest. Going straight to the top, Arturo Toscanini can practically quicken the dead with this overture while Herbert von Karajan sends them back to Vahalla in a Mercedes. Toscanini’s 1945 NBC performance is terrifyingly fast – a few seconds under seven minutes – and so arresting that the dismal sound makes no difference to our appreciation. Karajan in peak form – Berlin Philharmonic, 1965 – is more than two minutes longer. His entries are knife-edge and his consolatory ending would melt hearts of stone. One hardly needs to look beyond these pinnacles of interpretation, except there is always beyond.

The earliest recording – by Willem Van Hoogstraten, New York Philharmonic, 1924 – sounds like a firing squad on its last few volleys of the working day. Hoogstraten was filling in for half a season as music director in New York until Mengelberg was ready to take over. He then went off to conduct in Oregon for 13 years before joining his wife, the pianist Elly Ney, as a Nazi loyalist in Salzburg.

Mengelberg himself is virtuosic in this overture, and the Concertgebouw in 1926 was a much better orchestra than New York’s. Where critics often focus on the Dutchman’s wayward speeds, his concern for beauty is sometimes breath-taking, as it is here. Wilhelm Furtwängler in the old Berlin Philharmonie, June 1943, conveys unconscious echoes of the Battle of Stalingrad. This is epic, historic music-making, portending a tragic outcome. No conductor so lucidly captures the moment in which he is performing.

You might hardly believe it possible but Sir Thomas Beecham plays this overture as a series of jolly japes to be inflcted on an unwitting audience. Such is his command of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1953) that even a seasoned listener does not know what to expect next. Life, he seems to be saying, can’t be one big tragedy, so enjoy this.

The Romanian conductor George Georgescu, barely remembered beyond Bucharest, built the terrific George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and gave, in 1961, a truly civilised account of this overture – pure music, above all the Cold War politics of the time, and elegant as a Paris boulevard. This track was never released: it’s an Idagio exclusive.

The least expected period interpretation comes from the medievalist Jordi Savall and his Concert des Nations (1994). Savall seems to think of this overture in terms of knightly jousting, or maybe a swordfight. Either way it manages to be both courtly and thrilling. Bruno Weil with Tafelmusik sound,s by contrast, as his he has kept the safety catch on. John Eliot Gardiner’s Royal Festival Hall concert never achieves lift-off and is maimed by crabby sound. Roger Norrington is much to be preferred.

Partial as I am to to everything David Zinman does in Beethoven, this Zurich Tonhalle recording is full of incident and tension. Riccardo Chailly is another thoughtful and engaging modern contender. Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic (1981) is wilfully slow, at his most gruesomely self-indulgent. Slowest of all is Klaus Tennstedt at nine and a half minutes, live with the London Philharmonic in 1992, but there’s not a second’s worth of tedium in his performance. This is a masterful act of storytelling, full of empathy for the protagonists, carrying us along on a high tide of intense feeling. You think you know the Coriolan overture? Listen here.




  • Don Ciccio says:

    “Beethoven takes on Shakespeare. Who wins?”

    The music lovers win.

  • fflambeau says:

    I just heard a masterful concert with the Dutch-born conductor Edo de Waart leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in this piece. Very well done. It is available free on the internet here and features insightful comments by de Waart and new music director of the MSO, Ken-David Masur. :

    • fflambeau says:

      An added bonus is you get to hear Maestro de Waart pronounce the painter, “Bruegel” in Dutch and tell a funny anecdote about his language.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    You have named three of the best in your posting, Norman:
    Furtwangler 1943, Toscanini 1945, and Karajan 1965, part of his brilliant and indispensable survey of all the Beethoven overtures, with the BPO in peak form.
    I would add one more: Toscanini 1939.
    “His nature is too noble for the world:
    He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
    Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart’s his mouth:
    What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
    And, being angry, does forget that ever
    He heard the name of Death.” – Shakespeare, Coriolanus

  • Eyal Braun says:

    I think that Furtwangler’s 1943 is really unique. Two other very great performances: Klemperer’s philharmonia is among his very great Beethoven recordings.
    And there is- in video only- Carlos Kleiber’s 1996 Munich recording, an interpretation inspired, according to Kleiber by listening to Duke Ellington!

  • sam says:

    Karajan recordings:

    – the more one listens (and sees!) his recordings and compares them to more modern recordings by the same orchestra, the more one realizes that the sound that comes out of the orchestra ought to be credited this way: 25% Karajan, 25% orchestra, 50% the recording engineers in their engineering and in their selection of recording spaces (often a church that allows for resonance).

    -when it’s engineered correctly, it does sound amazing

    – but too often, you hear (and see!) the over-engineering of the recordings: somebody always turns up the resonance dial to 11 ; )

    • Pedro says:

      You are absolutely right. After Michel Glotz joined the Karajan team, the resulting sound was terrible. I have heard 146 live performances by Karajan In the last ten years of his life and was always unhappy with the recordings made more or less at the same time. Pirated CDs were much better than the official recordings.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Are you referring to studio recordings only or also to live ones? When I think of the best recordings I’ve heard from Karajan from his last years, I think of Mahler’s 9th, New Year’s Day concert 1987, some Bruckner: they were all recorded live. Is that connected to the advantages of live recordings or also to a less manipulated sound?

        • Pedro says:

          The recording is you refer to were, as far as I know, also manipulated by Glotz. I was at the New Year’s concert and the sound was quite different. The Bruckners were recorded at the time of concerts I attended. Though the sound was better than usual, I missed the envolving atmosphere of the Musikverein.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    In relation to Riccardo Chailly, his performances of Beethoven in that disc are so fast that the music does not breathe, even with that great orchestra. I think the current trend in following Beethoven’s metronome markings closely is misguided. The music simply does not breathe.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Carlos Kleiber, on DVD

  • Pedro says:

    Fritz Reiner’a recording is also superb.

  • Petermark says:

    Doubled wind? Yes, that’ll be two of everything, as per usual in classical music. Percussion? Well there are timps … Percussion crash? Where?

  • Stuart says:

    It is a wonderfully dramatic work and one wishes that Beethoven had attempted an opera based on Shakespeare rather than multiple times going back to revise Leonore. I agree with your assessment of Toscanini’s handling of the overture. The 1939 NBC performance is much better and in far better sound. It clocks in at 7:26. Though fast at 7:00, Chailly doesn’t sound rushed, and is one of the best modern recordings of the overture.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Anyone who knows Furtwaengler’s recordings of the Coriolan Overture will recognise Normn’s description of the live 1943 BPO version. A later HMV studio take with the VPO is in better sound.

    I first heard it from Toscanini, then later from Scherchen, Zinman, the incorrigible Beecham and Karajan. I’m content.

    Tovey has described the off-balance rushing syncopation of the opening chords, hard to achieve and convey.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Norman, Willem van Hoogstraten’s is new to me. He conducted in Los Angeles around the same time as Klemperer in the 30s and was the original violinist in Elly Ney’s Trio. She later married Paul Amann of Chicgo. Ney and Hoogstraten reunited and lived in Tutzing on Starnberger See until their deaths. It’s an old Dutch name he hares with a painter.

    I saw their daughter actress Eleanora van Hoogstraten, at Heidelberg University with Elly Ney in a recitation-recital of Rilke verse. Ney played Bethoven’s chaconne 32 Vriations in C minor that cost me a night’s sleep. I had heard Ney and cellist Ludwig Hoelscher in Bad Nauheim, recommended by a Germ n lady Ph. D. I knew.

    Ney was a Nazi, like Mengelberg, Heidegger, Hauptmann, Pfitzner. She was also a great pianist, pupil of Isidor Zeiss and Leschetizky.

    Her records include Brahms 2nd coneros with Max Fiedler/BPO and Konwitschny/LGO; Beethoven 5th Boehm/VPO and Abendroth/BPO; Ghost Trio and Schubert Trout. Her 5th is the most powerful I have ever heard, from Eugen d’Albert, Edwin Fischer, Serkin, Schnabel, Rubinstein, Weissenberg, Horowitz to Paul Lewis. Nearest to her is the wild D’Albert 1930 Berlin air-check of the first movement with the radio orchestra and I think Frieder Weismann, later of the Met. She played with Furtaengler and the BPO before the war, but not after.

    • Ramesh Nair says:

      Hi Edgar– is the ‘Starnberger See’ mentioned in your first paragraph the same as the one T.S. Eliot mentions in the opening of ‘the Waste Land’? [ ‘Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee’ ].

      I’m probably a wee bit younger than yourself, so Elly Ney is merely a footnote name to me, akin to obscure references in TS Eliot, but it’s really interesting to read your post to flesh out musical history.
      Growing up as I did in a family where western culture wasn’t in favour, I got to know the repertoire of many historical pianists through the 1990s Philips ‘Great Pianists of the 20th century’. Even at the time I wondered at some eccentric pro-Philips choices in the edition, such as Andre Previn’s ascension into the all-time great pianists, and the exclusion of Annie Fischer. Maybe Elly Ney also belonged in the Philips edition, going by your remarks.

      Incidentally, readers may be amused to learn the Philips Great Pianists box sets sold so poorly that Universal got rid of several hundred to the New Zealand equivalent of Wal-Mart or Costco. Each discount shop in the chain in NZ received 1 to 2 complete cases, with the 100 double CDs being individually sold at 75-80% off, and the cases thrown out. I managed to retrieve four cases free. They’ve come very handy not just to store most of the Great Pianists CDs, but also my other pesky multi-composer piano recital CDs that are so hard to file!

      • Edgar Self says:

        Hola, Ramesh Nair. Tell me where you are from, the origin of yoour name. I enjoy reading your posts about Yeats’s “fiery mire” from “Byzantium” and Eliot’s “Wasteland”. It’s the same Starnbergersee, a famous artists’ colony near Munich close to Thomas Mann’s fictional Pfeffering retreat of the compose in his great musical novel “Doktor Faustus”. Vdrb sap.

        I didn’t know “Great Pianists” sold so badly. Phillips had problems with it and consulted Alfred Brendel on Cortot’s selections. Previn got included by default when Ivo Pogorelic(h) withdrew. They used the next alphabetical pianist to plug the gap and not spoil their sequence. Previn did play jazz and even Mozart concertos, but is out of place in such company.

        You have a literary bent, catching up fast from a background innocent of western culture. I was just listening to Eliot read some of his poems. I like them and his play “The Cocktail Party”.

        • Ramesh Nair says:

          Hi Edgar, the name is a bog-standard Indian name : my late father was from Kerala, south India; late mother was ethnic Chinese. So if you look me up or direct message on Facebook, I use the duck-rabbit illusion instead of a photo. ( I look like a darkish Chinese or an anaemic Indian.) I had no idea Previn got in to the 100 Great Pianists by the dint of his ‘P’! I only saw Annie Fischer once in concert, at London’s Royal Festival Hall, when she deputised for an indisposed Pollini or Brendel. Stupendous all-Beethoven recital– Moonlight, Op.111, something else, and as an encore the Hammerklavier finale!

          • Edgar Self says:

            Ramesh Nair, thank you, that explains it then. I’m sure you do not do yourself justice. The consolatory power of music and verse can palliate the wrenching loss of parents.

            The Italian composer Franco Alfano set some of Tagore’s poetry; there’s a CD Hermann Hesse and Scriabin had a special interest in India.

            I mangled Yeats’s “fury and mire”, It’s a strange line and still new to me. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” is uncannily Yeatsian in its second part, like an oracle speaking in Yeats’s own voice, recalling “Ben Bulben”. Do you know it? Tthere are a few recoreds of Yeats chanting his verse in a tone-deaf way. Poets can be strange readers. Dylan Thomas is a strongly dramatic exception, reading himself or others.

            You were lucky to hear Annie Fischer. I never did but admire her Mozart concertos with interesting cadenza choice, and some fine Beethoven. Greg Bottini likes her and says he was Georg Solti’s favourite pianist. He was one himself; the Hungarians stick together. Imagine! The Hammerklavier finale as encore!

      • Greg Bottini says:

        I can confirm Ramesh Nair’s info about the Philips Great Pianists box sets.
        I think we sold only one at the Tower Records Classical Annex in SF (B. Guerrero can confirm or deny).
        What brilliant genius OK’d this set anyway? Piano fans were not going to spend many hundreds of dollars on a box of recordings that they mostly already owned. Plus, some of the individual issues had issues (!) with sound quality.
        Steinway and Sons’ name was all over the thing too; I wonder what financial hit S & S took?
        And yes, Ramesh, the exclusion of Annie Fischer was a disgrace.
        (A note to Edgar Self: you’re right about the Pogorelich/Previn debacle.)
        The same thing happened with the big Arthur Rubinstein set on RCA. It was extremely lavish and expensive, with super-deluxe book-like packaging of each CD and a large hardback book thrown in as well. I don’t remember selling ANY of those, and BMG (the RCA parent company of the time) broke up the sets and sold the individual CDs separately. The books were given away to whoever wanted them (I still have a couple of copies). I was told that the bath BMG took on the Ruby set wrecked the RCA Victor division once and for all, and it was an easy steal for Sony to snap up.
        I guess the record companies learned their lessons; now all the big reissue sets are sold in cardboard flip-top boxes with minimalist packaging and annotations and priced dirt-cheap.

  • A Pianist says:

    You state that “the Concertgebouw in 1926 was a much better orchestra than New York’s”. I take issue with the “was”. Has New York ever surpassed the Concertgebouw and if so when? Certainly not now. And not according to Vladimir Horowitz, who discusses the relative merits of orchestra in one of his video interviews and calls the Concertgebouw “very good” and the NY Phil “terrible”. I lived in NY for over a decade, and I agree with Vlad at least on the relative comparison. So that takes care of the middle decades.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Vladimir Horowitz had experience with the Concertgebouw. His only orchestral concert in 1936 was in Amsterdam with Bruno Walter, Brahms’s first concerto, fortunately recorded, with some missing minutes patched in from a concert with his father-in-law Toscanini. This was doubly lucky as Horowitz in’t perform this concerto after that time.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Good comments, Greg, on the Rubinstein and Great Pianists suitcases. There was another colossal issue, complete works of Bah or something, in TWO suitases that we did sell one to a customer who left with only one of his valises. We didn’t have his shipping address and held the other for him. Six months later he called in a panic, just realising he had only half of them. we reunited him with his baggage.

    I was selective with the Great Pianists, having much of the material already, but enjoyed the factory’ error in firt issuing Cortot’ 1953 Kreisleriana and Etudes symphoniques in far better sound than the 1930s versions Brendel preferred. He was quite upset, and they were reissued with his preferences.

    The finale of the later Symphonic Etudes is a mess; Cortot simply no longer up to it, but the rest is exquisite playing, and you hear Cortot’s legendary tone, “magical waywardness and brilliant inaccuracy.”

  • Edgar Self says:

    Shakespeare or Beethoen, who wins? Heinrich Joseph von Collin wins, that’s who, because the overture is not to Shakespeare’s play but to von Collin’s tragedyof 1804, that Beethoven composed in 1807 in double-fast time for him. This has been bothering me ever since this thread began, which is another reason I’ve stayed so off-topic until I could look it up. I hope I haven’t ruined another good story.