Beethoven’s Seventh: Everyone agrees, for once

Welcome to the 80th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Seventh symphony, opus 92 (part 3 – previous 2 parts here and here)

Our expert panel in a dozen different countries has come up with remarkable unanimity in their choice of the three quintessential recordings of this symphony. All seem to agree that one performance is indispensable and two others are so anthithetical that they can’t both be right. We’ll come to these disputations in a few paragraphs’ time, but meanwhile there are more than 100 others to consider and some will open your ears to a different and unexpected approach to Beethoven’s truth.

Arthur Kapitainis in Montreal, for instance, swears by Leopold Stokowski’s fabulous Philadelphians in 1927. This recording is not yet on Idagio, but some discreet hand has uploaded it onto Youtube, where it has received a mere handful of clicks and just one response. At the end, there is a spoken commentary by the conductor. His English accent is a bit like Antonio Pappano’s.

Arthur says: ‘Every bar alive in the first movement. The Allegretto is made an Adagio, in phrasing if not tempo, but it is mesmerizing. Fine madness in the finale.’

Luis Sunen writes from La Coruna, Spain: ‘The one that I prefer is that of Pablo Casals in Marlboro in 1969. Some minor imperfections but pure vitality, pure joy with a conductor who was then 92 years old. And, in the orchestra, Shmuel Ashkenazi, Pina Carmirelli, Felix Galimir, Ronald Leonard, Julius Levine, Larry Crombs, Milan Turkovic… I’m sorry, but definitely: Casals.’ For the Allegretto alone, this is a must-listen.

Concertmaster Eoin Andersen in Berlin recalls indelible performances with Manfred Honeck (not recorded) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1991. While many associate Harnoncourt with period practice, his most memorable performances are often with small orchestras on modern instruments. This particular concert, with musicians the age of his grandchildren, is particularly engrossing for its supple speeds and unexpected turns. Harnoncourt stood out among period conductors in never letting the theory overwhelm the music. This account reveals the finest qualities of his complete Beethoven cycle.

Valerio Tura in Bologna writes: ‘Vladimir Jurowski, in his mid-twenties, was invited to conduct a Summer festival concert with the ex-West Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was a very hot and humid summer of 1997, the manager of the orchestra, Dieter Rexroth, kindly drove me a couple of hours north of Berlin to a very old castle in the ex-DDR Vorpommern region, amid little lakes and wetlands, named Ulrichshusen, and belonging to a wealthy family: the “Freiheer” told us that the castle had been given back to its original owners shortly after the reunification of Germany.

‘After a snack of boiled little lake shrimps with Sekt, the Sunday afternoon concert took place in what was once the wood-and-bricks barn of the castle, still a bit “délabré”: it was absolutely choc-a-bloc, packed with enthusiasts. The performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony I heard there is possibly not the best performance ever, of course, though it is by far the most vividly one recorded in my memory. It was Jurowski’s debut with that symphony, and with that orchestra: extraordinarily vital, youthful, well-focused, though profound, and the quality of the sound was really amazing: a rich and thick “idiomatic-German” sound. The energy of its fourth movement still gives me goosebumps.’

Memories like this remind us to check the privilege of personal experience against the possible existence of a recording. In this case, there is none. My own goosebump concert was with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, some time in the late 1980s at the Royal Festival Hall, a level of intensity I had never encountered in my life. Between movements, I remember wondering if I should ever want to hear another orchestra or conductor again. The performance is unfortunately unavailable on Idagio. Listening to my own copy, I can hear Tennstedt driving the players into corridors of uncertainty where they have no clue where on earth he will lead them next. This, I thought, is how all music should be. It’s a question of trust between baton and orchestra. An earlier performance by Tennstedt with the NDR radio orchestra is nowhere near so exhilarating.

Before we cut to the chase, do not miss a pair of Idagio exclusives – the explosive Josef Krips with the Concertgebouw in 1951 and the obscure Romanian George Georgescu, whom I’m finding more and more impressive.

Several of our experts advocate Fritz Reiner with Chicago in 1955. Relistening after a long absence, I find the performance too well-groomed, too predictable in almost every way. George Szell in Cleveland, stands up much better to the test of time. Neither can be faulted for emotional indulgence (that would be Bernstein, I guess). And if it’s grooming you’re after, the name’s Karajan and the presentation is immaculate.

Not to be overlooked is Charles Munch, a strong favourite of Steve Rubin’s in New York. Leonard Slatkin, who contributed yesterday’s post, offers further recommendations in Carlo-Maria Giulini, who does lyricism like no-one else, and David Zinman who strikes a perfect balance between historical fundamentalism and present-day post-modernism. Amir Mandel in Tel Aviv reminds me of the forgotten merits of the deceptively understated René Leibowitz with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961, a performance that somehow brings out in the first two movements the pastoral colours of the previous symphony.

We’re getting close to the quintessence and space is runnign out. I have much to say about Evgeny Mravinsky‘s brutal Russian way with Beethoven – Mikhail Pletnev is a far better option – and I shall have to save it for another occasion. I have also been sidenlined by the highly praised though irredeemably dull Ernest Ansermet with his well-polished Swiss orchestra and the unfailingly intriguing Jascha Horenstein with a lackadaisical French national ensemble.

Close as we are to a resolution, we have run out of space. I shall have to conclude this discussion later today.

Stay tuned. Ultimate resolution coming up…. here.

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    • Many decades ago, at the student union of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, they had a sort of free jukebox in a large reading room where you’d punch in the numbers and eventually the chosen record would play. (However if a dozen people punched in before you, it could be the next day before your selection would play.) It did allow control over volume, but these being students, they liked their music loud. The selection (there might have been 50 LPs in the machine) was trite but the Beethoven 7th with Toscanini and the Philharmonic, in an LP reissue, was oddly enough among them. The sound system per se was old enough that curiously old mono recordings often sounded better than newer stereo LPs.

      It was a fascinating experience to hear this old recording being played in a large and rather reverberant high ceilinged room at just shy of threshold of pain volume. For example, when listening to the same recording (also on an LP reissue) over my pretty good sound system or via headphones, I did not notice the old fashioned string portamento as much as I did in that listening. Based on the age of other LPs in that machine at UW, I wonder if what I was hearing was the bargain priced Camden reissue of the 1950s (which unlike most Camden reissues from RCA Victor actually did name the conductor and orchestra). Camdens often had a bit of added reverb.

      So for me, Toscanini/NY Philharmonic for sure, but I also like the Pablo Casals/Marlboro recording. Maybe it is the enthusiasm of the players that they have in common.

      fflambeau wonders about Ormandy/Philadelphia. He recorded it in stereo of course, but also impressively on 78 rpm discs. Worth trying to track down.

  • Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela is my favorite Beethoven Seventh Symphony. It was recorded on Deutsche Gramophone.

  • Astonishing that in a serious conversation about the 7th, you have no mention of Carlos Kleiber’s scintillating recordings of it.

    • absolutely-his recoding is by far the most mesmerizing next to Karajan and no idea why it’s not mentioned – one can’t take this report seriously
      Not only in the studio with Vienna but also life in Munich – they are the best ones

    • I still enjoy the first three recordings I bought nearly 50 years ago. Karajan 62, Toscanini NYPO and the first Klemperer with the Philharmonia, but the best one for me is Karajan 77. The best performance of any symphony I attended was perhaps Karajan’s in Lucerne in 1982. He was very ill and he conducted (and the BPO played) as if the end of the world was on the way. A very aged friend of mine said afterwards that she has heard Furtwängler and Weingartner with the BPO and the VPO respectively (two conductors she much admired) but that that evening’s performance was really unique in her experience.

  • Very strange that among ALL those one of the greatest interpretations by Carlos Kleiber and Concertgebouw is not mentioned.

  • The Stokowski is marveous. Thanks for it. It abounds with life.

    I’m just curious as to what his successor (Ormandy) made of it for he was also a great one.

    This also might be my favorite Beethoven symphony.

    Thanks again!

  • My personal choices are Carlos Kleiber/Concertgebouw, Furtwängler/1943 and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO. All possess the right balance between apollonian calm and sensibility and the dionysian element of madness and intoxication.
    I will give Fricsay a hearing also.

  • I’m listening to many of these pieces (again). And I find that Riccardo Muti’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Japan in 1989 (On Youtube) is absolutely out of this world. He has a wonderful sense of proportion. The 2nd movement is stirring. The 4th movement has all the drive and fire of Furtwangler’s but he cuts back on the timpani, perhaps judiciously. The whole thing benefits from being a relatively recent recording.

    I would put Furtwangler’s idiosyncratic version in second place having heard the Muti (I previously had him in first place) but love and find his use of so much timpani in the final movement to be both awesome and worrisome. He definitely has a drive to the piece.

    Third place: Kleiber.

  • What Konwitschny’s recording with the Leipzig orchestra. I recall hearing this on an ‘alternative nine’ on Radio 3, sometime in the early 90s, and thought it rather good.

  • When CDs came out and the record companies were falling over each other in a rush to reissue analog recordings on CD, I picked up the Giulini/Chicago recording, still a favorite if a bit ponderous. The recording I “grew up” with was Josef Keilberth/Berlin, not mentioned here.

  • The Kleiber performance has become so dominant it was refreshing not to see it mentioned. The Dudamel performance is noteworthy for the enthusiasm of the orchestra. There are so many recordings of the work it’s quite a challenge to cite them.

  • I assume that is a typo. Larry Combs (not “Crombs” ) eventually became the principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony.

  • I saw Eduard van Beinum standing in for indisposed Klemperer at the Festival Hall. I think afterwards I could have crossed the Thames on the water rather than the bridge back to Charing Cross. It was later put out on a CD

  • Still another late vote for Kleiber. And while it is not a “definitive” recording, I have a place in my heart for Bernstein’s luxurious NY Phil performance.

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