The 10 Beethoven indispensables

The 10 Beethoven indispensables


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2020

Welcome to the 125th final episode in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

In the course of the past half-year, I was often asked which are the most important works of Ludwig van Beethoven. It depends what you mean by important, and in which country you live. In Japan, they would certainly say the 9th symphony, which is a cherished December ritual. In the US, it’s more likely to be the Emperor concerto. In Germany, quite possibly the Pastoral symphony. In France and Britain, for different reasons, the fifth symphony. Such tastes are subject to cultural tradition and transmission, the question of what was played when an adult took you to your first Beethoven concert. As such, the answers given tend to be at least one generation behind the times.

If we judge by the measure of popularity, the last recordin industry figures tht I have seen show that the two top-selling Beethoven recordings of all time are Karajan’s 1962 ninth symphony and Carlos Kleiber’s fifth in 1975, both on DG and both surviving the test of time. But sales are not necessarily an arbiter of a recording’s historical importance. The top-selling Beethoven violin concerto features David Garrett with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ion Marin, not a performance that would make many critical shortlists, no matter how interesting the solist tries to make it.

A different arbiter of  popularity is the Classic FM 2020 Hall of Fame, where Beethoven held five places in the top 20 with the 9th symphony, Emperor concerto, 7th symphony, Pastoral symphony and 5th symphony. This, however, would be largely a reflection of the station’s rather limited playlist. The Bachtrack annual survey of the works most performed in concert around the world puts,  the fifth and seventh symphonies ahead of the Emperor concerto, the Eroica and the violin concerto. As you see, the same works crop up over and over.

Whenever I am approached for where to start in Beethoven, I ask myself  first of all which works give me (a) most pleasure, (b) most cause for thought and (c) the greatest sense of discovery on repeated listening. It’s hard to narrow it down to just ten, but here’s what I have come up with. And if you want a guide to interpretations just click on each link.


1 Violin concerto, opus 61

An irresistible essay of ambition and passion, anger and rebellion. Once you start listening you cannot stop.

2 Seventh symphony

The odd-numbered symphonies get played more than the even numbers, but the seventh is not discussed as much as the rest. As daring as anything Beethoven ever wrote, it is a blaze of clashing emotions with barely a quiet moment to know what’s really going on.

3 String quartet opus 131

The summit of the string quartet, nothing greater ever written.

4 Piano sonata opus 109

There are 32 piano sonatas and you’d expect he’d be running out of things to say by the 30th. Not a bit of it: Beethoven grabs you by the lapel and starts a new conversation from which there is no escape.

5 Kreutzer sonata, opus 47

Written for a visiting violinist of African extraction, the sonata signals Beethoven’s openness to people of all origins.

6 Piano concerto in G major, opus 58

While the Emperor concerto may win the popular vote, the preceding 4th concerto has the softest piano opening of any work in the rep and the most intellectual nourishment in its balance between individual and mass society. I’d rather hear this concerto than almost any other.

7 Judas Maccabaeus variations, WoO45

In his 20s, before he was famous, Beethoven doodled around with variations on great tunes by other composers. This set for cello and piano on a theme from Handel’s oratorio is fabulous and faultless. It’s a stepping stone to Beethoven’s brilliant solo-piano variations on his own Eroica theme and on another submitted by the publisher Diabelli.

8 Archduke trio, opus 97

The piano part has a particular poignancy: it was the last thing Beethoven ever played in public.

9 Coriolan overture, opus 62 

An incidental piece for a failed theatrical play, this is a display of Beethoven’s orchestral mastery condensed into 8 exhilarating minutes. It’s a work that separates good conductors from the very few great ones.

10 Eroica symphony, opus 55

A work of seminal importance in European history and profound personal contemplation. Its funeral  march features at some point in all of our lives.

There, it’s done. Or is it?

The new season’s relases are flooding in and, among them, two cracking Beethoven albums. Angela Hewitt’s set of piano variations on the Hyperion label (not yet on Idagio) is a compelling tour of the composer’s restless mind and agreeable conversation. And DG’s new release of the violin concerto with the teenaged Daniel Lozakovich (Munich Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev) has a commanding authority allied to a sweetness of tone that calls to mind the epic Fritz Kreisler of the 1920s and David Oistrakh of the 1950s. It’s the start of something new.



  • Lebron James says:

    thank you norman for your writeups linking the old gen to the new gen.. i hope this will be archived as it is an iconic exploration of the recording canon for the big 250th. beethoven would be proud!

  • John says:

    “ 5 Kreutzer sonata, opus 47
    Written for a visiting violinist of African extraction, the sonata signals Beethoven’s openness to people of all origins.”

    This has nothing to do with the music’s value, and Beethoven certainly didn’t regard the violinist any differently because they’re weren’t PC-obsessed in those days —Talent mattered. This is a very patronizing entry.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I cannot conceive of a Beethoven shortlist not including the Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111. That’s not only a question of giving most pleasure, most material for thought, or a sense of discovery on repeated listening, it’s also arguably the Beethoven work that has provided interpreters with most stimulance to make it new at every performance, not to talk about the very wide range of interpretations, given Anatol Ugorski and Glenn Gould as representative of the most radical views.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I am very sceptical of your statement, Norman, that “the top-selling Beethoven violin concerto features David Garrett with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ion Marin”.
    Really? Where did you obtain the sales figures that indicate this? And over what period do those figures cover?
    I am a fan of Ion Marin (I am unfamiliar with David Garrett) but can their recording truly have outsold those of Heifetz, Stern, Mutter, Oistrakh, Milstein, or even Kennedy? Or even vie in sales with Karajan’s 1962 Ninth or Kleiber’s 1975 Fifth?
    I simply can’t believe it without further documentation. Just saying “it’s so” doesn’t make it so.
    Neither does saying that The Toothpick and a teenager (and comparing him to Kreisler and Oistrakh at this stage of his career does him no good) have anything new to say about Beethoven in 2020.

    • Conductor says:

      If you took the time to actually listen to some of the recent work of ‘The Toothpick’ with Münchner Philarmoniker, you would be shocked how well he has aged, and how much of a better musician he has become with time. He does this Beethoven concerto beautifully, one of the top 5 performances ever of this piece.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Your comment is noted, “Conductor”.
        FYI, I *have* taken the time to “actually listen”, as you so dismissively put it.
        My opinion has not changed: The Toothpick is still a worthless poser, carried by whichever orchestra he happens to park his slovenly self in front of. (The Münchner Philarmoniker is certainly a wonderful orchestra, eminently capable of carrying a deadweight conductor.) What shocks me is not how well he has aged, but that he is still being hired.
        And you descend into hyperbole when you describe Gergiev’s performance of the violin concerto as “one of the top 5 performances ever of this piece”. Really, now! Perhaps you have heard only 5 performances.

        • Conductor says:

          Well then Greg, you have no ears. Or maybe they are just governed by your inner biases? Somebody reads too many Slippedisc Gergiev headlines it seems! No orchestra however great can carry a bad conductor, and there are days when Gergiev and Munich sound absolutely abysmal. But there are other days when he’s not tired and has rehearsed, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing, like has always been the case with Gergiev. And he is getting better indeed with age! Compare his Mahler cycle from his below-average LSO years to the Mahler cycle he is in the process of recording now. Only 10/15 years, but it’s like a totally different person!
          As far as the Beethoven concerto performance goes, come back when you have actually listened to it. And also, I’m only talking about the quality of the orchestral part.

          • Player says:

            Most orchestras, good and bad, carry bad conductors regularly. That’s how good we are. Conductors like to think they have a much bigger influence than they actually do.

          • Conductor says:

            Well, I’m not denying the fact that they carry bad conductors all the time, but you will probably agree with me in saying that those ‘carried’ performances are never anything more than average. And you surely know as an orchestral player how big an influence different conductors can have on musical result, just by their presence alone.

          • Greg Bottini says:

            “Well then Greg, you have no ears.”
            And now we get into personal insults.
            I have two ears (and a brain), and they are all working beautifully, thank you.
            Allow me to quote you further:
            “….there are days when Gergiev and Munich sound absolutely abysmal. But there are other days when he’s not tired and has rehearsed, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing….”
            This has always been my main criticism of Gergiev. He flies into a gig at the last minute, jet-lagged, disheveled, has no rehearsal, and gives an abysmal – your word – performance, at full ticket prices. Gergiev is a poser, a charlatan, and he steals money from his audiences and from the people who inexplicably continue to engage him.
            I was a professional orchestral musician for thirty years, and I can testify from personal experience that good orchestras can and do carry lousy conductors.
            Perhaps you, “Conductor”, are so full of yourself that you hadn’t noticed this happening at your own performances.
            One more quote from you: “As far as the Beethoven concerto performance goes….I’m only talking about the quality of the orchestral part.”
            Silly me, I have always judged concerto performances by the totality – soloist AND accompaniment. Some “Conductor” you must be.
            Well, keep drinking the Gergiev Kool-Aid, “Conductor”. It is apparent to me that your mind has been blown for quite a long time.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Bought this cd last week and it is excellent what a talented young man.

  • Pedro says:

    For me, the following are the 10 most important Beethoven works because they were the first ten Beethoven works I have heard in my life. They shaped my understanding and my love of the composer for the next 50 years.

    1. The Emperor concerto.
    2. The Seventh symphony.
    3. The Missa Solemis.
    4. The third Razumowsky Quartet.
    4. Fidelio.
    5. The third cello sonata.
    6. The Appassionata.
    7. The Spring sonata.
    8. The opus 127 quartet.
    9. The Archduke trio.
    10. The Ninth.

  • nimitta says:

    With you all the way on the Eroica & 7th symphonies; the Coriolan Overture; the 4th piano concerto and sublime sonata, Op. 109; and the incomparable string quartet, Op. 131. Also on my imaginary list: the Diabelli Variations…

    I also second your appraisal of the VC with Lozakovich/MP/Gergiev, and would expand your final comment thus: great Beethoven is always the start of something new.

  • Max Raimi says:

    My viewpoint on Beethoven symphonies is peculiar since I have played them all so many times, and I completely understand that virtually nobody agrees with me. That said, I have found that the Seventh has palled in a way that the others do not over the years. There are spots in it I just don’t get–the fugue in the slow movement seems academic and uninspired to me, an attempt to provide motivation for the fortissimo climax that still seems unmotivated. The trio in the third movement is infuriatingly static; it sort of works if you take Beethoven’s rather breakneck tempo of 88 to the bar (which nobody does), but only because you then get it over with faster. To repeat the whole thing a second time always struck me as punitive. The last movement has a wonderful energy, but there are basically two ideas in it that keep alternating. It is almost saved by a brilliant coda. I would rank many of his others ahead of it–certainly 4, 8, and 9.

    • William Safford says:

      Having performed the 7th a bunch of times, I have several opinions about the 7th, two of which are relevant here.

      Most performances of the 2nd movement of the 7th Symphony are just too darned slow and heavy. Beethoven marked it “allegretto,” yet it so often sounds like a dirge. When it is played at a brisk tempo and with a light touch, it is a delight.

      The mood of the scherzo, to me, is a forerunner of the entire 8th symphony. I think it should be light, fast, and, in honor of its name, humorous. Many people take this scherzo too slowly, and take the 8th symphony’s minuet too fast.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Maybe “virtually” nobody agrees with you, Max, but I certainly do!
      I have always considered the 7th to be LvB’s least significant (I don’t really want to say “weakest”; none of his symphonies are truly “weak”) symphonic effort.
      Apart from the lovely and poignant allegretto, and the poco sostenuto intro to the first movement, this symphony, to my mind, is much ado about nothing.
      Flash and glam, 19th century style. Loud and repetitive. No wonder Wagner loved it. RW even tagged it with that absurd and ridiculous “the apotheosis of the dance” moniker, a term which has always struck me as pure bulls**t.
      As you say, Max, LvB’s 4th, 8th, and 9th are ahead of the 7th.
      As a personal observation, I reckon that the 4th has been the “toughest nut to crack” of any of the symphonies; even the greatest Beethoven conductors seem to falter in this work: for example, Furtwangler (a conductor who I admire tremendously) simply meanders, as if he couldn’t quite figure out which exit off the highway to take.

    • Conductor says:

      Max Raimi, I agreed with you fully, until I heard Rattle and LSO do this symphony live last year. What an incredible performance. I could not believe that was the same piece that I had heard/played so many times! Currentzis’ Beethoven 5 album had the same effect on me. Those 2 experiences confirm once again the saying ‘there are no bad pieces, only bad performers’.

      • William Safford says:

        What was different about Rattle’s interpretation?

        Unrelated: did he include a contrabassoon? I saw a performance on TV of Rattle conducting the Berlin (at least I think it was Rattle and Berlin–not sure) in the 7th, in which a contrabassoon took up residence by the string basses. This would have been an authentic performance practice in Beethoven’s time, but is unusual today.

  • mary says:

    photo reminds me of a young gergiev curating the beginning of the career of another young prodigy, evgeny kissin, by touring his tchaikovsky first all over Asia

    Alas, today, the spectacular debuts that become the stuff of legends in front of a sold out hall (kissin and karajan and berlin) is not possible

  • Jim says:

    If you’re mentioning popularity, let’s not forget that virtually every teenager on the planet has had a Fur Elise phase

  • Chris says:

    I enjoyed following all of the postings. Is there a master list, maybe by opus number, that can be referenced for future review?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      There will be.

      • David Drasin says:

        I was proud that I was making a document of the entries by opus number. So if you are doing this did I waste all that effort? Thanks for bringing so many beautiful works before us again, emphasis on ALL. I think you did not do the duet arrangement of the Fuge, opus 134, but if it was felt that it would make the work more poplar, it certainly failed. Thanks again.

  • marcus says:

    Surely the Bagatelles have to be in any such list? (certainly in favour of the Archduke, for one)

  • Alexander T says:

    Opus 111!!!

  • MacroV says:

    I have no argument with any of these, but I’d put Missa Solemnis somewhere on my list.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    I’m very glad you included somewhere in the list his Piano Concerto no 4. I have discovered it as a teenager -my father had given me a recording by Wilhelm Backhaus that became my all-time favorite until I started listening to other interpretations. I could’nt resist buying each and every recording I found whether by a famous pianist or an unknown one, hence my collection of dozens of vinyl and CD records. Recently I got to listening to many new and old performances on YouTube, many of them very commendable, with a notable exception. The Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev has one of the most disturbing conception of the Concerto to the point of making it completely disagreeable, a feeling I had never before had in my life. At the top of the list is Glenn Gould with Leonard Bernstein. Not only is the playing exceptional but the Columbia sound engineers did a fantastic job. You get the impression that the whole orchestra is in your living room. And Bernstein, for once, was obviously in tune with Gould.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am a bit surprised to read N.L.’s opinion that we in the United States regard the Emperor Concerto as the “most important” work of Beethoven’s, even given the many definitions that can be given to the word “important.” I wonder what the basis is for that view — record sales? Orchestra (or radio) programming?

    No, I suspect that the 9th Symphony would be regarded as the most important by Americans familiar enough with Beethoven to know that he composed more than just the Moonlight Sonata and Fur Elise. And there would be many such people who know the symphonies, overtures and concertos who nonetheless are not really familiar with the string quartets, Fidelio, the Missa Solemnis, or all the sonatas for cello, for violin, and for piano.

    The 7th Symphony was my favorite — until I played it. The 1st Symphony was my least favorite — until I played it. Over time I begin to think that my favorite Beethoven symphonies are the even-numbered ones, even as critical opinion usually insists, and I do not necessarily disagree, that the greatest ones are odd-numbered (critical opinion usually leaves aside the 1st, wrongly in my view). Evidently that means that what I like best is liked for reasons unrelated to greatness, and now that I think of it that holds true for the Beethoven piano sonatas, the quartets, and the violin sonatas.

    By the way, just what are these “recording industry figures” that are cited? How far back do they go (and how accurate if they do go back to 78 rpm days?). What countries do they include or exclude? Do they include or exclude reissues?
    Someone once told me for example that the old Billboard magazine lists for classical, which at one time were much quoted at least in the US, did not necessarily even include bargain reissue labels and simply did not include such labels as Vox due to their sometimes “untraditional” methods of distribution and sales. A person who claimed to be in the know wrote that Vox’s recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Susanne Lautenbacher outsold Menuhin, Oistrakh, Stern, and Heifetz combined, but that you’d never know that from the Billboard “charts” because of how Billboard elected to run the numbers. Maybe they were full of it but that is what I was told.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The finale of the Seventh is often taken so fast that it becomes a blur, especially the poor cellists’ scramble. But I would have thought there’s enough low string (viola) writing in the allegretto to salvage it for Max Raimi. A propos nothing , Brahms’s second serenade in A and an opera by Etienne Mehul have no violins at all, just violas and down.

    As for the violin concerto, I’ve never recovered from Bronislaw Hubermann and George Szell/VPO, as everyone knows by now.

    I hope Daniel Poulin knows Schnabel’s fourth concerto with Fredrick Stock and Chicago Symphony from 1942, because at the end of the first movement Schnabel does something no other pianist I’ve heard has thought to do: hold the piano’s last two chords through the orchestra’s, resonating beyond them to thrilling effect. But, is there really a 4th with Gould and Bernstein News to me.

    Incidentally, I saw Backhaus play it with Brahms’s first concerto on the same program with Los Angeles Philharmonic; I think Wallenstein conducted.

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      Edgar: With Norman’s permission here is a review of Gould’s recording written by Tim Auckremann on The Audio Beat in 2012

      Beethoven • Piano Concerto No.4 in G major

      Glenn Gould, piano; New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting
      Columbia/Impex Records IMP6011
      Single 180-gram LP

      by Tim Aucremann | December 5, 2012

      It wasn’t Woodstock when Beethoven premiered his Fourth Piano Concerto, but it might have been the single greatest classical concert in the history of Western music. By 1808 Beethoven was the darling of Vienna. The big event, at the Theater an der Wien, also included the world premier of both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, parts of his C major Mass, his Choral Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, and the aria “Ah, perfido,” Op. 65. For good measure, Beethoven threw in a few lengthy improvisations. The concert was described later as comparable to being present at the creation of the world; however, the show didn’t really go all that well. The orchestra was poorly rehearsed, and there were constant interruptions. Beethoven would leap from the piano to finger a flagging musician, which caused the small boys next to him to drop their candles and he could no longer see the score. It was freezing in December, and the building had no heat. Both audience and musicians were cold and grumpy as the concert turned into a four-hour slog.

      The new piano concerto arrived between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and with faint reaction from the normally discerning Viennese audience, it got lost in the mix. Beethoven never played the concerto again, and within a few years he abandoned the genre entirely. Perhaps his failing hearing reduced his love for public performance.

      Sometimes music needs to find its era, and happily in the classical world time can turn the obscure into gold. Impex Records unearthed a 24-karat nugget when it dug into Sony’s vast Columbia vault and pulled out Glenn Gould’s recording of the No.4 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. As a youngster, Gould took Beethoven’s score into his bedroom for study, only to emerge a few hours later to play the G major Concerto for the first time, note perfect and entirely from memory. At fourteen, he performed the piece with the Toronto Symphony at his public orchestral debut, and it remained special for him throughout his career. Despite being a strong-willed control freak whose talent let him perform any music in whatever manner he chose, when Gould played the Fourth he sublimated control to Beethoven, opting for the composer’s most difficult cadenzas.

      The G major broke with tradition, beginning not with the orchestra but with the piano. Its opening bars are a tiny hymn with a subtle genius that places the soloist (the hero) on an equal footing with the authority of the collective. Gould’s piano speaks with a poised lyricism, while the Philharmonic builds on the solo theme in a wholly different key, its response brusque with energy and action.

      The brief second movement opens with a turgid, almost funereal orchestra to which the piano answers sweetly. A minute longer than normal, Gould’s dramatically deliberate Andante is never lethargic. Here, the piano finds little effect from its efforts at dialog, finally launching into a cadenza so stunningly beautiful it resolves the dialectical tension and tames the gruff orchestra.

      In the Rondo, timpani and trumpets enter at last, as piano and orchestra intertwine in reconciliation. The music becomes spirited with infectious joy. There are points here and in the first movement where Bernstein shows a slight unwillingness to take the yoke of Gould’s phrasing, but, in true heroic fashion, the soloist wins out. The piano takes two complex cadenzas that challenge musician and instrument alike. Finally — as if someone offstage signaled him to wrap it up — Beethoven jacks the tempo into high gear and the piece cavorts to conclusion.

      I’ve heard no other recording of this work come close to Gould’s rhythmic control, tenderness and sheer conviction, all without hint of bravura. Fleisher is delicate yet occasionally rushed and automatic. Ashkenazy with the Vienna Philharmonic is marvelously dexterous yet mono-dynamic. Kempff with the Berlin Philharmonic is lighthearted — a bit too much so — and while I love his Chopin, Arrau just seems to mail it in. Gould owns the piece: his Andante makes Beethoven personal; his rondo is as adroit as his Bach. Here is a master at the peak of his powers playing a work he knows intimately.

      Like a gunslinger who files down the firing pin, Gould tweaked his Steinway for fast action and total control. The Impex reissue makes this obvious. Throughout (and especially in the solo passages), the LP lays bare the instrument: a box of strings struck by hammers, resonant and harmonic. Even at the fastest tempos, Gould’s technique yields a clear articulation of tone, nuance and dynamic on each note from each hand. In a fine confluence of sound and performance, Columbia engineered an impeccable sonic balance between soloist and orchestra. Today, Impex brings us a vinyl remaster as fresh, clear, and full-bodied as the day it was captured in 1961. Kevin Gray’s all-analog remaster of this six-eye gem turns a perfect triple Lutz into a quadruple Axel. Gray does not try to make an audiophile diva from an already fine recording, and the quiet, tick-free 180-gram vinyl really sticks the landing.

      If your collection is missing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, it lacks an essential piece of classical music. If it lacks Glenn Gould’s version, you are missing a quintessential performance.

    • William Safford says:

      And, of course, the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten has no violins.

  • EdgarSelf says:

    Mille merci, Daniel. D’accord. I will arrange to hear Gould’s fourth concerto.Did you already know about the Schnabel effect of holding the last twopiano chords of the primo through the orchestra’s interjections?

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      I have 2 different Schnabel vinyl records; I’ll have to listen to them. By the way, Edgar, I invite you to join the Glenn Gould Group on Facebook; I am one of the 2 administrators.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thank you, Ddaniel. It is kind of you, and I am honored, but poor vision limits me to this board, where we depend on you to keep us abreast of significant Gouldiana. I could not manage to navigate Facebook, and somewhat mistrust it. Best wishes.

  • Charles says:

    The final movement of Symphony No. 5 is one of the greatest of Beethoven’s works. I can’t understand all the ink the first movement gets in comparison to this titanic fount of joy. And I can’t understand why anyone would not include the Fifth in a short list of Beethoven’s greatest works.