Opinions abound about Beethoven’s symphonies and their interpretations by orchestras around the world. He wrote really fast tempos (tempi?), which made them a challenge to conduct and many performances can sound sluggish. On the other hand, Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi (with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie) conducted Beethoven’s symphonies at the composers authorized break-neck tempi…which can sound pretty rushed to contemporary audiences.
I love Wilhelm Furtwängler‘s (1886-1954) versions, but unfortunately these are mostly old mono recordings. For that matter, many classical albums just don’t sound that great. They’re recorded in big halls, and the recordings don’t capture the nuances of individual instruments very well. And in live recordings, you often hear coughing and sneezing, especially in Russian ones (probably the fault of all those Sputnik cigarettes). French recordings from the 60’s-80’s also have a lot of coughing (Gauloises and Gitanes, take your pick). Other Beethoven aficionados dislike conductor Herbert Von Karajan‘s recordings because of his Nazi ties.
Luckily, a 2006 London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) box set of the complete Beethoven symphonies just gets everything right. The fresh interpretations, with the LSO conducted by Bernard Haitink (think Concertgebouw of Amsterdam), were spirited but not frantic. Not too slow, not too fast — tempi at near or close to Beethoven’s indications. Equally important is the sound quality. The set is well-recorded with full, rich, clear tonality. Recorded in November 2005 and April 2006 at the Barbican, London in both SACD multi-channel 5.0 and 5.1 and stereo mixes, you can hear every nuance, from the flutes to the massed contrabasses. I think the music breathes in a special way because of the clarity of sound. It enhances the great performances by the LSO, with its warm strings and woodwinds. Classical recordings rarely sound this good.
Here’s a video of one of the Barbican sessions. The CD’s, however, sound much better than on this video! Beethoven fans should definitely consider checking out this box.