The Best of Beethoven



JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine. ”They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in flic Atlantic.

RECORD reviewers regularly are called upon by friends, acquaintances, faithful readers, and other deserving folk for assistance in their record shopping. A reviewer thus called upon almost always accedes with the greatest readiness and with an envious gleam in his eye, both sprung from the same cause. This is that he wishes he himself could buy records, and he can’t. He has too many records already, as his wife keeps telling him. Further, it is part of his professional code that, record companies are supposed to supply his records gratis, and that if they neglect him it is their hard luck. One does not lightly violate a code like that, even to taste half-forgotten joys.

For record shopping is recalled by the average reviewer as an almost unalloyed pleasure. This is usually because he made the transition from collector to reviewer in the days before the LP drove the 78-rpm disk from the shelves, and when record shops savored more of the salon than of the supermarket. If you shopped then for, say, a Beethoven Ninth, you knew all about the existing editions (twenty-five years had produced only eleven), and when the new Vienna version arrived you heard a snatch of it and were ready to make your pounce. It was safe to do so, too; probably there wouldn’t be another version — to supersede your choice— for at least two years.

Things are different now. There may be dozens, literally, of recordings of the work you are interested in. You cannot have heard them all, yet their very number persuades you that at least one of them must be a good buy. (It ain’t necessarily so, as we shall see.) Still, may not there come forth tomorrow one which will shade all predecessors? (There may, but it happens rarely.)

So shopping is still possible, though it requires either more research or keener intuition than it used to. Let us winnow the shop’s Beethoven shelf with a shopper’s eye, 1956 model. Beethoven makes good test material, since he occupies the second biggest space in Schwann’s Long Playing Record Catalog; and there is no sense in investigating the Number One man until the 1956 Mozart bicentennial flood has abated.

We cannot here assay nine hundred (that’s right) recorded performances, so we will follow the track that actual queries usually take, the aim being to outline a more or less bombproof Beethoven repertory. Let us begin with the symphonies, as most advice seekers do.

What about the First? I like best, slightly, the Scherchen version on Westminster, but instead I will take the RCA Victor by Toscanini. I have to, since it fills the last side of the album holding the Toscanini Ninth, which I must have. But it is worth noting if you don’t want the Ninth, or Toscanini, that neither Erich Leinsdorf (erstwhile Columbia artist, now of Westminster) nor Fritz Reiner (erstwhile Columbia Pittsburgher, now RCA Victor Chicagoan) has made a First, and that either should do it beautifully.

The Second presents a pairing problem. Scherchen’s fine job is coupled with his even better Eighth, Toscanini’s and Bruno Walter’s (Columbia) each with an excellent Fourth. If you take the Scherchen, you will still need a Fourth — and will just have ruled out the two best. If you take Toscanini or Walter, your choice of Eighths is narrowed — probably to the Toscanini, which is back to back with a sonicallv malnourished Fifth. The solution may be simply to decide which two symphonies you want now and wait for a new version of the one you must pass up.

You will notice at once that the Third, or Eroica, has been made fairly recently by everyone likely to excel at it, and that’s the way we like things. I’d take either the Columbia (Entré: $1.98) Leinsdorf or the RCA Victor Reiner, but the older Toscanini still has fire if not aural richness.

The Fourth we have already dealt with, except to add a kind word for Solti’s London performance: admirable.

There is no good Fifth, despite twenty-three tries! Kleiber, for London, offers an excellent first movement in marvelous sound, and nothing much more. The two Toscanini versions, one a reprint from 78s, reflect - obviously - splendid performances, but your tone-controls can evoke no splendor from the sound. Two other good readings, Klemperer’s for Vox and von Karajan’s for Columbia, have been nearly as sadly dimmed by time. There are not even any very exciting prospects. Wait.

The Sixth, or Pastoral, has fared better — luckily, for once again nearly everyone has had a whack at it. The Toscanini, the Kleiber, and the Van Otterloo (Epic) all are quite satisfactory. The highest fidelity is on the MercuryPa ray, which I don’t take to otherwise. The Steinberg version for Capitol is hampered by lowlevel recording.

’The Seventh it is probably safe to buy in the Toscanini recording. A new and exciting Leinsdorf (Columbia) is marred by pre-echo. There might just possibly be a Reiner or Steinberg recording before long, but the tumultuous Toscanini is worth having anyway.

The Eighth we have talked about. The Ninth, so far as I am concerned, should be bought in the overpowering Toscanini interpretation, no matter what other version may be forthcoming.

So far I have made no mention of ”historic” recordings, since probably hardly anyone would want, one of these as sole version of a work. But Columbia has reprinted all the Beethoven symphonies in the famous interpretations of Felix Weingartner. As an exercise in connoisseurship, if nothing else, you should have one. I’d suggest the Eroica, but all are good, even if they do sound like 19281940.

Concertos come next to eye, and show us very little describable as definitive, except (or another historic issue. RCA Victor has put forth an album containing all live piano concertos m reprints of 78-rpm recordings by Artur Schnabel and Malcolm (now Sir Malcolm) Sargent: utter and convincing rightness in the playing; tiny, tinny sound. Apart from that, the First and Second Piano Concertos are adequately played for Westminster by Paul Budura-Skoda with Hermann Scherehen, and the Second alone for HMV by Solomon with Otto Ackermann conducting. Nothing ultimate, nor is there in the ranks of the Third.

With the Fourth, the prospect changes. Here as one choice is the best Schnabel reprint, quite tolerable sound, with Dobrowen Conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (RCA Victor). But my own choice would be the 1955 performance by Curzon with Hans Knappertsbusch, on London, one of the most irresistible recorded playings of anything I’ve ever heard.

’The Fifth, or Emperor, has fared less well. The Backhauskrauss-London or Gieseking-karajanColumbia can be regarded as acceptable, but not much more. There is a new Kempff rendition offered by Decca, with Paul Van Kempen leading the Berlin Philharmonic: the playing is lovely, but (be recording is not what it ought to be. Decca’s bad luck in transcribing Deutsche Grammoplion tapes is shown up even more painfully in its five-concertos-onthree-disks package, again featuring Kempff and Van Kempen. It is hard to figure who else might profitably attempt the Emperor soon. Rubinstein and Reiner, perhaps? Or Curzon and Knappertsbusch? As for shoppers — wait or not, depending on how much of a hurry you’re in.

The best, all-around version of the Violin Concerto, so far, would seem to be that of Milstein and Steinberg for Capitol, though I was not ravished by its tone. Two durable Londons, Ricci-Boult and Campoli-Krips, are beginning to betray their age. The ancient Heifetz-Toscanini shows up ot her performances’ weaknesses, without being able to satisfy us itself. Heifetz recently completed some sessions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which sounded very good to me but apparently did not satisfy Heifetz. If you would like to savor tin oddity while you wait, what about Beethoven’s own transcription of the Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra, as played for SPA records by Helen Schnabel with F. Charles Adler conducting?

Of other long orchestral compositions, by all odds the most, rewarding recording of recent vintage is Hermann Scherchcn’s absolutely wonderful reading of the Incidental Music for Goethe’s Egmont which includes two songs, two monologues, and thrilling suspense music, as well as the famous overture, all in excellent Westminster sound. Other overtures are available in enormous profusion; you picks your conductor and gets what you expect. I would pick the four overtures to Fidelia as played by either Klemperer (Angel) or Krauss (London: two 10”), both tremendous, and the Scherrhen-Westminster disk containing The Consecration of the House, Namensfeier, Coriolanus, King Stephen, Prometheus, and Ruins of Athens — a lot for your money.

As for Fidelio itself—I’d wait, unless what I wanted was Toscanini. His broadcast reprint has some exciting passages, but the loss of the spoken dialogue undermines the drama. London, perhaps with Erich Kleiber on the podium, will undoubtedly get around to Fidelio before long.

The Missa Solemn is poses a dilemma. The Toscanini version has blazing excitement — and bad microphone balance: some solos are almost inaudible, some instruments weirdly prominent. Böhm’s German performance for Deem is big and cluirchly, and all the soloist scan be heard beautifully. But, if you have heard the Toscanini, Böhm sounds just a mile tame. However, I cannot foresee anyone else’s outpointing either of these in a hurry, so there is your choice. I am of half a mind to recommend also the Mount of Olives as led by Henry Swoboda for Concert Hall in a worthy, aging record. But this little-played oratorio is just the kind of work most likely to pop up tomorrow in a new, good, unheralded version. Mow much do you care? Sometimes an old recording has enough appeal to preclude regrets when a new one comes out. This might apply also to another Concert Hall disk, that which offers the Choral Fantasy as performed by Friedrich Wühror, pianist, with Clemens Krauss conducting the chorus and orchestra. I have never mustered the currently fashionable contempt for the Choral Fantasy, perhaps because I am a little charmed by the eighteenth-century penchant for expressing profound sentiments in drinking songs, and by Beethoven’s urge thus to address his only true love, Music. And I don’t know of anyone else around likely to be as sympathetic in approach as Krauss and Wührer.

And now to the piano, Beethoven’s own instrument, where we should encounter great confusion, but don’t. RCA Victor is pulling out, one by one, the Schnabel-Beethoven Society sonatas in reprint and they don’t sound bad, except for Volume I, which was re-recorded off pitch (do you have a variable-speed turntable?). Piano recording was surprisingly good in the 1930s, and I’d wait for these to come out. If you want newer sound you can have it, and a very tasteful classic-German approach to the early sonatas, in the London records of Wilhelm Backhaus -high permanent value. But the best Moonlight, if anyone cares, is that of Guiomar Novaes on Vox. And by the time we come to the Tempest (Op. 31, No. 2), newsound adherents get notice to wait, for herewith Jacob Lateiner his begun for Westminster a series which may be of major importance. (On the reverse is a Waldstein just as good.) The best Appassionata. anyone is likely to hear is that by Artur Rubinstein for RCA Victor, but this probably is less significant than it might seem: none of his other Beethoven sonatas, though good, catch fire as this one does. As we move into the hist sonatas, there is a supply of studied beauty in which it is difficult to go wrong. (The only tragedy, again, is the complete sonata series made by Kempff and issued by Decea: superb playing and generally wretched recording. I am told that the Deutsche Grammophon originals are better, but they are very expensive and hard to get.) For admirers of Casadesus, Solomon, Myra Hess, and Mieczyslaw Ilorszovvski: anything any of them has done, through this range of the sonatas, is good enough to buy without misgiving. This goes also for Backhaus, of course, who has recorded all thirty-two. His Hammerklavier is particularly noteworthy.

In the piano-and-violin sonatas, other hunters may be struck with indecision, but not I. Joseph Fuchs and Artur Balsam have not received from Deeca recorded sound of great distinction to grace their complete coverage of these sonatas, but it is manageable. And they need no further favors. Unlike almost any other team, they keep the music sounding like Beethoven, and pretty big Beethoven, throughout—proving not only that it can be done, but that it should be. I think perhaps Serkin and Alexander Schneider could match their series, but I see no immediate likelihood of Columbia’s asking them to try. I wouldn’t wait.

The cello sonatas afford a plethora of riches not met elsewhere. You can choose among real masters, but probably everyone will choose Casals and Serkin; I cannot think of any reason not to, except perhaps that Casals does a deal of moaning and grunting. If tin’s distracts you, you can pick among Schnabel-Fournier, Solomon-Biat igorsky, Bogin-Starker, and Zecchi-Janigro.

Beethoven’s musical autobiography, so to speak, is written in his string quartets. One quartet in the world, at the present time, holds pre-eminence over all others in Beethoven-playing, and that is the Budapest. Columbia offers them in the complete quartets (three volumes) or disk by disk. The last quartets (Op. 127 through Op. 135) should be bought singly, and Op. 127 omitted. It’s a shrieker. The Vegh (Ilaydn Society) or Pascal (Concert Hall) version can be substituted. Both are good. One other possible substitution might, be that of (he Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet playing Op. 59, No. 2, wherein they achieve a sort of singing warmth that not even the Budapests match.

In the lesser chamber works, there are recordings of much merit. The string trios come engagingly and in very realistic sound from Westminster’s Pougnet-Riddle-Pini trio — and anyone who has not heard the TrioSerenade, Op. 8, ought to. The bigger trios for piano and strings are less well handled — no really good Archduke or Ghost, which is the fault of the recording companies and not ihe artists. The Piano and Woodwind Quintet in E Flat gets an almost miraculous performance from Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. The famous Septet in the same key can be had in orchestral form led by Toscanini (and preceded by what seems to be a BMT subway thud), or as a septet by Viennese players on a line London disk.

Only singers, I think, consider Beethoven’s songs major Beethoven. Anyway, apparently recording companies don’t, since nearly all have assigned these rather glum, very male effusions to women singers, with uninspiring results.

So endeth the first lesson, the gist whereof is that however inadequate a modern recording of a great piece of music may be, its remedy lies in patience. There’ll be, as the man says, another along in a minute.

Record Reviews

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (Paul Sacher conducting Chamber Orchestra of Basel; Epic SC-6008: two 12”). The two disks divide the Concertos 1-2-3 and 4-5-6, and are available singly (LC-3166 and 3167) as well as boxed together. In performance and recording they stand up well against any other version, and seem decidedly preferable to the only other one that gets all six Brandenburgs on four sides. A bargain.

Bach: Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, piano; Columbia ML5060:12”). Glenn Gould, the twentytwo-year-old Canadian wunderkind who dunks his forearms before performing, jigs around the studio during playback, and writes his own very literate jacket-notes, also plays Bach very well indeed. In fact, here is probably the best set of Goldberg Variations this side of Wanda Landowska’s. The piano sounds as bright as Air. Gould’s future looks.

Handel:Messiah (Thompson Stone conducting soloists, Zimbler Sinfonietta, chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston; Unicorn UNS-1: three 12”). The fourth Messiah of the microgroove era is the first made in America since electrical recording began. It can be best described as conventional — in its pacing, arrangement, and elisions — but good. Engineer Peter Bartók has caught marvelously the tone of the chorus and the excellent Zimblers, playing in Symphony Hall. The soloists unfortunately (except for Adele Addison, soprano) do not distinguish themselves, though they are not downright bad.

Strauss:Ariadne auf Naxos (Herbert von Karajan conducting Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Rudolf Schock, Ilugues Cuenod; other soloists; Philharmonia Orchestra; Angel 3532: three 12”). Less lush than Rosenkavalier, less austere than Strauss’s latest works, Ariadne may possibly be his most beautiful opera. Its trickplot libretto, too complicated to describe here, must be followed intently, but rewards the follower; and the endless flow of lovely song that carries it along cannot fail to enchant. The performances of the all-important women’s parts are so good here that they are almost hard to believe, and Karajan too works miracles. The recorded sound is both pure and rich.

Schubert; Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished” with Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (Charles Munch conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra; RCA Vidor LAI-1923: 12”). The Beethoven without being bad never quite gets going, but the Schubert is certainly one of the best recorded versions. There is an odd, perhaps accidental, prominence of the tympani in the first movement, which may bother some hearers but which I found effective. Listen before buying.