BEER: Polnische Hochzeit / Martina Rüping, soprano (Jadja); Susanne Bernhard, soprano (Suza); Florence Losseau, mezzo-soprano (Stasi); Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Count Boleslav Zagorsky); Michael Kupfer-Radecky, baritone (Count Staschek Zagorsky); Mathias Hausmann, baritone (Casimir von Kawietzky); Bernhard Spingler, bass-baritone (Sergius Korrosoff); Friedemann Röhlig, bass (Baron Mietek Oginsky); Alexander Kiechle, bass (Stani); Gärtnerplatz State Theater Chorus; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / CPO 444 059-2 (live: Munich, November 21-22, 2015)
Joseph Beer, an extraordinarily talented musician, fell into writing his operetta The Polish Wedding almost by accident, yet it proved a major hit for him in 1934 when he was only 24 years old. Unfortunately, he was Jewish and hounded out of Austria by the Nazis. He fled to France, where he spent the rest of his life, only composing occasional religious and liturgical works for his own edification. Yet this wildly inventive work is one of the finest of its genre and performed here by a talented and committed ensemble cast under a lively and energetic conductor. If you love operetta at all, you simply cannot be without this set.
Beethoven, Ludwig van
BEETHOVEN: Ah, perfido! / Eva Marton, soprano; English Chamber Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (paired w/Symphony no. 4 on CBS LP 37509)
Inge Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Josef Krips, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Beethoven’s dramatic aria with orchestra has received several fine performances over the years, but few as good as these two. The mono Borkh recording is available for free streaming, while the digital stereo Marton recording is out of print.
BEETHOVEN: An die Ferne Geliebte / Peter Schreier, tenor; Walter Olbertz, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Jon Vickers, tenor; Richard Woitach, pianist / part of CBC Records PSCD2024. Alternate version from 1972 with Leo Barkin, pianist available for free streaming on YouTube.
Thomas Hampson, baritone; Geoffrey Parsons, pianist / part of EMI 555147, also available for free streaming on YouTube.
Everyone has their favorite versions of this superb song cycle, possibly the first one ever written; these are mine. For me, the Schreier-Olbertz recording is sheer perfection in every way, vocally, tempo-wise, interpretation and expression. I have a soft spot in my heart for Vickers’ version ever since I heard him sing it live in his 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. The voice is a bit large for the music, and his German pronunciation was always far from ideal, but you couldn’t discount his commitment and the deep feeling he poured into this cycle. By comparison with these two tenors Hampson, like Fischer-Dieskau before him, seems just a shade reserved, but I love the warmth of his voice and the poetic feeling he brings to every line. Parsons, oddly, sounds a bit reserved and not into the music as much as Olbertz or Woitach.
BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles, Opp. 33, 119, 126; Bagatelle WoO 59, “Für Elise” / Artur Schnabel, pianist / Pristine Classical 049 AS
Although Schnabel’s Beethoven Sonata recordings have come down a few pegs in my estimation, I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to him in these Bagatelles. Schnabel invests so much passion, intelligence and excitement on each and every one of them that he holds you spellbound from first note to last, and Pristine Classical’s transfers are the best I’ve ever heard, restoring the warmth of the original 78s while cleaning up the surface noise.
BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-5 / Zuill Bailey, cellist; Simone Dinnerstein, pianist / Telarc 80740
Despite some heavy competition from star-studded cellists, I feel it is Bailey who most completely projects the right feeling in every phrase of every movement of these wonderful sonatas. Similarly, pianist Dinnerstein—who normally plays in New York and often contemporary music—is an exciting, riveting accompanist. I would, however, also recommend Sonatas Nos. 3 and 5 by Jacqueline du Pré and Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich as among the best historical performances.
BEETHOVEN: Christus am Ölberge, Op. 85 (Complete oratorio) / Maria Venuti, soprano (Seraph); Keith Lewis, tenor (Jesus); Michel Brodard, baritone (Peter); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor / Hänssler Classic 98.030
This unusual work for Beethoven, a religious oratorio depicting Christ’s adventures on the Mount of Olives, is seldom performed as well or with as much energy as it is here. Of course, there aren’t many recordings of it, but the one I owned for years focused more on the fine singing of the individual principals—soprano Cristina Deutekom, tenor Nicolai Gedda and bass Hans Sotin—than on the overall musical conception, which weakens the score considerably. Helmuth Rilling is the only conductor I’ve ever heard pull the disparate parts of this score together and make one sit up and take notice. In addition, his soloists—none of them household names—perform beautifully.
BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations. 12 Variations on a Russian Dance by Wranitzky / Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist / Decca 4758401
Vladimir Ashkenazy, a favorite Beethoven pianist of many critics, was never really one of my top picks, but this performance of the Diabelli Variations recorded fairly late in his career is a gem from start to finish. The way he plays them, it almost sounds as if he is inventing them at the keyboard himself, and the sonics are simply perfect.
BEETHOVEN: Egmont (Complete incidental music) / Magda Laszlo, soprano; Fred Liewehr, speaker; Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Hermann Scherchen, conductor / available for free streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX0lBHfxcVo
Beethoven’s incidental music to Egmont is often overlooked because, to be frank about it, most recordings of the complete score are boring. Usually, only the overture and the two songs Die Trommel gerühret and Freudvoll und leidvoll are memorable, but under Scherchen’s skilled baton the whole score comes roaring to life. This recording is taken from a mono LP on Westminster WL 5281 and will absolutely blow you away. It did me.
BEETHOVEN: Fantasia in C minor, Op. 80 (Choral Fantasy) / Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Westminster Choir; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / Sony Classical 886443422223; also available for free streaming here.
Although this recording was made in analog stereo, it still merits six fish as the single most artistic and thrilling performance I’ve ever heard of this unjustly-maligned work. Toscanini’s 1939 broadcast is also thrillingly conducted, but it’s defective mono and also has the annoying, nerveless playing of pianist Ania Dorfmann, a Toscanini family friend. There are no qualms about Serkin’s playing, which absolutely dwarfs everyone else I’ve ever heard in this music, and you can’t fault the Westminster Choir. Bernstein followed Serkin’s lead with a taut, thrilling account of the orchetral part.
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Fidelio/Leonore); Marita Farell, soprano (Marzelline); Karl Laufkötter, tenor (Jacquino); René Maison, tenor (Florestan); Alexander Kipnis, bass (Rocco); Julius Huehn, baritone (Don Pizarro); Herbert Janssen, baritone (Don Fernando); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Bruno Walter, conductor / available on issues from Guild, Arkadia and Pristine Classical
Eva Marton, soprano (Fidelio/Leonore); Roberta Peters, soprano (Marzelline); James Atherton, tenor (Jacquino); Jon Vickers, tenor (Florestan); Paul Plishka, bass (Rocco); Franz Mazura, baritone (Don Pizarro); Anthony Laciura, tenor (First Prisoner); John Cheek, bass (Don Fernando); Metropolitan Opera Orchesta & Chorus; Klaus Tennstedt, conductor / available for free streaming at https://archive.org/details/Fidelio1
Fidelio is one of the most difficult operas in the world to pull off well because you not only need a conductor who’s locked into the drama but also a cast who is locked in from top to bottom. Only Jacquino and Marzelline can get by with “just singing” their parts, and they must have firm and attractive voices (though they don’t always). Many times it’s conducted too slowly (Karajan, Klemperer, Harnoncourt and the 1950 Furtwängler performance); other times it’s conducted too fast, and worse yet, with a shallow emotional involvement that just doesn’t click (Toscanini, Fricsay, Abbado). In most of his live performances Karl Böhm conducted so speedily that the music often blurred or fell apart, and in his well-conducted studio recording he was saddled with the abrasive-sounding Gwyneth Jones as Leonore/Fidelio.
So we must turn to the above two performances to get the best Fidelio. The February 1941 Met broadcast is legendary; as conductor Bruno Walter said to his cast, “Here we all are, refugees from our home countries, all of which have been invaded by the Nazis, performing an opera about oppression and the fight for freedom.” Flagstad, Kipnis, Maison and Janssen gave their absolute best for this broadcast, and for whatever reason the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played as if they were possessed. (I’ve long felt that Walter had some “ringers” from the New York Philharmonic and possibly the nearby Philadelphia Orchestra in the pit that day.) Despite the boxy mono broadcast sound, you simply won’t believe the intensity of this performance.
The Met performance of 43 years later was almost as good. Soprano Roberta Peters was a bit long in the tooth for Marzelline, but after a few minutes her voice warms up and she’s fine. The rest of the cast is fantastic, particularly Franz Mazura as Pizarro, Eva Marton as Leonore and the great Jon Vickers as Florestan. I’ve heard the story that Vickers had some argument with Tennstedt over something, not sure if it was tempo or rehearsal time, and almost walked out but was eventually persuaded to stay in the performance. His voice, of course, is not as fresh as it was for Klemperer in 1960 but at least he doesn’t have to put up with the funereal tempos on that recording. The stereo radio sound is acceptable. Just listen to the explosion of applause after the Leonore Overture No. 3.
Honorable mention must also go to two performances not listed above. First is the live October 1953 performance with Martha Mödl, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gottlob Frick and Wilhelm Furtwängler, available on several labels, the only drawback of which is the erratic sound from singers moving to and fro under the microphones. Second is the DVD of the November 7, 1963 Berlin Opera performance with Christa Ludwig, James King, Walter Berry and Josef Griendl, conducted by Arthur Rother, a fine production marred only by some sloppy orchestral playing. Both are in mono.
BEETHOVEN: Folk Song Arrangements: British, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and of various nationalities / Dorothee Wohlgemuth, Renate Kramer, Barbara Emilia Schedel, Antonia Bourvé, sopranos; Ingeborg Springer, Rebekka Stöhr, mezzo-soprano; Christine Wehler, Kerstin Wagner, altos; Georg Poplutz, Daniel Schreiber, David Mulvenna Hamilton, Eberhard Büchner, Armin Ude, tenors; Jens Hamann, Siegfried Lorenz, Haakon Schaub, Daniel Raschinsky, baritones; Manfred Bittner, bass-baritone; Martin Haunhorst, Sachiko Kobiyashi, Zsuzsa Zsismann, violinists; Bernhard Schwarz, Chichiro Saito, Cornelius Boensch, cellists; Rainer Maria Klaas, Michael Wagner, Michael Clark, pianists; Berliner Solistenchor; Brahms Trio / Brilliant Classics 94925
For decades, I believed what I had read and hears, that Beethoven’s arrangements of folk songs—particularly those from the British Isles—were inferior work, written on commission for a quick buck, but listening to them reveals a great deal more than one would expect. These are mostly little gems, not just superbly crafted but often imaginatively set, with unusual harmonic progressions and lively piano accompaniments. This set of his complete folk songs was a revelation to me, and I think it will be so to you, too. The only reason it doesn’t get six fish, despite the fact that these are splendid performances, is that although the music is far better than expected it’s not on a level with An die Ferne Geliebte—though there’s not a song on here that isn’t as good or better than In Questa Tomba Oscura.
BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Elisabeth Rethberg, soprano; Marion Telva, contralto; Giovanni Martinelli, tenor; Ezio Pinza, bass; Schola Cantorum Choir; New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Tocanini, conductor / Immortal Performances IPCD 1011-2 (live, April 28, 1935; includes Act 1, Scene 1 of Simon Boccanegra with Rethberg & Martinelli from 1935)
BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Lois Marshall, soprano; Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano; Eugene Conley, tenor; Jerome Hines, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Pristine Classical PACO034
BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Heather Harper, soprano; Julia Hamari, mezzo-soprano; Sven Olof Eliasson, tenor; Peter Meven, bass; Cologne Rundfunkchor & Symphony Orchestra; William Steinberg, conductor / ICA Classics 5054
An embarrassment of riches, and this doesn’t even include Toscanini’s 1940 Missa Solemnis which, despite badly-balanced microphone placement (too close to the brass and drums, not near enough to the strings and winds) has the most exquisite vocal quartet of all (Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling and Alexander Kipnis). Toscanini’s `1935 New York Philharmonic broadcast is in surprisingly good sound, enhanced here by Richard Caniell’s painstaking restoration. It should be noted that this is the only surviving performance of Toscanini conducting either Elisabeth Rethberg or Giovanni Martinelli, and although the latter’s tenor voice was very tight and laser-focused, so that it never really blended with the others, he sang with almost inexhaustible legato phrasing and incredible intensity which really helps the performance. It should also be noted, for those who think Toscanini always rushed things, that this is one of the slowest performances of the Missa on record.
Toscanini’s 1953 live performance is often overlooked because those who have never heard it generally think it is probably like the studio recording from the same year. It is not. In the studio recording, the vocal soloists are so recessed in sound that they almost disappear inside the orchestral playing and choral singing, whereas in the live performance they are more forward. In addition, the tempos in the live performance are considerably broader, particularly in the opening “Kyrie.” And thirdly, the sound quality is much warmer and richer. I would rank this as one of the greatest of all Missa performances, and since the original tape was taken from an FM radio broadcast it is very warm-sounding.
The last performance listed here is the stereo broadcast from Cologne conducted by William Steinberg, who has all the virtues of Toscanini except for the incredible clarity of the instrumental choirs of the orchestra. His tenor, Sven Olof Eliasson, is not as good as Conley but fits in pretty well; the two female soloists are, of course, exquisite, and the whole performance flows wonderfully from start to finish. Because of the high artistic quality plus the good stereo sound, I gave it six fish.
BEETHOVEN: Overtures: Consecration of the House; Coriolanus; The Creatures of Prometheus; Egmont; Leonore Nos. 1-3 / BBC Symphony Orchestra & NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / various issues
As in the case of the Symphonies, it is Toscanini who most effectively gets under the skin of these overtures, sometimes expanding and sometimes contracting the phrase-lengths in his drive towards dynamic and unexpected interpretations, but I also like some of the performances that Felix Weingartner recorded back in the 1930s and early ‘40s.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 / Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 available for streaming here. Concerto No. 3 available for free streaming on YouTube: 1st mvmt, 2nd mvmt, 3rd mvmt. Concerto No. 4 available for streaming here. Concerto No. 5 available for streaming here.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 / Glenn Gould, pianist; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Ernest McMillan, conductor (Nos. 1 & 2); CBC Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Heinz Unger, conductor (No. 3) / CBC 20306 (5-CD set, mono)
I’ve heard so many sets of these Concertos—Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus (the stereo set with Schmidt-Isserstedt), Christian Zacharias, Leon Fleisher, Murray Perahia, Evgeny Kissin, Stefan Vladar, Julius Katchen, Glenn Gould (the Columbia studio set plus some live performances from the CBC), Wilhelm Kempff (with Ferdinand Leitner), Emil Gilels (live with Masur and studio with Szell) and Alfred Brendel (2 versions)—and in so many cases you hear good, exciting, straightforward conducting with energetic pianism and orchestral playing, or attempts to be “sensitive” which result in bizarre tempos and pianism that has no backbone. Here we have a pianist who some critics said was too “lightweight” for Beethoven (hah!) and a conductor who most critics dismissed as routine and dull. But what I hear is something entirely different from what they heard, a pianist so completely locked into this music that he virtually eats it alive and spits it back out with fire in his breath, and a conductor channeling his inner Toscanini. The only other pianist I’ve heard—in the first concerto, anyway—who plays this well but who didn’t record a full set of the concertos was Arturo Benedetto Michaelangeli, although Gilels comes close in his live set with Masur and Backaus, despite a few tempo quirks, is also extremely good in his complete 1958-59 stereo set with Schmidt-Isserstedt. But holy keyboard, Batman, Serkin pushes them all in the shade, and I tend to think that the fire he lit rubbed off on Eugene Ormandy. Plus, he is sensitive in the slow movements.
Ah, but there’s a twist here that only vintage record collectors will probably notice, and that is that the performances of Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 that I favor are not the Columbia studio versions made with the fussy and italicized conducting of Leonard Bernstein, but live performances from the early 1950s with an even younger and more energetic Ormandy. True, the sound is mono but the playing and conducting are absolutely electrifying, and this way you get a whole set of the concertos with Serkin-Ormandy. Nice, huh? Plus, all but the first two concertos are available for free streaming and recording at YouTube, so dig right in.
The Glenn Gould live performances from CBC radio are also quite excellent, albeit all in mono, and better than his Columbia studio recordings. I highly recommend them as alternates, but of course there are only the first three concertos available here.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (excluding No. 22) / Walter Gieseking, pianist / Andromeda 9123 (Sonatas 1-15), 9124 (Sonatas 16-21, 23-32)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32; Variations in F on an Original Theme; “Eroica” Variations in E-flat; Rondo à Capriccio in G, “Rage Over a Lost Penny;” Bagatelles in B-flat, WoO 60; Allegretto quasi andante in G minor; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 / Michael Korstick, pianist / Oehms Classics 125
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 / Annie Fischer, pianist / Hungaroton 41003 (possibly now available only as nine single discs)
If there is any music I know intimately—not, I admit, every note and phrase of every sonata, but most of them in detail and all of them pretty well—it is the complete set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. I bought the complete Schirmer edition (edited by Hans von Bülow) in two volumes when I was 16 years old, have studied them, tried to play many of them myself, and have listened to many, many recorded performances of them. I went through two copies (one on Seraphim LPs and one on EMI CDs) of the Artur Schnabel recordings, the complete Claude Frank set on RCA Victrola, plus the complete CD excursions of John O’Conor and Craig Sheppard in addition to the ones listed above, and have also heard parts of the complete sets by Wilhelm Backhaus (the early 1950s mono recording), Wilhelm Kempff, Friedrich Gulda (his second version), Richard Goode and Daniel Barenboim (last version) in addition to isolated recordings by late-1930s Gieseking, Solomon Cutner, 1950s Annie Fischer, Egon Petri, Bruce Hungerford (anybody out there besides me remember him?), Sviatoslav Richter and Van Cliburn. I’ve loved them all at one point or another, but in the end—for me—it’s come down to these three sets. Let me explain why.
Gieseking—The story I always heard about Gieseking, which was confirmed for me via his commercial recordings, was that Gieseking’s Beethoven was energetic and full of pep in the late 1930s but became slow, duller and more staid by the 1950s. The problem was, I never heard these mostly live recordings (two sonatas come from his 1950s EMI recordings) until 2014. They are stupendous. Not only are the sonatas he recorded for EMI in the ’50s played much more energetically and imaginatively here, but so too are the ones he recorded in the ‘30s (the Tempest, Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas). Thus I learned that the difference was Gieseking “live” vs.Gieseking in the studio, a not uncommon thing among many older performers who tended to dislike if not hate the recording process. The only reason it gets just 4 ½ fish is because of the sound, which ranges from fairly decent mono to a little rough, plus the fact that a couple of sonatas are the late recordings and it is missing Sonata No. 22, of which a performance by Gieseking was never recorded. I think what surprised me most about this set were the powerful performances of the “Pathétique,” “Appassionata” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas, plus the deeply felt readings of the last three sonatas, none of which I really expected.
Schnabel—It was a great, groundbreaking set in its day and remained a high standard for decades, BUT…the man had a spotty technique (much like me, well okay, a bit better than me) which led him to turn certain fast passages into hash, and to be honest his specific Beethoven style, which included a certain amount of italicizing (emphasizing) certain notes and phrases by using extremes of forte and piano in addition to his semi-staccato attack, worked much better in the early sonatas than the late ones. In fact, I still find Schnabel’s readings of Sonatas Nos. 1-9 and the Op. 49 sonatas to be the best ever for their buoyant, almost “springy” rhythm and exciting articulation. As for the late ones, I am far less impressed, although he re-recorded Sonatas 30 and 32 for RCA Victor in 1942 and these are outstanding versions.
Petri—Most readers of this blog probably don’t know or remember a time when Dutch pianist Egon Petri’s Westminster recording of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata was considered the sina qua non of that work, but it still holds up beautifully today. Petri didn’t quite play the first movement at Beethoven’s breakneck tempo—that was left to Schnabel (who made a hash of it) and Michael Korstick (who didn’t)—but it was fast enough, and the sonata as a whole just makes great sense and “feels” right. Look for it online.
Cliburn—His live German performances of the “Appassionata” and “Les Adieux” sonatas on Orfeo 84111 are among the greatest treasures in my collection. Never in my experience have I ever heard the Texas pianist so explosive as in the first or more achingly beautiful as in the second.
O’Conor—There was a time, in the early 1990s, when I was enamored of the whole of John O’Conor’s set of the Beethoven sonatas. I described it at the time as “kinder, gentler Beethoven,” much more lyrical than we were used to yet perfectly legitimate in its own right and not lacking power when called for. In time, however, I discovered the complete sets of Gieseking, Fischer and Korstick which satisfied me more fully, but I still maintain that his recordings of the last three sonatas are absolutely the most touching and deeply spiritual ever recorded.
Korstick—Unlike so many young bucks today, who have somehow been persuaded by their managers and fans that they have something brilliant to say about Beethoven at age 26, Michael Korstick waited until he was over 40 before he recorded the first disc in this set, and even then he took several more years to complete the cycle. By and large, his approach is like Schnabel’s without the exaggerated italicizing: the fast movements are quite fast, following Beethoven’s metronome markings, while the slow movements are a bit slower, plunging the emotional depths of each piece. To my mind he is the only pianist besides Gieseking to play the “Waldstein” sonata exactly the way I like it in both tempo and phrasing. One of his most controversial moments comes in the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier” sonata, taken twice as slowly as indicated and lasting close to a half-hour. It works within its own framework but I’m not completely convinced that it works when nestled by the faster movements around it. That being said, the Korstick set is a work of genius and certainly the finest modern digital recording of the sonatas; and unlike Gieseking and Fischer (and O’Conor, for that matter), Korstick also includes some of the smaller piano works as fillers in the CDs. He also does very well in both the early sonatas and the late ones, which is very rare. I almost gave this set my special 6 fish designation, but eventually felt it was closer to 5 ½ stars.
Fischer—Annie Fischer’s set of the sonatas occupies a singular place in recording history. Notoriously reticent to record throughout her career, she had perhaps seven LPs’ worth of studio recordings to her credit when Hungaroton approached her in the late 1970s to record the complete Beethoven sonatas. Fischer only agreed when the contract terms met her demands: she would record whichever sonatas whenever she wanted, including remakes at any time she chose, and none of the sonatas were to be issued on CD without her permission. Fischer, a notorious perfectionist, continually had second thoughts about how certain phrases in certain sonatas should go and kept returning to the studio to tape inserts to various movements already in the can. Every few years she would call Hungaroton and tell them she was satisfied with this or that sonata and that they could issue them, only to call them back within a few days and change her mind. This cat-and-mouse game went on until Fischer’s death in April 1995, but Hungaroton breathed a huge sigh of relief when they learned that her will stipulated that they could release the whole set if they found it worthy.
Those familiar with Fischer’s few Beethoven recordings of the 1950s, like the “Waldstein” Sonata, have complained that her musical conception and phrasing here doesn’t sound like her earlier self. With all the retakes and inserts, the performances have a sort of roller-coaster feel to them. There is a lot of rhetorical phrasing here as well as a certain amount of push-pull in tempo, but if you listen to the whole set you’ll be overwhelmed by the stupendous ingenuity of her very individualistic approach and the emotional power of her performances. This is Beethoven like no other. I can’t call it a touchstone set because it is a subjective reading of the scores, but like Schnabel’s performances these are essentially sui generis. Highly recommended if you can find the whole set; I had to collect each of the nine discs separately.
Bottom line: Gieseking is the best overall set in terms of performance and interpretation but not sound, Fischer the most unique and exciting set, and Korstick is what I would call a reference edition, while the individual performances by Petri, Cliburn and O’Conor need to be investigated.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Trios: WoO 38; 39 (Allegretto); Op. 1 Nos. 1-3; Op. 11, 44, 70 Nos. 1-2; Op. 97, “Archduke” / Trio Élégiaque / Brilliant Classics 94327
Piano Trio Op. 97, “Archduke” / Jacques Thibaud, violinist; Pablo Casals, cellist; Alfred Cortot, pianist / various reissues, also available for free streaming on YouTube.
As I mentioned in my initial review of this set, Trio Élégiaque’s approach to the Beethoven trios are just that, elegiac and elegant, thus there are some moments—though not many—where one may wish for a more dynamic or forceful expression, but I found that when push came to shove, they could attack the music with as much energy as most other trios in any other recordings of any of these works. Plus, it’s great to have the full set of piano trios in one place. As an adjunct to this, however, one should also include the legendary 1928 recording by the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot trio, which still stands up splendidly despite its very dry, boxy mono sound. (A photo of one of their recording sessions reveals that the trio was positioned under an alcove when recording their trios, which I’m sure further limited any room resonance.) This latter recording only gets four fish because of this sonic limitation. I’ve cautiously given Trio élégiaque five fish because there is always the chance that another such group, like Trio Solisti, may decide to record the complete Beethoven trios, and I prefer their take-no-prisoners approach to music.
BEETHOVEN: Septet in E-flat / Nash Ensemble: Michael Collins, clarinetist; Frank Lloyd, hornist; Brian Wightman, bassoonist; Marcia Crayford, violinist; Roger Chase, violist; Christopher van Kampen, cellist; Rodney Slater, bassist / Clarinet Trio, Op. 11 / Michael Collins, clarinetist; Christopher van Kampen, cellist; Ian Brown, pianist / Erato 22126
Arturo Toscanini wrote his own orchestral arrangement of this Septet because he had never heard a performance with enough clarity and verve to satisfy him, but he didn’t live to hear this splendid recording by the Nash Ensemble. Nobody beats this performance, originally issued on Virgin Classics but here reissued by Erato.
BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 17 / Dennis Brain, hornist; Denis Mathews, pianist / available for streaming or download here.
This is perhaps the most famous recording of this sonata ever made, and it well deserves its reputation. No one has ever surpassed Dennis Brain in his combination of elegance, fervor and beautiful tone, here still playing a single F horn.
BEETHOVEN: Early String Quartets, Op. 18 / Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL-1996
BEETHOVEN: Middle String Quartets, Opp. 59, 74, 95 / Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL-1999
BEETHOVEN: Late String Quartets, Opp. 95, 127, 130-32, 135 / Colorado Quartet / Parnassus 96042/44
So often recorded, so seldom done justice, the Beethoven String Quartets represent, for me, even more of the essence of the man and his spiritual journey than the piano sonatas, much as I love those. I can’t tell you how many recordings of these works I’ve heard because I’ve lost count. The Vermeer Quartet (Teldec) are passionate but a bit too slow and cautious for my taste. The Tokyo Quartet’s award-winning set on RCA Victor Red Seal was my gold standard for a long time, especially the middle and late quartets; for the early quartets, I preferred Emerson’s readings. The problem is that you can’t acquire Emerson’s performances of the early works without buying the whole series. In earlier times, I was very much enthused by the old Yale Quartet’s performances of the late string quartets (Vanguard). At one point or another I also owned copies of the Hungarian Quartet (on Seraphim, who I actually heard in person playing Beethoven), Budapest String Quartet (Columbia-Sony) and Juilliard Quartet (RCA Victor) playing these works, and have heard large chunks of more modern sets like the Belcea Quartet (Zig Zag Territoires). For a brief period, in fact, Belcea’s were my preferred modern-day all-digital versions, but these and others have been wiped away by the above-listed sets.
If you are wondering why I do not recommend the Alexander Quartet’s complete series, I will tell you that although they take a fresh new approach to the late works I felt that their performances were a shade too subjective in phrasing and accent and not quite objective enough. For me, Beethoven left this earth and entered an astral plane of “pure” music with the late quartets, and although I do indeed want to hear them played with fervor I don’t necessarily want to hear that much “personality” from the players, as is completely acceptable in the early and middle quartets. Thus I recommend the Colorado Quartet’s set of the late works simply because they pretty much stick to what Beethoven wrote—not only in terms of tempo, but also in phrasing, dynamics and articulation—while virtually eating this music alive. It is a remarkable achievement, injecting pathos without hysteria and deep psychological meaning without overdoing the psychoanalysis, and in the end the listener feels, somehow, completely cleansed spiritually as well as emotionally. You absolutely must hear them to believe them.
I would not, however, want to gloss over the Alexander Quartet’s accomplishments in the other quartets. I did not replace my early quartets by Emerson or the middle quartets by Tokyo without very serious consideration. These performances are just fantastic in every respect, so much so that even the excellent Belcea recordings suddenly sounded very good but not great (I’d rate them 4 1/2 to 5 fish). I think that, in addition to performance superiority, sound quality also had something to do with it. The Belcea Quartet’s recordings are engineered with a clean but glassy sound. You don’t hear the buzz of the strings as they are bowed. Both the Alexander and Colorado Quartet recordings sound as if you are sitting right in front of them as they are playing. You simply can’t go wrong with these recordings; they sound fresh with each listening, you always manage to catch something you didn’t hear the first time around. All deserve 6 fish.
BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (Complete) / Eileen Farrell, soprano; Nan Merriman, mezzo; Jan Peerce, tenor; Norman Scott, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale (in Ninth); NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / RCA Red Seal 888880782755
BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (Complete) / Renate Behle, soprano; Yvonne Naef, mezzo; Glenn Winslade, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachman, bass; Berlin Radio Choir (in Ninth); SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / Hänssler Classic CD 93.285
In addition to the above-named, I have heard complete sets of these symphonies by Felix Weingartner, Toscanini 1939, Karajan 1955, 1962, 1974 and 1983, William Steinberg, René Leibowitz, Rudolf Kempe, Hiroyuki Iwaki, Roger Norrington, David Zinman, Riccardo Chailly and Jan Willem de Vriend. Of all these, the best in terms of consistent high quality and energy is Chailly, but to my ears it just misses the explosiveness of Toscanini and Gielen—in several fast passages, his orchestra is just a bit too rhythmically even and glib, not quite capturing what Gielen refers to as the dangerous edginess of these works. Nevertheless, I would not hesitate to give it four fish, and I want to add that I really do enjoy individual performances from some of the other sets, i.e. Weingartner’s “Eroica,” Karajan’s 1955 Fifth and 1974 Second and Ninth, Norrington’s Second, plus Toscanini’s 1939 performances of the Second, Fourth and Sixth (all a bit better than his high fidelity recordings, but not in as good sound). I’m also crazy about Charles Munch’s “Eroica” and Toscanini’s BBC Symphony performance of the Fifth from 1939, in my opinion the most exciting and explosive performance of this symphony in existence, but to a certain extent it is SO powerful that it overbalances the other symphonies. I should also add that my all-time favorite of his Ninth Symphony performances is the NBC one from 1938 with the exceptional vocal quartet of Rina Bovy, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce and Ezio Pinza.
But when push comes to shove and you have to make hard choices, there is no question in my mind that the 1949-1952 Toscanini cycle is overall the most interesting and the Gielen cycle the very best among stereo and/or digital recordings. The reason is the almost unbearable intensity that each brings to the table while trying to perform these works close to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Ironically, Gielen actually comes closer to this ideal than Toscanini, whose later Sixth is actually more relaxed in both tempo and drive than his 1939 performances with NBC and the BBC Symphony, both of which I actually like better, but as I say, sonics play a large part in my decision here.
As for Gielen, I became enamored of his Beethoven while he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He was criticized by regular concertgoers because he did not employ a lush or beautiful orchestral tone, but rather went for the jugular vein in emotion every time out and so was happy to make do with a bit scrappy sound. This same aesthetic applies to his set here, and in a couple of instances (the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, for instance) he was even better in his mid-1990s set for EMI, but as an overall cycle this one will pin you to the wall. In a sense, it became his Last Will and Testament regarding Beethoven, because just a couple of years later he had to give up conducting due to his failing eyesight.
I could, of course, go into exacting detail analyzing these performances, but this would be a space-waster. Rather, just get the sets recommended above and hear for yourself.
BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56 / Jorja Fleezanis, violinist; Jack Kirstein, cellist; Jeanne Kirstein, pianist; Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra; Paul Nadler, conductor / available for streaming or download here.
BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56 / Isaac Stern, violinist; Leonard Rose, cellist; Eugene Istomin, pianist; Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell, conductor / part of Doremi DHR-8047 (also see Brahms: Double Concerto)
The first-listed is the most intense and exciting performance of this much-maligned concerto you will ever hear. It was given in October 1979 in Cincinnati. At the time, pianist Jeanne Kirstein, the wife of famed cellist Jack Kirstein of the Lasalle Quartet, was dying of cancer but was determined to perform one last time in public with her beloved husband. She was so weak from chemotherapy that she had to be helped to the piano, but once there she played her guts out—and so did everyone else. Wait ‘til you hear it; you won’t believe it.
The second performance with Stern, Rose and Istomin is also quite good, particularly due to the excellent conducting of Szell who lights a fire under normally-dull violinist Stern, but only as a second choice to the Paul Nadler performance.
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D. BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D / Nathan Milstein, violin; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; William Steinberg, conductor / EMI Classics 67584 (mono)
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D / Bronislaw Huberman, violin; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; George Szell, conductor / available for free streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClKdGyUUFJE (mono)
BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D; Romances Nos. 1 & 2 / Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Constantin Silvestri, conductor (Concerto); Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, conductor (Romances) / EMI Classics CDE 5 74973 2
Two “historic” mono performances with very different virtues are my top favorites. Both are taken at a good clip, not the usual sluggish tempo that most conductors seem to favor, and the orchestral sound, although not “authentic,” is relatively lean in both. Moreover, both conductors have a good grip on the music, pushing it forward without driving it too hard (as Toscanini did, just a trifle, in his famous recording with Heifetz), and the two violinists, though worlds apart in stylistic approach, really have something interesting to say in a piece that otherwise floats by the subconscious like a cloud. Huberman was famous for playing sweetly one moment and somewhat acidly the next; he was a master of alternating vibrato with straight tone, a style that was much in favor in Eastern Europe during his time but not much appreciated in the West where vibrato-rich violinists ruled the roost. Milstein, usually not a favorite of mine, gives the performance of his life in the Beethoven Concerto. He is not quite as stunning in the Brahms, but it’s still good. The sound on the Milstein-Steinberg recording is so good that one might almost mistake it for early stereo, which is why I gave it one more star than the Huberman.
The third outstanding recording of this concerto, in my view, is the Menuhin-Silvestri recording, and it is the only issue that is all-Beethoven (containing the two Romances conducted by John Pritchard). This was the third of Menuhin’s four recordings of the concerto, the first two being with Wilhelm Furtwängler (1947 and 1953), and though there is something magical about the second of these I actually like this version with Silvestri better because it is tauter and has more structure without losing the poetry of Menuhin’s gorgeous phrasing. It is also, in my view, the absolute best of the stereo versions; but I give it only four fish because it just isn’t up to the level of the two mono versions which are my preference.
BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-10 / Barbara Govatos, violinist; Marcantonio Barone, pianist / Bridge 9389 A/D
What, no Kreisler-Rupp? Oistrakh-Oborin? Szigeti-Arrau? Perlman-Ashkenazy? Mutter-Orkis? Nope, nope, nope and nope, though at one time or another I owned all of them. Before hearing this set, my favorite version was the one by Pamela and Claude Frank on MusicMasters, which I still rate at 4 1/2 fish, but this one just blows everyone else out of the water, on each and every sonata. So who are these musicians? Govatos is a violinist who spent some time in the Philadelphia Orchestra, while Barone is a pianist who also happens to be her friend, but somehow or other some real electricity crept into the recording studio when this set was made because it is electrifying from start to finish. So often you listen to complete sets of these sonatas and think to yourself, Well, I like so-and-so’s performace of the Fifth better, and such-and-such does a more intense “Kreisler” Sonata, but by and large this is the best set. Not so here. I haven;t heard ANYONE perform ANY of the sonatas better than Govatos and Barone do here, not even Kreisler-Rupp on Sonata No. 5, Salerno-Sonnenberg and McDermott on No. 7, Kreisler-Rachmaninov on No. 8, Huberman-Friedman on No. 9 or Menuhin-Gould on No. 10, and those are all great performances, trust me on that! This set just beats them all.
Bellini was a very gifted composer who tended towards sugary melodies and puff piece operas, but in two cases—Norma and I Puritani—he buckled down and produced two excellent operas. His talent for spinning out long, unbroken lines of music greatly influenced Richard Wagner, who once wrote an alternative aria for Oroveso in Norma.
BELLINI: Norma / Cristina Deutekom, soprano (Norma); Tatiana Troyanos, mezzo (Adalgisa); Robleto Merolla, tenor (Pollione); Clifford Grant, bass (Oroveso); Rina Pallini, mezzo-soprano (Clotilde); Gary Burgess, tenor (Flavio); San Francisco Opera Orch. & Chorus; Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / Gala 100.548
BELLINI: Norma / Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo (Norma); Sumi Jo, soprano (Adalgisa); John Osborn, tenor (Pollione); Michele Pertusi, bass (Oroveso); Liliana Nikiteanu, mezzo (Clotilde); Reinaldo Macias, tenor (Flavio); International Chamber Vocalists; Orchestra La Scintilla; Giovanni Antonini, conductor / Decca 4783517
Surprise, surprise! No Maria Callas! No Gina Cigna, Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballé! No. my #1 pick for a standard, conventional Norma performance is Cristina Deutekom, who is absolutely thrilling in this live performance, along with Tatiana Troyanos, the greatest Adalgisa on records. Robleto Merolla was a somewhat beefy-sounding Pollione but fills the bill nicely, and the little-known Carlo Felice Cillario conducts with energy and style.
The Cecilia Bartoli recording received mixed reviews when it was originally released, but most of them were positive. I approached it with some trepidation because I feared a performance that was too small-scaled and centered too much in the orchestra playing around straight tone. As it turned out, this was a tremendous artistic success for Bartoli but also, much to my surprise, for Sumi Jo who sings here her finest and most sensitive portrayal on records. American tenor John Osborne gives us a very stylish Pollione, and the conducting of Antonini has tremendous style and forward momentum. This is, indeed, the kind of Norma performance one might have heard given by Giuditta Pasta back in the 1830.
BELLINI: I Puritani / Mirella Freni, soprano (Elvira); Rita Bezzi, mezzo-soprano (Enrichetta); Alfredo Kraus, tenor (Arturo); Bruno Cioni, tenor (Gualtiero); Attilio d’Orazi, baritone (Riccardo); Raffaele Arié, bass (Giorgio); Augusto Pedroni, baritone (Bruno); Teatro Comunale di Modena Orch. & Chorus; Nino Verchi, conductor / Bongiovanni 81/82 or available for free streaming on YouTube
Another shocker for average opera fans: not only no Sutherland or Sills, but also no Lina Pagliughi, Callas or even Deutekom, but rather Mirella Freni, who didn’t have a trill at the time of this performance (1962). Why? Because the conducting of Verchi is simply fantastic and the entire rest of the cast sounds engaged and excited. Alfredo Kraus, particularly in these early years, was not my favorite tenor by a long shot due to his cold, metallic timbre, but he gives so much of himself here that he outpaces even Gedda and Pavarotti on their studio recordings, and the duo of d’Orazi and Arié deliver a rousing rendition of “Suoni la tromba.” More to the point, this is a Puritani played and sung dramatically, not just playing to the gallery. I really love this performance.
BELLINI: La Sonnambula / Luba Orgonosova, soprano (Amina); Raul Gimenez, tenor (Elvino); Alexandra Papadijiakou, mezzo-soprano (Teresa); Dilber, soprano (Lisa); Francesco d’Artegna, bass (Count Rodolfo); Nanco de Vries, bass (Alessio); Netherlands Radio Choir & Chamber Orchestra; Alberto Zedda, conductor / Nacos 8.660042/43
La Sonnambula may be the best opera ever written that has not only a static plot but a completely ridiculous one. Amina, an orphan raised by mill-owner Teresa, is betrothed to wealthy landowner Elvino. This, however, makes inn hostess Lisa jealous because SHE loves Elvino. When Amina sleepwalks into Count Rodolfo’s bedroom in the middle of the night it becomes a town-wide scandal. The Count explains that somnambulism is a natural disorder and she meant no harm but Elvino isn’t buying it until he sees her sleepwalking on a dangerous precipice one night by the mill. End of story and general rejoicing.
What makes the opera so great is the music. Sonnambula is virtually a wall-to-wall series of exquisite duets and arias for the tenor and soprano, all of them superb, as is Lisa’s act 2 aria with its high Fs. This music made a deep impression on Berlioz and Verdi and also greatly influenced Donizetti and Wagner. The cast here is virtually flawless, the lone quibble being the fluttery mid-range of the soprano known as Dilber, yet her high range is both firm and dazzling. Everyone else is stupendous, and conductor Alberto Zedda pulls the music together better than anyone else I have ever heard.
Bellman, Carl Michael
BELLMAN: Fjäriln vingad syns på. Gubber är gammal. Hör klockorna med ängsligt dån. Joachim uti Babylon. Käraste bröder. Så lunka vi så småningom. Ulla, min Ulla. Vila vid denna källa / Aksel Schiøtz, tenor; Ulrik Neumann, guitarist; Banjo-Lasse, lutenist / part of Danacord 455
Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) is to Swedish lute music what John Dowland was to the British tradition. A poet as well as a composer, Bellman compiled two collections of his music, Fredman’s Songs and Fredman’s Epistles. Here are eight choice examples of his music as sung by the wonderful Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz. The sound quality is mono, and dated mono at that, yet still remarkably clear and beautifully performed.
BENGTSON: The Maids / Anna Eklund-Tarantino, soprano (Claire); Eva Pilat, mezzo-soprano (Solange); Gunilla Söderström, contralto (Madame); Ensemble of Royal Swedish Opera Orch.; Niklas Willén, conductor / Phono Suecia PSCD-96 or available for free streaming on Spotify
Peter Bengtson’s remarkable and shocking 1994 psycho-drama about a pair of incestuous sisters working as maids who plot to kill their mistress remains one of those operas, like Strauss’ Elektra and Berg’s Lulu, that can repel the average operagoer with its strident atonal music and high-range shrieking from the principals, but I found it tremendously interesting.
BERG: Lulu / Patricia Wise, soprano (Lulu); Wolfgang Schöne, baritone (Dr. Schön/Jack); Peter Straka, tenor (Alwa); Graham Clark. tenor (Painter/Negro); Hans Hotter, bass (Schigolch); Ernst Gutstein, bass (Medicine Prof/Banker); Bodo Schwanabeck, bass (Animal Trainer/Rodrigo); Stuart Kale, tenor (Prince, Manservant); Boris Bakow, tenor (Theatre Manager); Cynthia Clarey, soprano (Dresser/High School Boy); Catherine Estourelle, soprano (Girl); Laura Zennini, mezzo (Mother); Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo (Countess Geschwitz); Marie Kobayashi, mezzo (Lady Artist); Francis Dudziak, tenor (Journalist); Hervé Hannequin, baritone (Manservant); Jeffrey Tate, conductor; Orchestre National de France / EMI Classics 09400
Alban Berg’s Lulu, like Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is a metaphor for the moral decadence of the Weimar Republic, the sad result of which was the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933. It is not a pretty or an uplifting opera to say the least; a beautiful but completely amoral young woman who attracts oversexed men to her like a flame does to moths. The plot, then, is a giant snowball in which a stream of men, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, and even high school teenagers al flock to Lulu’s door in hopes of getting a piece of this amoral nymphomaniac. It’s like watching a train wreck, but Berg’s view is hinted at in the Prologue in which an “animal trainer” introduces Lulu as more animal than human. In the last act, now working as a prostitute. Lulu is stabbed to death by Jack the Ripper.
The music to which this seedy story is set is even more complex and edgy than the composer’s more famous (and popular) Wozzeck. It is far from easy listening. Lovers of conventional opera don’t even consider it musical. But musical it most certainly is; in fact, if you listen to it a number of times and follow the thread of a different “voice” or instrumental family each time, you will quickly discover just how tightly the musical web is woven and what a great work of genius it is.
Yet the plot remains controversial, as does the question of interpretation. In this remarkable 1991 live performance, Patricia Wise invests Lulu’s music with an extraordinary range of vocal color, legato phrasing and extraordinary delicacy. In doing so she presents the character as someone who doesn’t quite understand the power of her attraction, which is the way actress Louise Brooks played the character in G.B. Pabst’s classic silent film (Pandora’s Box) based on the same Frank Wiedekind story. With this interpretation of the main character, the others around her—particularly Dr. Schön and his son Alwa—are likewise presented in a slightly more sympathetic light. This humanizes the opera and takes some of the ugly edge off it. Some reviewers of this recording don’t like this; they want the purely animalistic Lulu and her depraved, oversexed cartoon lovers back. But to me it makes a lot more sense.
So too does Jeffrey Tate’s astonishing conducting. He seems to take the view that because Berg was Viennese that the music should be conducted in a Viennese style, i.e. with more legato than usual and a touch of schmaltz. And oddly, it works superbly. For the first time since the Karl Böhm recording of the incomplete, two-act version form 1968, the music has an ebb and flow that draws the listener in rather than repelling him or her. I was absolutely riveted by the collective performance of this cast and conductor and could not stop listening until the opera was over. Everything flows and falls into place, even though Bobo Schwanbeck as the animal trainer and 83-year-old Hans Hotter as Schigolch have somewhat unsteady voices. The sheer brilliance of the overall vocal acting (despite the fact that Brigitte Fassbaender’s Countess is a bit over-the-top) and conducting just mesmerize you from start to finish and make you realize what is missing in the cold, unfeeling Pierre Boulez recording. I’ve had the Boulez recording in my collection since the late 1970s. I listened to it perhaps twice in all those years. I’ve already listened to this one three times and I just recently acquired it. It is a gem, so good that it has earned my rare 6 fish rating!
BERG: Wozzeck / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar. (Wozzeck); Helmut Melchert, tenor (Drum Major); Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Andres); Gerhard Stolze, tenor (Hauptmann); Karl Christian Kohn, baritone (Doctor); Evelyn Lear, soprano (Marie); Berlin Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Karl Böhm, conductor / also includes two-act version of BERG: Lulu / DGG 435705
BERG: Wozzeck / Carl Johan Falkman, baritone (Wozzeck); Katarina Dalayman, soprano (Marie); Ulrik Qvale, tenor (Hauptman); Sten Wahlund, baritone (Doctor); Lennart Stregaard, tenor (Drum Major); Klas Hedlund, tenor (Andres); Henry Törnblom, boy treble (Marie’s Child); Stockholm Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor / Naxos 8.660076/7
Two superb recordings of Wozzeck, made nearly 40 years apart. The Böhm recording is rather difficult to find, but the original issue, at least, came with a full libretto (and included, as a bonus, the two-act version of Lulu, also with Evelyn Lear). The Segerstam recording is sans libretto but provides surprisingly strong competition to the DGG issue. Although both get five fish, I give the edge to the Böhm recording, not necessarily because of Fischer-Dieskau—Falkman is a terrific, almost frightening Wozzeck—but because of the much more intense and surrealistic performances of the Captain by Gerhard Stolze and the Doctor by Karl Christian Kohn, as well as the slightly more flexible conducting of Böhm (although my regular readers know that I greatly admire Segerstam as well, particularly in modern music). Of course the digital sound of the Naxos recording is superior to DGG’s analog studio sound, but that’s for the high-resolution freaks to woorry about. You might want both.
Incidentally, the finest video performance I’ve yet seen of this opera is the Arthaus Musik issue of a Hanburg Opera production from the late 1960s with Toni Blankenheim as Wozzeck and the great Sena Jurinac as Marie…although Jurinac sings an unwritten high D-flat in her aria!
BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict / Sylvia McNair, soprano (Hero); Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano (Béatrice); Jean-Luc Viala, tenor (Bénédict); Vincent Le Texier, bass (Don Pedro); Gilles Cachemille, baritone (Claudio); Philippe Magnant, speaker (Leonato); Catherine Robbin, contralto (Ursule); Gabriel Bacquier, bass (Somarone); Chœeurs et Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon; John Nelson, conductor / Warner Classics 2564674974
Berlioz’ last opera, based on Shakespeare’s Much Adop About Nothing, is in some ways his weakest—it’s an opéra-comique, and there’s way too much dialogue going on here—but most of the music is lithe and lissome and flies through the air like a zephyr. Thi recording was made way back in the day when Sylvia McNair was still an opera singer, which tells you how old it is, but this is still the preferred version to date, largely thanks to the wonderful and underrated conducting of John Nelson. I remember Nelson when he was still conducting in northern New Jersey, before he went to Indianapolis, and we always thought he was a major talent in the rouch. He is rough no longer, but one of the most admired and sought-after conductors of today. All of the singers are wonderful, particularly Jean-Luc Viala as Bénédict, Gabriel Bacquier as the music master Somarone, and Susan Graham as Béatrice.
BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini / Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano (Teresa); Marcello Giordani, tenor (Cellini); John Del Carlo, bass-bar. (Balducci); Patrick Carfizzi, bass-baritone (Bernardino); Bernard Fitch, tenor (Cabaretier); Kristine Jepson, mezzo (Ascanio); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; James Levine, conductor / Metropolitan Opera 10044552, available for order here (live: December 27, 2003)
Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’ first opera, was a flop in its day but the one closest to his heart due to its boundless energy and wild musical ideas. Believe me when I tell you, this is the greatest performance of it you will ever hear. All of the singers are flying on this one and so is conductor Levine, from back in the day before illness and back problems sapped some of his conducting strength. Happily, this is one of the few classic Met broadcasts that the opera company has made available on CD, so grab it before it disappears.
BERLIOZ: La Damnation de Faust / Stuart Burrows, tenor (Faust); Donald McIntyre, bass (Mephitopheles); Edith Mathis, mezzo (Marguerite); Thomas Paul, bass (Brander); Boston Symphony Orchestra; Tanglewood Festival Chorus; Seiki Ozawa, conductor / Pentatone Classics 5186 212
When this recording was first issued, and for several years thereafter, Donald McIntyre was criticized for his somewhat blustery Mephistopheles, lacking in Gallic subtlety, but I don’t find it nearly as bad as others do. More importantly, Stuart Burrows (one of my all-time favorite tenors) and Edith Mathis sound much more involved than do Nicolai Gedda and Janet Baker on the old Georges Prêtre recording (EMI) or David Poleri and Suzanne Danco on the even older Charles Munch recording (RCA-Sony). Even better is the absolutely blistering conducting of young Seiji Ozawa, who takes this somewhat rambling score and pulls it together so that its structure is as tight as a drum. And wait ‘til you hear the “Ride to the Abyss”! The sonics are so spectacular on this recording, originally made in Quadraphonic sound but not issued that way on LP, tha you will feel as if you are going over the cliff yourself. Unbelievably exciting!
BERLIOZ: L’Enfance du Christ / Florence Kopleff, mezzo-soprano (Marie); Gérard Souzay, baritone (Joseph); Cesare Valletti, tenor (Recitant); Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Herod/Father); Boston Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Charles Munch, conductor / RCA-BMG 61234 (also includes Les Nuits d’Été by Leontyne Price and Fritz Reiner)
No two ways about it, Charles Munch’s L’Enfance du Christ is still the best. This is the one Berlioz work that relies more on quiet lyricism than stunning effects to make its point, which made it his most popular piece during his lifetime (“Why can’t he always compose like this?” audience members were heard to say). The young Johannes Brahms was also a huge fan of this work. The highly underrated and now-forgotten mezzo Florence Kopleff sings superbly here, and we have real luxury casting with Cesare Valletti, Gérard Souzay and Giorgio Tozzi. The “Living Stereo” sound still holds up amazingly well, too. As for the Price-Reiner Les Nuits d’Été, eh, it’s OK, not even close to my favorite version, but it makes a nice filler.
BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy / Carlton Cooley, viola; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy / Nobuko Imai, violist; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube in various segments
I admit my prejudice towards the Toscanini recording of Harold in Italy, as it was not only the first of his recordings I ever heard (age 11) but the first real classical piece I ever heard (my fahter had plebian tastes; to him, classical music was Mantovani and 101 Strings). Yet I still feel that, despite his slight rewrite of the end of the first movement, it is the single most thrilling and perfectly-balanced version I’ve ever heard…and for once, the Carnegie Hall sonics are warm and inviting, not harsh and forbidding. Just listen to the subtle way he constantly builds up and releases tension in the second movement “March of the Pilgrims”…no one else in all the years since has duplicated this feat.
The Colin Davis recording, however, is a close second for me, and I like this version much better than his earlier version with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin as viola soloist. Imai has such a silky-smooth sound on viola that it will charm and seduce you, and although Davis doesn’t quite get the same effect as Toscanini in the second movement he at least comes close. This is the best stereo and/or digital recording I’ve ever heard. This recording was also available, briefly, in a terrific boxed set of Berlioz’ complete orchestral works.
BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie / Jean-Louis Barrault, narrator; John Mitchinson, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor / Sony Classical 884977278170 (with Symphonie Fantastique, Les Nuits d’Été and La Mort de Cléopatre)
Since I was never much of a Pierre Boulez fan—I generally found his performances to be cold and, surprisingly enough for someone who marketed himself as a stickler for following the score, often inaccurate in tempo or in the actual notes played—when I heartily recommend one of his recordings, as I do here, you’d better believe it’s great. Unlike the Symphonie Fantastique on this set, which is one of the soggiest wet blankets I’ve ever heard, this 1967 recording of Lélio is the best going, not that the field is all that crowded to begin with. In fact, the only other versions I’ve ever found and heard were those by Colin Davis (very exciting but lacking the narration), Jean Martinon (with narration but unevenly sung), and Riccardo Muti (same as Martinon). Yes, it’s an uneven work, but there are so many beautiful and/or stunning moments in the score that it’s worth getting. All things considered, the singing of Brits John Mitchinson and John Shirley-Quirk sounds surprisingly French in style and accent, and the whole thing is wonderfully alive and propulsive.
BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cléopatre / Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / Sony Classical 60696 (with Harold in Italy) or available for free streaming on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cleopatre / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Gibson, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Two superb versions of Berlioz’ non-prize-winning masterpiece, and one could say three if you add in the mono version that Tourel and Bernstein made in the early 1950s…but I prefer hearing it in stereo, and there is no loss of performance quality in this later version. Tourel had a much lighter, smaller voice than Baker, but was a master of expression and phrasing, and Bernstein’s conducting is absolutely terrific here. Baker has greater vocal resources and acts out the music more, but Alexander Gibson is just very good where Bernstein pulls out all the stops. I say get both, what the heck!
BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d’Été / Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Royal Opera Covent Garden Orchestra; John Nelson, conductor / Sony Classical 62730 or available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d’Été / Shannon Mercer, soprano; Group of Twenty-Seven; Eric Paetkau, conductor / Centaur 3239 or available for free streaming on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Again, two recordings, and this time hard to choose. Susan Graham was born to sing this song cycle, and she delivers the most interesting and seductive performance since Eleanor Steber’s old mono recording for Columbia. John Nelson, as usual conducts superbly, but I can’t give it six fish because the sound engineer chose to record the orchestra too opaquely, so that certain details are lost. (I’m familiar enough with Nelson’s conducting methods and style over a period of decades to know that he had nothing to do with this…none of his other recordings sound this way.) The latter recording is perhaps not quite as deeply sung, but Shannon Mercer is shockingly good for someone not normally known for being a Berlioz specialist, and here the “Group of Twenty Seven” produce a crystal-clear performance of the orchestral score. I give both of them five fish.
BERLIOZ: Overtures: Benvenuto Cellini, Les Francs-Juges, Roman Carnival, Waverly / London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / part of Berlioz Box on Philips
In addition to the above, I also like very much the performances of Les Francs-Juges and Roman Carnival Overture by Arturo Toscanini, of Benvenuto Cellini by Pierre Monteux with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris (see Symphonie Fantastique), and of all but the Waverly by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
BERLIOZ: Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts) / Stuart Burrows, tenor; Chœurs de Radio France; Orchestra National de France; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts) / Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Cologne Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor / ICA Classics 5075 (also available for streaming on YouTube in segments)
In addition to all the things necessary to pull off a great performance and/or recording of this fiendishly difficult work, chief among them is atmosphere, particularly in the Dies irae where Berlioz has three separate brass choirs playing from different locations in the balcony section. When heard in person, this creates a stupendous surround-sound effect that, when the full orchestra comes crashing in with them, really does sound like the Day of Judgment, but capturing this on records is a real challenge. I’ve only heard three recordings that really pull it off, the two above and the Sir Roger Norrington recording with a so-so tenor—and the tenor really does need to be superb, particularly in those high, soft, arching phrases that are the bane of so many tenors. I give the Bernstein six fish because it is probably THE greatest recorded performance of Leonard Bernstein’s life, given in the same church where the original premiere took place. The Mitropoulos suffers a bit from mono sound, but it’s surprisingly atmospheric and Nicolai Gedda edges out Stuart Burrows just a bit in terms of idiomatic French pronunciation.What the heck, get them both!
BERLIOZ: Rêverie et Caprice for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 8 / Itzhak Perlman, violinist; Orchestre de Paris; Daniel Barenboim, conductor / available on YouTube
A rare early piece for violin and orchestra, played to perfection by Perlman and Barenboim. Plus, it’s available for free, so what are you waiting for?
BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette / unknown singers; Prague Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Carlos Païta, conductor / Lodia 801
BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette / Gladys Swarthout, mezzo-soprano; John Garris, tenor; Nicola Moscona, bass; Westminster Choir; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available as purchased downloads on Amazon
Two live performances that really get under the skin of the music, producing rip-roaring versions that simply can’t be topped. Quite obviously, the Païta is the preferred version because it’s in stereo (analog, late 1970s), but if you find a good pressing of the Toscanini you’ll be amazed at the sheer audacity and interesting moments of rubato produced in this performance. Both the “Queen Mab scherzo” and “Love Scene” in this 1947 live performance of the complete work are superior to any of Toscanini’s studio recordings of this same music.
Ironically, the names of the superb singers on the Païta recording are lost to history. When I reviewed this as a reissue, I wrote an e-mail to Païta’s management asking them who the singers were, since they’re not identified anywhere on the box or booklet and I couldn’t find any link to the Prague Festival with information on this concert. He wrote back that Maestro Païta didn’t recall who they were, and apparently no one bothered to write the information down and include it in the box with the master tape! Still, I give it six fish because it really is the best version ever. Toscanini only gets four-and-a-half, but mostly because of the dry, limited sonics, not for any performance deficiency. You’ll have to pay for these downloads, but there are only three of them, so the full work will only cost you $2.97 (maybe plus tax).
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / London Symphony Orchestra; Felix Weingartner, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Orchestra Symphonique de Paris; Pierre Monteux, conductor / Music & Arts 4762 or available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / RCA-BMG, also available for free download here.
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, conductor / Pentatone 5186 211
What? Four recommended recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique? As Sarah Palin would say, You betcha! The Weingertner recording, from 1925, has by far the most limited sonics—it’s an electrical recording, but made at the very dawn of this process—yet somehow he manages to bring out more detail than almost any stereo or digital recording I’ve ever heard of it. He also tears through the Symphonie with more drive and restless energy than I’ve ever heard in my life, even more than Charles Munch’s mono (1954) recording, and the LSO provides more accurate playing. This early Monteux recording, from five years later, is only marginally better in sound quality but nearly its equal in gut-busting energy. Both only get four fish, however, due to the limited sound.
Charles Munch also left us an exciting but messy 1954 mono performance and a live stereo version with the Chicago Symphony from 1966, but it’s this 1962 studio recording that’s the real masterpiece, and my all-round favorite version of this difficult symphony. That being said, Seiji Ozawa comes awfully close in his first recording with the same orchestra except for a somewhat flippant, lighthearted “March to the Scaffold.”
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Funèbre et Trionphale / John Alldis Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / part of Berlioz Box on Philips 456143, also available for free streaming on YouTube
In my view the most underrated of all of Berlioz’ compositions, this is one of only two recordings of it I’ve ever heard (the other was under a French conductor, on Nonesuch, without the chorus, although I see that Simon Rattle has made a recording of it), but this performance is absolutely sizzling and I love it and that’s that!
BERLIOZ: Te Deum / Roberto Alagna, tenor; Marie-Claire Alain, organist; Orchestre de Paris; John Nelson, conductor / Virgin Classics 45449
Another underrated Berlioz composition, perhaps not as much so as the Symphonie Funèbre, the Te Deum is not as brilliant a composition but it has some extraordinary moments. This recording combines three exceptional talents and is a wonderful performance, marred somewhat by the over-reverberant sonics. (Why do record companies think that large-scale classical works sound good when swathed in reverb and echo?)
BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (slightly abridged) / Marilyn Horne, mezzo (Cassandre); Risona Cavicchioli, soprano (Ascagne); Giovanna Fiorini, soprano (Hécube/Anna); Mina Miladri, mezzo-soprano (Polyxène); Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Enée); Robert Massard, baritone (Chorèbe/Ghost); Federico Davià, bass (Ghost of Hector); Plinio Clabassi, bass (Priam/Ghost of Priam); Veriano Luchetti, tenor (Hélénus/Iopas); Shirley Verrett, mezzo-soprano (Dido); Carlo Gaifa, tenor (Hylas); Boris Carmeli, bass (Narbal); RAI Rome Orchestra & Chorus; Georges Prêtre, conductor / Opera d’Oro 1376 (3 CDs, live May 30, 1969)
The live Prêtre set remains, for me, the touchstone in this opera in so many respects, despite the fact that it is slightly abridged and the complaint of critics who don’t like their Berlioz conducted at a fast clip as Berlioz himself preferred. They complain that it sounds like a race to the finish, but to my ears this is only somewhat problematic in the Dido-Enée love duet, “Nuit d’ivresse.” Otherwise, this is a performance for the ages. Marilyn Horne is at her very best here, singing with dramatic bite and energy that she rarely displayed in the recording studio; Gedda’s voice, though lighter in weight than you might ideally want for Enée, sounds more comfortable and more clearly in “command” of the situation than any other tenor; Massard is an ideal Chorèbe, Verrett is, for me, one of the greatest of all Didos, and we have a bonus with the superb tenor Luchetti cast as Iopas. Although in stereo the sound is a little boxy—this was, after all, a radio broadcast—but it hasn’t dated that badly. 4 1/2 fish only because of the cuts.
BERLIOZ: Les Troyens / Berit Lindholm, mezzo-soprano (Cassandre); Peter Glossop, baritone (Chorèbe/His Ghost); Anthony Raffell, bass (Panthée); Roger Soyer, bass (Narbal/Hector’s Ghost); Anne Howells, soprano (Ascagne); Jon Vickers, tenor (Enée); Josephine Veasey, mezzo-soprano (Didon); Heather Begg, contralto (Anna); Ryland Davies, tenor (Hylas); Pierre Thau, bass (Priam/Mercure/Trojan Soldier); Elizabeth Bainbridge, sop (Hécube/Cassandra’s Ghost); Ian Partridge, tenor (Iopas); David Lennox, tenor (Helenus); Raimund Herincx, baritone (1st sentry/Priam’s Ghost); Dennis Wicks, bass (2nd sentry/Greek captain); Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir; Royal Opera, Covent Garden Chorus & Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / Philips 41632 or available for free streaming on YouTube
BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (final scene) / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano (Didon); Bernadette Greevy, contralto (Anna); Gwynne Howell, bass (Narbal); Keith Erwen, tenor (Iopas); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Alexander Gibson, conductor / part of Warner Classics 37712 or available for free streaming on Spotify
I’ve changed my recommendation over the years from the Charles Dutoit recording, largely because Françoise Pollet is a nice-voiced but inexpressive Didon, to the old Colin Davis recording. My biggest reservations when the LPs came out were two: the sound was rather brittle and shrill, with a very poor mid-range, which hurt the singers even more than the orchestra, and although Josephine Veasey was a pretty good vocal actress, her voice was ugly and somewhat brittle-sounding. Digital remastering has fixed some of this, but if you download the complete opera I recommend that you boost the mid-range by about 3 db with a sound editor in order to bring out the fullness of the voices. Otherwise, this is clearly the complete Troyens to get. Colin Davis conducts like a house on fire, even better than Dutoit and far better than his own glassy-sounding later recording with Ben Heppner as Enée.
As for the final scene, both I and many other critics (including the late B.H. Haggin) preferred the singing and interpretation of Janet Baker, who was the “B” cast Didon in that Covent Garden production. Happily, she recorded the complete final scene(s) of Didon, and she is not only vocally superior but histrionically superior to Veasey—and nearly everyone else, for that matter, except for Shirley Verrett in the incomplete performance of the opera conducted by Georges Prêtre. On my own copy, I have indeed replaced Veasey with Baker in this scene, which improves the overall impact of the performance considerably.